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Lambton Castle


PLEASANT walk from Chester-le-Street, says Mr. Howitt, "along the banks of the Wear, a stream that with its winding current, its willow banks; and its gravelly shelving strand, here and there heaped with drift wood, presented me continually with recollections of Bewick, brought me to one of the three lodges by which access is obtained to the park. . . . The castle then presented itself on the northern bank of the river - a fine object in a fine situation. The Wear here performs some of its most beautiful windings, for which it is remarkable, and its lofty banks, hung with fine woods, present the most lovely views whichever way you look. A bridge leads across the river, and a winding carriage road conducts you by an easy ascent through pleasant woodlands to the castle. You pass under a light suspension bridge which leads from the castle, along the banks above the river, through woods of great beauty, and where you find the most pleasant solitudes, with varied views of the river and sounds of its hurrying waters The castle stands boldly on the height above the river, with beautiful green slopes descending towards it. As you approach the castle and enter it, everything impresses you with a sense of its strength, tastefulness, and completeness. The compact and well-built walls of clam-stone; the well-paved and well-finished courts; the numerous and complete offices; the kitchens furnished with every convenience and implement that modem skill and ingenuity can bring together; all tell that you are in the abode of a man of the amplest resources. As you advance, elegance and luxury are added to completeness; and you are surrounded, not by the rude and quaint objects of our old houses, but by the rich requisites of present aristocratic existence."

There is a very singular legend attached to Lambton.

The heir of Lambton had a profane custom of fishing in the Wear on Sundays, instead of attending church. On one of these mornings he hooked a small worm or eft, which he carelessly threw into a well close by him, and thought no more about it. But the worm grew rapidly, till it became too large for the well, and issuing from it, crept to the Wear, where it used to lie part of the day coiled round a crag in the middle of the stream; it also frequented a green hillock near the well, which was thence called "The Worm Hill," where it coiled itself in nine circles, leaving vermicular traces - seen by people long afterwards.

It shortly became the terror of the neighbourhood, for unless it was given daily a great pail of milk, it attacked and devoured men and animals.

Young Lambton had meantime repented of his former sinful life, had taken a bath of holy water, and joined the Crusades. He returned home just as the worm was at the acme of its deadly mischief, and greatly shocked at the effect of his carelessness, he resolved to destroy it.

He therefore attacked the worm bravely, but even when he cut it through, the parts united again, and not knowing what to do he went to consult a witch. By her advice he had a suit of mail studded all over with sharp razor blades, and thus armed placed himself on the crag the monster frequented, and waited for its arrival. By-and-by the ghastly worm appeared, wound itself with great fury round the knight, and cut itself into small pieces by trying to crush him and encountering the razor-blades. Each piece as it was separated from the body fell into the river, and the stream washed them away, thus preventing the possibility of their re-uniting.

Thus the Worm of Lambton was destroyed; but the witch had promised Lambton the victory only on condition that he would slay the first living thing he met after the combat. To avoid any danger of his having to kill a human being, Lambton had desired his father, as soon as he heard him sound three blasts on his bugle, to let loose his favourite greyhound, who would immediately obey the sound of the horn, and must be the sacrifice. But the father, in his anxiety for his son, forgot these directions, and when he heard the sound of the bugle he ran with open arms to meet him. Dreadfully distressed, but incapable of parricide, the knight hastened to the witch to excuse his broken promise. She forgave it, but said that instead, as the alternative for disobeying the original instructions, no chief of the Lambtons should die in his bed for seven - some said nine - generations, and Lambton was glad to commute his promise thus, as the prophecy was not to affect his father.

"Johan Lambton that slewe the Worme," says an old pedigree, "was Knight of Rhoodes, and Lord of Lambton and Wod Apilton, after the death of four brothers sans esshewe masle. His son, Robert Lambton, was drowned at Newebrigg."

Thus the spell began to operate in his own lifetime, and no descendant of his succeeded to the estate.

Tradition asserts that the witch's sentence has been regularly fulfilled down to a General Lambton, the ninth in succession, who, it is said, fearing the prophecy might be possibly fulfilled by his servants, under the idea that he could not die in his bed, kept a horsewhip by him during his last illness, in order to evade the prediction.

"There has been little difference," says Mr. Howitt, "in the actual length of life in the two who followed him, so that the evil power of the worm, or of the old woman, would appear not yet to have exhausted itself."

It is said that Lambton offered up his prayers before the combat, and his thanksgivings afterward in the chapel of Brigford.

In the garden-house at Lambton, at the time Mr. Howitt visited it, there were two figures of great antiquity. One was a knight in full armour - but not studded with razorblades - who held the worm by one ear, and had thrust his sword to the hilt down its throat; the other was a lady with a wound in her bosom, supposed to have been inflicted by the worm.

"The scene of the worm's haunts and the combat is at a considerable distance from the castle; in fact, about a mile and a half from the old Lambton Hall, where the Lambtons then dwelt. It is on the north bank of the Wear, in the estate of North Biddick, and now in quite a populous location. The Worm Hill is a conspicuous conical mound of considerable size, but having all the appearance of an ancient barrow, or other artificial tumulus." The well has been drained into the river.

Were these worms, so often mentioned in the traditions of England, survivors of the monstrous serpents of the early geological period? We know that the latter existed, and were more horrible than romance ever feigned. Some were seventy feet in length, armed with claws, and having terrible mouths. We cannot say - no one can tell when these animals became extinct, and a few of the strongest may have survived to tax the courage of our champions. Some of these worms were supposed to be women transformed by malicious witchcraft into serpents. Of these, one was the Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, a few miles from Bamborough. Her story runs thus:-

The king left Bamborough Castle, where he dwelt with his lovely and loving daughter, to bring back with him another bride.

"The king is gone from Bamborough Castle,
Long may the princess mourn;
Long may she stand on the castle wall
Looking for his return.
She has knotted the keys upon a string,
And with her she has them ta'en;
She has cast them over her left shoulder,
And to the gate she has gane,"

sings the old ballad; for she was no longer to rule her father's home, and the huge keys must be given up to the second wife. They came - the king and his new bride attended by the nobles of the queen's country, who escorted her to her new home. The princess advanced to welcome her father, and received the stepmother with graceful submission. As she stood there in her maiden beauty, all eyes were turned from the queen, fascinating as they had thought her, to the stepdaughter, and one of her attendant young nobles unthinkingly said, "This princess of the north excels all the ladies of our land in sweetness and beauty." The queen angrily replied, "You might have excepted me - but I will soon show you that if I am not as fair, I am more powerful. I will change your princess to a Laidly Worm, and not till her brother, Childy Wynd, comes back shall she again be changed."

The princess stood at her bower-door and laughed at this strange and, it seemed, impossible-to-be-fulfilled threat, but before the next day's sun went down she had become a long and hideous worm.

"For seven miles east, and seven miles west,
And seven miles north and south,
No blade of grass nor corn would grow,
So venomous was her mouth."

The milk of seven stately cows was given to her every morning for her to drink before she slept, and to this day the cave may be seen where, coiled round, she slumbered, and the stone trough out of which she drank.

East and west went the wondrous story of how a laidly worm had appeared in Spindleston Heugh, and was ruining the north country; but no one knew that it was the king's fair daughter, Margaret, who was this unwilling curse to the land. The news at last reached the ears of Childy Wynd, who was greatly distressed at it. He straightway called his thirty and three merry men, and said to them, "We must hasten back to Spindleston to see and, if possible, kill this desperate worm, or I fear my sweet sister Margaret may be harmed by it." So they built a ship as fast as possible, and made her masts of the wood of the rowan-tree, and her sails of silk, and over the sea they sailed.

The queen, looking out of her window, saw the gallant ship approaching, and fearing from the silken sails that it bore the king's son home, she sent for her witch-wives, and ordered them by spells to sink the vessel; but they returned to her disconsolate; their spells had no power where there was rowan-tree wood. The queen, greatly enraged, then sent a boat full of soldiers to take the ship, and secure the seamen, but Childy Wynd and his merry men soon beat them off. Then, to escape any more attempts, the Childe ran his vessel on Budle Sand, sprang into the shallow water, and reached the shore safely; and there he came face to face with the laidly worm, a great serpent, that looked at him with tender, beseeching eyes, so that he did not strike off its head at once, but only laid his sword on it, and told it if it harmed him he would kill it. His surprise was great when the loathly thing spoke and said, "Oh, quit thy sword; I will not hurt thee, and give me three kisses; if I am not saved before the sun sets, I never shall be." The generous and brave young knight laid aside his sword, and, with a shudder, kissed the hideous head three times; then she crept into the cave a worm, and came out as his sister.

The knight wrapped her in his mantle, and bore her in his arms to Bamborough Castle and to the presence of her father, who had long deplored the absence of his children. Then the Childe sought the queen, reproved her severely for her wickedness, and, being possessed of greater magic power than herself; changed her into a large toad, in which shape she will remain till the end of the world, spitting venom on all the fair maids she meets. Another tradition says that the knight came on horseback to the rocks at Spindleston, and while he went to attack the worm flung the bridle of his steed over a tall isolated piece of rock which was standing there, and was henceforward called the Bridle Rock. The cave, trough, and rocks, however, have disappeared, a farmer having burnt them into lime.

The family of Conyers held their fief of the Bishopric of Durham by presenting to every new bishop, on his entrance into his see, the falchion with which Sir John Conyers slew the worm or dragon of Sockburn. The bishop took the sword in his hand, and then returned it to the person who presented it with a gracious compliment. But enough of stories of worms and dragons that bear rather a monotonous resemblance to each other.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004