As you approach Sunderland, should you ever need to, you might be surprised to find a Greek temple high on a hillside and visible for miles around. Built in 1844 by Thomas Pratt in memory of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, Penshaw Monument stands on Penshaw Hill, pronounced 'Pensher' locally and in the song 'The Lambton Worm'.
A translation of the song and/or local yarn tells how the young Lambton skipped out of going to church one Sunday to go fishing. Catching only a worm and apparently without considering using it as bait, he chucked it down a well.
He would later return from a Middle Eastern crusade to find his worm had grown to such monstrous proportions as to be going around eating cows, sheep and small children, after which it would wrap itself seven times (some say ten) around the aforementioned Penshaw Hill.
How Lambton recognised it to be the same worm neither the song nor the alleged legend explains but as luck would have it, a witch was on hand with advice on how to kill the worm. This involved not only wading into the river wearing a suit of armour, but also meant killing the first living thing he saw afterwards.
Lambton senior, it is said, tried to be a bit clever and released a dog as a potential sacrifice but was seen by his son, who although given to chucking worms down wells, could not bring himself to kill his father. This failure, according to the witch, meant that 'the Lords of Lambton would not die in their beds for nine generations'. That the said Lords beat the curse by refusing to leave their beds is, of course, pure fable.
The Lambton Worm (Annotated for Researchers' Convenience)
One Sunday morn young Lambton
went a-fishin' in the Wear;
An' catched a fish upon his huek1,
He thowt leuk't varry2 queer,
But whatt'n a kind a fish it was
Young Lambton couldn't tell.
He waddn't fash to carry it hyem3,
So he hoyed4 it in a well.
Whisht!5 lads, haad yor gobs6,
Aa'll tell ye aall and aaful story7,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aal tell ye 'bout the worm.
Noo Lambton felt inclined to gan8
An' fight in foreign wars.
He joined a troop o' Knights that cared
For neither wounds nor scars,
An' off he went to Palestine
Where queer things him befel,
An' varry seun9 forgot aboot
The queer worm i' the well.
But the worm got fat an' growed an' growed,
An' growed an aaful size;
He'd greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An' greet big goggle eyes.
An' when at neets he craaled aboot10
To pick up bits o'news,
If he felt dry upon the road,
He milked a dozen coos11.
This feorful worm wad12 often feed
On calves an' lambs an' sheep,
An' swally little bairns13 alive
When they laid doon to sleep.
An' when he'd eaten aal he cud
An' he had has he's fill,
He craaled away an' lapped his tail
Seven times roond Pensher Hill14
The news of this most aaful worm
An' his queer gannins on15
Seun16 crossed the seas, gat17 to the ears
Of brave an' bowld Sir John.
So hyem18 he cam an' catched the beast
An' cut 'im in three halves [sic],
An' that seun stopped he's19 eatin' bairns,
An' sheep an' lambs and calves.
So noo ye knaa hoo20 aall the folks
On byeth21 sides of the Wear
Lost lots o' sheep an' lots o' sleep
An' lived in mortal feor22.
So let's hev one23 to brave Sir John
That kept the bairns frae24 harm
Saved coos an' calves by myekin' haalves
O' the famis25 Lambton Worm
Noo lads, Aa'll haad me gob,
That's aall Aa knaa aboot26 the story
Of Sir John's clivvor27 job
Wi' the aaful Lambton Worm
The London Worm?
A rival legend has it that, at around the same time, a similar gigantic worm invaded the river in London. Sir John Lambton was invited to defeat the worm, which indeed he did, then coming up with the innovative suggestion of making the dead creature into a gigantic sausage to feed to the poor people on the London streets. The worm was thus commemorated with the following memorable line:
It was the beast of Thames; it was the wurst of Thames