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Medieval Castles > Castles England > Lambton Castle
Location: County Durham, North East England
Built in: Early 19th century
Lambton Castle is a perfect and expressive image of the feudalism of the Nineteenth Century; of feudalism made easy, to the present generation; of feudalism which has never ceased to exist, whatever concussions shook the empire, or whatever spasms rocked the constitution; which has for the greater part of a thousand years fought its way, whether in steel jacket or in scarlet broadcloth, with spear or with musket; which has never failed to hold its own, and to hand down the huge domains which it won in England, under the banners of William of Normandy.
It is now polished indeed, but it is still strong; it prides itself on its most ancient style of habitation, but over and around that habitation it has poured the grace of modern art, and filled it with all the amenities, the comforts, the softnesses, and intellectual resources of a busy, scientific, refined, and luxurious age. Such is the entire character of Lambton Castle.
You see before you, indeed, Gothic towers and battlements, but around them spread lawns such only as England and the England of our day knows. You approach it by roads not made for the hoofs of old war horses to disturb, but for the wheels of gay chariots to roll over; and within you find a glittering and sumptuous succession of books, paintings, statues, marble pillars, gorgeous vases, soft carpets of richest dyes and softer beds, curtained into silken privacy; and all the nameless and numberless little articles and marks of taste, which, to a true old castle-dweller, would form a wilderness of contemptible baubles, and a heap of articles that he would never even wish to want.
At the time that I visited Lambton Castle, its possessor was even then seeking relief from indisposition in the south of England, and serious fears were entertained that his life would not be long. That curious old legend of Lambton, of which we shall have presently to speak, seemed still, in the physical condition of the existing lord, to assert that it was more than a superstition of the old times, but was founded on an influence fatal to the longevity of the race. Though the period of the spell was said to terminate in General Lambton, as the ninth in descent from the slayer of the Worm, yet neither his son nor his grandson has been longer lived, nor have they died at home.
It was not without a more sensible interest, that, reflecting on these circumstances, I went through the grounds and the Castle of Lambton. Here were all that nature and art could effect in combination to make a noble abode for its possessor; but a mysterious fiat of destiny seemed to be pronounced over the race, of short and embittered enjoyment of it.
The Wear here performs some of its most beautiful windings, for which it is so remarkable, and its lofty banks hung with fine woods, presented the most lovely views whichever way you looked. A new bridge leads across the river, and a winding carriage-road conducts you by an easy ascent through pleasant woodlands up to the Castle. You pass under a light suspension bridge which leads from the Castle, along the banks above the river, through the woods of great beauty, and where you find the most pleasant solitudes, with varied views of the river and sounds of its hurrying water.
The Castle, in all its newness of aspect, 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 modern skill and ingenuity can bring together ; all tell you 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. The snug boudoir, the lord's dressing-room, the bath, the library, the saloon, the drawing-room, and all the various apartments of a noble modern house, into which are sometimes crowded several hundred guests we shall not attempt to describe.
One of the most remarkable things about Lambton, is that Legend of the Worm, and the popular ideas attached to it, to which we have already alluded.
The story of the Worm of Lambton cannot be better told than in the words of Surtees :
"The heir of Lambton, fishing, as was his profane custom, in the Wear of a Sunday, hooked a small worm or eft, which he carelessly threw into a well, and thought no more of the adventure. The worm, at first neglected, grew till it was too large for its first habitation, and issuing forth from the Worm Well, betook itself to the Wear, where it usually lay a part of the day coiled round a crag in the middle of the water; it also frequented a green mound near the well, called thence 'The Worm Hill,' where it lapped itself nine times round, leaving vermicular traces, of which, grave living witnesses depose that they have seen the vestiges. It now became the terror of the country ; and, amongst other enormities, levied a daily contribution of nine cows' milk, which was always placed for it at the green hill, and in default of which it devoured man and beast. Young Lambton had, it seems, meanwhile, totally repented him of his former life and conversation; had bathed himself in a bath of holy water, taken the sign of the Cross, and joined the Crusaders. On his return home he was extremely shocked at witnessing the effects of his youthful imprudence, saw that the Worm must be at once destroyed, and immediately undertook the adventure. After several fierce combats, in which the crusader was foiled by his enemy's power of self-union, he found it expedient to add policy to courage, and not, perhaps, possessing much of the former quality, he went to consult a witch, or wise woman. By her judicious advice, he armed himself in a coat of mail, studded with razor-blades, and thus prepared, placed himself on the crag in the river, and awaited the monster's arrival. At the usual time, the Worm came to the rock, and wound himself with great fury round the armed knight, who had the satisfaction to see his enemy cut in pieces by his own efforts, while the stream washing away the several parts prevented the possibility of re-union. There is still a sequel to the story. The witch had promised Lambton success only on one condition that he would slay the first living thing which met his sight after the victory. To avoid the possibility of human slaughter, Lambton had directed his father, that as soon as he heard him sound three blasts on his bugle, in token of the achievement performed, he should release his favourite greyhound, which would immediately fly to the sound of the horn, and was destined to be the sacrifice. On hearing his son's bugle, however, the old chief was so overjoyed that he forgot his injunctions, and ran himself with open arms to meet his son. Instead of committing a parricide, the conqueror again repaired to his adviser, who pronounced, as the alternative of disobeying the original instructions, that no chief of the Lambtons should die in his bed for seven, or, as some accounts say, for nine generations-a commutation which, to a martial spirit, had nothing probably very terrible, and which was willingly complied with."
Popular tradition assigns the chapel of Brigford as the spot where Lambton offered up his vows before and after the adventure. In the garden-house at Lambton are two figures of great antiquity. A knight, in good style, armed cap-a-pie, the back however not studded with razor blades, who holds the Worm by one ear with his left hand, and with his right, thrusts his sword to the hilt down his throat; and a lady, who wears a coronet, with bare breasts, etc., in the style of Charles IL's Beauties -a wound on whose bosom, and an accidental mutilation of the hand, are said to be the work of the Worm. A real good Andrea Ferrara, inscribed on the blade 1521, notwithstanding the date, has also been pressed into the service, and is said to be the identical weapon by which the Worm perished.
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. It stands in a meadow just at the backs of some houses, is perfectly green with grass; and now, whatever it might do formerly, bears not the slightest trace of the place where the worm coiled itself. It is about eighty yards from the river, and the well lay twenty-six yards from the hill. Half a century ago the Worm Well was in repute as a Wishing Well, and was one of the scenes dedicated to the usual festivities and superstitions of Midsummer Eve.