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Here be dragons?
A LEWIS Carroll poem, a serpent on Chester-le-Street’s council logo, a sword in Durham Cathedral and a famous local song have one thing in common: worms.
In Durham, worm means dragon and in this respect is a very old word indeed. The Germanic “wyrm” or Viking word “orm” could refer to a dragon, serpent or wyvern, but in the Lambton Worm’s case it is, dialectically speaking, a “warm”.
Durham has two worm legends, both centuries old, both involving a swordwielding hero called Sir John and both, it seems, inspiring Lewis Carroll.
Deep down in what was the most southerly point of County Durham, enveloped by the meandering banks of the River Tees at Neasham, was the lair of the Sockburn Worm.
It was a nasty beast that terrorised locals for many years until slaughtered – allegedly – by Sir John Conyers, a Norman knight, using the falchion now encased in the treasury of Durham Cathedral.
In truth, the sword, though about 700 years old, is probably a replica.
On its pommel is engraved the emblem of Morcar, an Anglo-Saxon Earl of Northumbria.
The Norman knight Conyers may have untruthfully latched on to the dragonslaying antics of an earlier Anglo-Saxon knight. Anglo- Saxons certainly loved their dragons, as anyone familiar with the epic poem Beowulf will know.
For centuries, new Bishops of Durham were presented with the Conyers Falchion upon entering their diocese at Neasham ford (or in later times Croft Bridge), near Darlington.
“My Lord Bishop, I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent”
begins the presentation speech made in early times by the Lords of Sockburn and later by the mayors of Darlington.
Van Mildert was the last 19th century bishop to enjoy the ceremony, but it was revived in the 20th, when Bishop David Jenkins memorably waved the sword, speaking of a desire to defeat the modern dragons of poverty and unemployment.
Lewis Carroll was not around to hear Jenkins’ speech, but as a lad he lived in the rectory at Croft overlooking the bridge and knew the legend well.
Here this young man, then called Charles Dodgson, wrote the first verse of Jabberwocky, his dragon-slaying poem: “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.”
The other verses of the poem that really get down to the nitty-gritty of dragon slaying were written at Whitburn on Wearside, in the company of Dodgson’s relatives.
Of course, Wearside is Lambton Worm territory and one verse in Carroll’s poem seems to be linked to an incident in the legend.
The Lambton Worm may also have its roots in Anglo- Saxon times but tradition dates it no earlier than the Crusades of the 1100s. It is said that John Lambton, a young boy from a noble family, went fishing in the Wear near Chester-le-Street on Sunday when he should have been at church.
He caught nothing all morning and cursed the day, loudly it seems, disturbing a congregation making its way to mass. It was then something happened – a little creature grabbed his line - a tiny worm.
Lambton wasn’t impressed at all and threw it down the well. Plop!
The story is centuries old, but a Tyneside music hall song of 1867 makes it very familiar to us today: “Whist! lads, haad yer gobs An all tell ye all an aaful story.”
Young Lambton went off to fight in Palestine and the forgotten worm began to grow.
Like its Tees Valley cousin, it was soon terrorising the inhabitants around the Wear, milking local cows and (in the song at least) swallowing little bairns alive.
All attempts to kill the worm failed. Every time it was broken in two, the pieces joined together and the selfrepairing beast headed for a nearby hill.
Historians believe the worm stories allude to the serpentlike movements of an invading army, probably Vikings, who raided the region’s coast and sailed along its rivers.
Military tactics explain the chopping in half of the serpent and the ability to rejoin alludes to the reunification of divided armies on a battlefield.
It also explains the serpent’s fondness for a hill, a likely military encampment.
The hill in question is often said to be Penshaw but in the traditional legend it was always Worm Hill, now on the southern outskirts of Washington at Fatfield overlooking the north bank of the Wear, near Lambton Park.
The Viking army theory is also particularly compelling at Sockburn, where the land within the meander of the Tees has produced one of the highest number of Viking sculptures in the region.
Whether the Lambton Worm was a real dragon or not, its eventual defeat was attributed to Sir John Lambton, as he would become, on his return from Palestine after seven years.
Lambton consulted a local witch, who advised him to wear armour coated with razors and to place himself on a rock at the centre of the Wear.
She warned him that upon defeating the beast he should kill the first living thing he set eyes upon, or otherwise there would be a curse upon his family that for nine generations no Lambton would die in his bed. Reluctantly, Lambton arranged with his father to send the favourite family hound once the deed was complete.
According to plan, the worm wrapped itself around Lambton attempting to squeeze the life out of him. It was a fatal mistake for the beast, which was severely wounded.
With a mighty chop of Lambton’s sword, the beast’s head was chopped into pieces, swept away by the current of the river before they could rejoin.
Lambton desperately looked around for the hound, but there was no sign.
The first living thing he saw was his excited father running towards him.
He couldn’t kill him.
The remarkable twist in the worm’s tail is that history does suggest that for nine generations, no Lambton died in bed.
“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh!
Callay!’ He chortled in his joy.”