“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Lambton Worm

Anyone who has ever visited the Sunderland area will no-doubt have seen the monument pictured below, which stands proud upon Penshaw Hill, and dominates the local landscape. The monument is known as the Penshaw Monument and it was built in 1844 as a half-sized replica of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. The monument measures in at 30 metres in length, 16 metres in width and 20 metres in height, and has columns that are 2 metres in diameter. The formal name of the monument is The Earl of Durham's Monument and it was built in dedication to John Lambton (1792–1840) who was the 1st Earl of Durham and the first Governor of the Province of Canada.

The Lambton family are associated with an interesting local legend, the legend of the Lambton Worm.

The legend surrounds another John Lambton who skipped church one Sunday to go fishing in the River Wear. The fishing trip was generally unsuccessful, but Lambton eventually catches an eel like creature, which he disposes of in a nearby well.  Forgetting about this creature, Lambton grows up and eventually heads overseas to join the crusades (putting the legend somewhere in the 12th Century). Over the years the creature grows extremely large and begins to terrorise local villagers, coiling itself seven times around a local hill.

Eventually the worm makes its way to Lambton Castle, where the Lord (John Lambton's father) is able to sedate the worm, via a daily ritual of offering it copious quantities of milk. A number of attempts are made by local villagers and knights to kill the worm, however all these attempts fail, as any parts of the worm that are cut off seem to re-attach themselves to the worm, healing it.

After seven years, Lambton returns from the crusades and finds that his father's estate is almost bankrupt because of the worm and the costly demands of keeping it satisfied. In response to this, Lambton resolves to destroy the worm, but first he seeks guidance from a witch near Durham. The witch advises Lambton to cover his armor in spikes and fight the worm in the River Wear, where it spends its days wrapped around a rock. The witch also advises Lambton that after killing the worm he must then kill the first living thing he sees, or else his family will be cursed not to die peacefully in their beds for nine generations. Deciding to follow the witch’s advice, Lambton arranges with his father that he will sound a horn three times once the worm has been killed. The plan being that once the signal is heard, Lambton’s father would release Lambton’s dog, which would run to Lambton to be killed, thus preventing the curse from being enacted.

Lambton does battle with the worm at the river and when the worm tries to curl itself around him it hurts itself on the spikes on his armor. As Lambton cuts pieces off of the worm, the river washes them away. Unable to heal itself, the worm finally succumbs and Lambton sounds his horn in victory. In the excitement of victory, Lambton’s father forgets to release the dog and instead rushes to congratulate his son. Lambton, cannot bring himself to kill his father (as the first living thing that he sees) and as a result nine generations of the Lambton family are duly cursed.

The local hill that the worm coils itself around seven times is often said to be either Penshaw Hill or sometimes it is the much less impressive Worm Hill in Fatfield. It's easy to see why Penshaw hill might fit the bill, as it is said that the hill that the worm coiled itself around was scarred by the worm's presence. Penshaw Hill is the only triple rampart Iron Age hill fort known to exist in the north of England and it is easy to see how the remains of these ramparts could be interpreted as marks left by the coiling worm.

The legend of the Lambton Worm is a staple of local folklore and has inspired at least one movie, Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm.

The Penshaw Monument.

Dedication on the Penshaw Monument.
Information board.
The Penshaw Monument at a distance.
The Penshaw Monument, visible from the roof of Durham Cathedral.
Worm Hill in Fatfield - natural or man-made structure?
Pictures, County Durham (June 2014).

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