Legends of County Durham: the Cauld Lad of Hylton and the Lambton Worm
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Legends of County Durham: the Cauld Lad of Hylton and the Lambton Worm

County Durham in North East England has many folk-tales and legends. The most famous are the strange tales of the Cauld Lad of Hylton and the Lambton Worm.

County Durham in North East England has many folk-tales and legends. The most famous are the strange tales of the Cauld Lad of Hylton and the Lambton Worm.

The Cauld Lad of Hylton

The ruins of Hylton Castle stand on the outskirts of Sunderland. These gaunt and skeletal remnants are reputedly haunted by the ghost of Robert Skelton, a stable boy murdered by the baron of the castle in a fit of rage. This spectre is known locally as the Cauld (or ‘cold’) Lad of Hylton.

The legend dates from the 17th century, and there are many different versions. One version states that the stable boy was apprehended while courting Baron Hylton’s daughter, and was killed for his transgression. According to another version, the baron ordered his horse be prepared for an important journey, but the stable boy overslept. In his rage the baron either decapitated the boy or stabbed him with a pitchfork, before disposing of the body in a deep pond or well.

Hylton Castle

The body was recovered several months later and the baron was tried for Skelton’s murder, but he had an alibi. An aged farm worker claimed that the baron had ordered the boy to bring a tool from the barn, and the boy had suffered a fatal fall. According to historical records, Robert Hylton, 13th Baron Hylton, was pardoned in 1609.

Strange events soon began to occur at Hylton castle. If the kitchen had been left in an untidy state overnight, it would have been mysteriously tidied by morning. However, if the kitchen had been tidy at night, it would be in a state of disarray by morning. It was also reported that an unseen person would take hot ashes from the fire and lie on them, leaving an imprint of a body. Chamber pots were also emptied on the floor.

At other times, the ghost apparently sang the following song:

Wae’s me, wae’s me, (Woe is me, woe is me)

The acorn’s not yet fallen from the tree,

That’s to grow the wood,

That’s to make the cradle,

That’s to rock the bairn

That’s to grow to the man

That’s to lay me!

After a while, a cook stayed up until midnight to see who was causing the mischief. He claimed to have seen the ghost of a naked boy crying ‘I’m cauld'. The cook and his wife left a warm cloak for the ghost, and the next night they heard the specter intoning ‘Here’s a cloak and here’s a hood, the Cauld Lad of Hylton will do no more good.’ The apparations ceased, but to this day people claim to hear the mournful cries of the Cauld Lad of Hylton.

According to the antiquarian Robert Surtees, the Cauld Lad also appeared as a ferryman on the River Wear and would take passengers halfway across before disappearing and leaving them stranded.

The Lambton Worm

The Lambton Worm is another legend of Country Durham. Originating in oral tradition, the story was eventually captured in written form before being adapted into a music hall song in the 19th century. The legend of the Lambton Worm is one of the area’s most vivid pieces of folklore.

The legend centers on John Lambton, a young member of the Lambton family, powerful landowners in County Durham. Lambton was a rebellious youth who habitually missed church on Sunday mornings in order to go fishing in the Wear, the river that runs through the county. In many versions of the story, Lambton is admonished by a sage-like old man who warns him that no good can come from missing church. Lambton fails to catch a fish, but just as the church service is finishing he catches a grotesque worm-like creature with nine holes on either side of its head. Lambton declares, ‘I think I’ve catched the devil,’ and decides to dispose of the creature by dropping it down a well. Lambton puts the creature out of mind and eventually joins the crusades, fighting in the Holy Land as a penance for his youthful transgressions.

Meanwhile, strange things are happening deep down in the well. The worm grows to a great size, with a large head an ‘great big goggley eyes.’ Venturing out of the well, the worm roams around the countryside. Villagers notice that livestock is going missing and that children are disappearing from their beds. The fully-grown worm terrorizes the region and takes to coiling itself around a local hill. It the original legend Worm Hill in Fatfield is the worm’s chosen location. However, the 19th century music hall song relocates the action to Penshaw Hill, where Penshaw Monument now stands. Penshaw Monument was built in 1848 as a memorial to John George Lambton, a descendent of the protagonist of the Lambton Worm. The worm periodically visits Lambton Castle, where Lord Lambton (John father) appeases the creature with a daily offering of twenty gallons of milk. A number of villagers and errant knights try to kill the worm but all die in the attempt. When a piece is cut off the worm simply reattaches itself.

After seven years in the Holy Land, John Lambton returns to find his father’s estate destitute. He resolves to vanquish the worm but seeks the guidance of a local witch. The witch tells Lambton to cover his armour with spikes and to confront the worm on a large rock in the River Wear. In return for her guidance, the witch tells Lambton that after killing the worm he must kill the first living thing he sees, or else his family will be cursed for nine generations and will not die in their beds.

Lambton fixes vicious spikes to his armour. He also tells his father that after killing the worm he will sound his hunting hornthree times. On hearing this signal, his father must release his favourite hound so that Lambton can then kill the dog and thus avoid the curse.

Lambton fights the worm in the river. The worm wraps itself around him and tries to crush him, but in doing so it skewers itself on his armour’s spikes. Lambton cuts the worm into pieces, which are then washed away by the river, preventing the worm from reforming. Eventually, Lambton sounds his hunting horn three times. Unfortunately, Lord Lambton is so excited that the worm has been destroyed that he forgets to release the hound. Instead he rushes out to greet his son. Lambton cannot bear to kill his father so the hound is released and dutifully dispatched. However, it is too late and nine generations of Lambtons are cursed so they will not die peacefully in their beds.

In 1867 C.M. Leumane wrote a music hall song based on the legend. Written in County Durham dialect, it was designed to be sung in local accent. The lyrics are given below:

One Sunday morning Lambton went

A-fishin’ in the Wear;

He catched a fish upon his heuk,

He thowt leuk’t varry queer,

But whatt’na kind of fish it was

Young Lambton couldna tell.

He waddna fash to carry hyem,

So he hoyed it in a well.


Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,

Aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,

Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,

An aa’ll tell ye ‘boot the worm.

Noo Lambton felt inclined to gan

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 befel,

An’ varry seun forgot aboot

The queer worm in the well.


But the worm got fat an’ graad an’ graad,

An’ graad an aaful size;

With greet big teeth, and greet big mooth,

An’ greet big goggley eyes.

An’ when at neets he craaled ‘oot

To pick up bits o’ news,

If he felt dry upon the road,

He milked a dozen coos.


This feorful worm wad often feed

On calves an’ lambs an’ sheep

An’ swally little bairns alive

When they laid doon to sleep.

An’ when he’d eaten aall he cud

An’ he had had his fill,

He craaled away an’ lapped his tail

Seven times roond Pensher Hill.


The news of this most aaful worm

An’ his queer gannins on,

Seun crossed the seas, gat to the ears

Of brave an’ bowld Sir John.

So hyem he cam an’ catched the beast

An’ cut ‘im in three halves,

An’ that seun stopped him eatin’ bairns

An’ sheep an’ lambs and calves.


So noo ye knaa hoo aall the folks

On byeth sides of the Wear

Lost lots o’ sheep an’ lots o’ sleep

An’ lived in mortal feor.

So let’s hev one to brave Sir John

That kept the bairns frae harm,

Saved coos an’ calves by myekin’ halves

O’ the famis Lambton Worm.

Noo lads, Aa’ll haad me gob,

That’s aall Aa knaa aboot the story

Of Sir John’s clivvor job

Wi’ the aaful Lambton Worm.

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Comments (2)

Always enjoyed this tale!

Ranked #10 in Popular Culture

Great work Michael.