Listen to a disturbing story from English folklore about a horrendous and mysterious worm.
The Lambton Worm is a legend from the north east of England in the UK. The story takes place around the River Wear, in the town of Lambton and at Penshaw Hill which is between Durham and Sunderland in the north east of England. It is one of the area’s most famous pieces of folklore, having been adapted from written and oral tradition into pantomime and song formats, which are still performed to this day. I’m going to keep up that tradition here on Luke’s English Podcast by telling you my version of the story.
The tale is about a man called John Lambton, who was the heir to the Lambton Estate in County Durham, and his battle with a giant worm (dragon) that had been terrorising the local villages. As with most myths, details of the story change with each telling. I’m not from that part of England, but I love this story because I remember reading about it in a book of monsters that my brother used to have when we were kids. Remember before I told you about a ghost book that I used to own when I was a kid? Well, my brother had a similar book, from the same series, and it was all about monsters. I was fascinated by these books (Click this link to read some pages of those books!) So was my brother. I remember there was a picture of John Lambton fighting the worm, and a brief account of the story. It was fascinating, horrific and exciting for me as a kid, and the memory of the story has stayed with me. There’s just something about an old scary story that really excites me. I think this one must be a good one because it has endured for hundreds of years. It dates back to the time of the crusades, so about 1,000 years ago – medieval times. If a story survives that long, being told over and over again and being handed down through the generations, it must mean there must be something in it which interests people.
This is a local legend from country Durham and I expect it’s a strong part of their local culture. There’s an old folk song which tells the story, and it is still sung in old pubs by beer-drinking men with beards and acoustic guitars. I love those old folk songs. It’s proper traditional culture, as performed and told by real local people. I’m not from that part of the country, I’m from the midlands, and the south, but the story means something to me because of the connection I have with it from childhood. Also, I just think that you might like to hear it.
I’m going to tell you the story in my own way. It’s normal for folk tales like this to be changed by the storyteller, and there is no official version of the story – just a general outline. The details get adapted and improvised by each storyteller. So, I’m going to give you my version, which means that I will stick to the main elements of the story, but yes, as usual I will be improvising a lot of other details too. The challenge for me is to try and make it engaging, and entertaining and understandable for you. As well as practising your English, we can also consider what makes a good story. I think it’s about the passion of the storyteller, and the attention to certain details. Your challenge is to follow the story, and perhaps learn it well enough to be able to tell your friends, if you fancy that. Just remember to mention that the roots of this story are in the folklore of the county Durham area, in the North of England. It’s important to remember that this is a bit of local culture. If you’re from that area, and you’re listening to this – I hope you don’t mind my version of the story, and realise that, really, I love this story too and I’m just adapting it a little bit for the purpose of letting people practise their English listening.
The Main Elements of the Story
Note that I use past tenses to tell my story (past simple, past perfect & past continuous) but below the story is presented using present tenses.
John Lambton is the heir to the Lambton Estate – so he’s a young member of the gentry. A landowner from a fairly rich and well known family in the area.
He’s a rebellious character.
He skips church and he skips school.
He doesn’t care. He just loves fishing. He disrespects his parents.
He skips church one Sunday, and goes fishing.
He meets an old man – an old hermit, who tells him that no good will come of skipping church. He ignores the old man, and yet it puts him in a bit of a bad mood.
He catches nothing all morning.
Then, as the church bells are ringing for the end of service, he gets a bite on his line.
It’s a powerful bite and he has to wrestle hard to bring in the catch. The water crashes around and gets deeply churned up. He fights hard and brings in his catch.
It’s a truly disgusting and horrifying catch.
It’s a slimy and wriggly black worm. It’s dripping slime, it’s writhing and snapping, and it stinks.
He brings it to rest on the soil. It sits there breathing, completely malevolent. It has 9 holes down the side of its mouth, and John can’t really make sense of its other features. It’s really weird, and makes him feel sick.
He pukes, quite hard. What the hell is this thing?
He takes another look at it, and it opens its eye. It’s yellow and red, and it seems to look right into his soul.
This is a life-changing moment, although he doesn’t realise it.
At that moment, the old man reappears, and says with some certainty that he senses the work of the devil, and that Lambton is now responsible for this worm.
Lambton can’t throw it back, so he quickly puts it in his basket, to carry it home.
On the way back, the basket is so heavy and the worm keeps thrashing around inside it, and hissing. Even when it’s still, the basket seems impossible to carry. It’s so heavy, but also, he feels miserable. The good mood he was in at the beginning of the day has been replaced by a very grim feeling of depression. It’s like he’s suddenly aware of all the time he has wasted, and how everything seems quite hopeless, including his family life.
He can’t take it any more, and feeling desperate, he chucks the worm into a nearby well. The worm struggles quite a lot, but down it goes. Lambton waits to hear the worm hit the bottom, and it does, after a pause, with a splash.
He quickly goes home.
Feeling guilty, and more aware of his responsibilities, he decides to join the army in order to fight in the crusades, as much out of guilt as duty to his family and the church.
He goes to Palestine to fight in the crusades. He’s away for 7 hard years in which he sees many things, makes many friends and sees many friends die in battle. He becomes a man.
Meanwhile, back at home, the worm is still alive in the well. The well becomes infected, and causes anyone who drinks from it to become violently ill, and die, with horrible symptoms.
The worm grows inside the well, and after it has reached a massive size, one moonlit night, it slides out from the well, and it’s massive. It wraps itself around the local Penshaw Hill – several times, and lies there waiting, warming itself in the morning sun. It’s a hideous and vicious creature. It has small legs, with claws on the end, which it uses to scrape and scratch the earth. It is incredibly long, and it slithers like a snake. It’s covered in smooth yet tough scales. Around its head it has a mane of rubbery spikes. The 9 holes that run along the side of its face, under its jaw, ooze a nasty black slime which burns the grass and sends an evil black smoke into the air. It coughs up the bones and remains of the bodies it has eaten, leaving this foul waste on the ground wherever it rests. Its eyes are yellow and deep, and malevolent. It has rows of razor sharp teeth like a shark’s except that they’re black and yellow, and his eyes, like that of a shark, roll back into its head when he takes a bite, leaving him looking white-eyed and blind during its moments of feeding frenzy.
It attacks a local farmer, squeezing him to death after he tries to fight it with his pitchfork. It then eats all his cattle, and his dead body, before returning to the hill.
It then terrorises the area, eating cattle and sheep, and wild animals.
The countryside becomes deathly silent, as it is all scared or killed by the worm. It’s a foul and sickening presence which seems to poison the earth wherever it goes.
Its confidence grows and it enters town.
The town mayor, as an attempt to distract it, empties all the milk supplies from the market into a trough in front of the town hall. The worm eats it all, and returns to the hill, where it sleeps.
The best men of the town get together a fighting force and arm themselves with the best weaponry they can find, and go to attack the worm, but it’s in vain as the worm is very strong and ruthless. Whenever anyone manages to slice the worm, the pieces, shuddering, just grow back together again. The worm seems indestructible.
For the next 7 years, the town gives the worm almost all of its supplies of milk in order to satisfy it. The worm grows bigger, and the town gets more and more exploited, until people are starving to death, and all life is sucked out of the place. When no milk is provided, the worm angrily attacks the residents, killing and eating men, women and children.
John Lambton returns from the crusades a scarred man, but a man nonetheless. He has learned how to fight, and he carries a sword and a suit of armour.
He sees the state of the town, and learns about the worm from his father.
He realises it is the same worm that he discarded all those years ago, and immediately realises that he is responsible for the curse and must fight the worm himself.
He visits a local wise woman for advice. She tells him that the worm has cursed him, his family and the town, and that only he can kill it.
She tells him to visit the blacksmith, and to have spikes and blades fitted to his armour, and that he must lure the worm into the river Wear before doing battle.
She also tells him that to lift the curse, after killing the worm, he must kill the next living thing that he sees.
Lambton gets his special suit of armour made, and arranges with his father that when he has killed the worm, he will blow a note on his hunting horn as a signal that he has won and that the father must release Lambton’s favourite hunting hound. The hound will run straight to him and Lambton will kill it, lifting the curse.
He heads towards the hill and finds the worm.
The worm recognises him and uncoils itself from the hill, hissing, puking black bile and generally being hideous.
Lambton realises how difficult this will be because this worm is really big and strong looking. The worm approaches and he backs away.
He walks backwards towards the river, the worm steadily moving nearer and nearer, flanking him. Lambton gets very tired just walking in the armour – which is extra-heavy because of the fittings.
Eventually, he enters the water, which is cold.
The worm slides down the bank and raises itself up to strike.
They fight and whenever the worm attempts to coil itself around Lambton, it gets sliced up on the blades and spikes.
Lambton is so tired that all he can do is just try not to be washed away by the current. He hacks at the worm and struggles to breath. The fumes from the worm are poisonous. Each time parts of the worm are hacked off, they are washed away, and eventually, just a section of the worm is left and Lambton hacks off its head. The pieces can’t join back together and the worm is no more.
Lambton blows a note on his horn, but his father is so happy to hear it that he forgets to release the hound and instead he runs to see John. Lambton sees him , and is dismayed. he can’t bring himself to kill his father, and so the go back to the house and he kills his hound.
The wise woman appears and tells him that despite killing the worm, he failed to lift the curse and that for 9 generations, the Lambtons will not die in their beds.
injured and sick, Lambton collapses.
That’s the end of the story.
What does this all mean? You tell me.
This curse seems to have held true for at least three generations, possibly helping to contribute to the popularity of the story.
1st generation: Robert Lambton, drowned at Newrig.
2nd: Sir William Lambton, a Colonel of Foot, killed at Marston Moor.
3rd: William Lambton, died in battle at Wakefield.
9th: Henry Lambton, died in his carriage crossing Lambton Bridge on 26 June 1761.
(General Lambton, Henry Lambton’s brother, is said to have kept a horse whip by his bedside to ward off violent assaults. He died in his bed at an old age.)
The Old Folk Song
Here is Tony Wilson singing the folk song in the local dialect