Darlington | Croft, Sockburn and Sadberge

Vikings and the Jabberwock: Croft, Sockburn and Sadberge


Croft on Tees, an attractive village just to the south of Darlington was the place where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, grew up as a boy. His father was the rector at Croft (Carroll's father and mother are both buried here) and the rectory gardens are often said to be possible settings for scenes in 'Alice in Wonderland'. The church at Croft also has a noted carving of a grinning cat said to be the inspiration for Carroll's Cheshire Cat. Lewis Carroll was of course born in Cheshire. However the most compelling connection between Lewis Carroll and the bridge at Croft is the link to the Jabberwock.

Lewis Carroll always considered Croft his home and it was here in the company of his large family that his unequalled talent for composing nonsense verse developed on this pleasant spot by the Tees. His earliest pieces were written in a little home-made magazine which he wrote for his family at Croft.

Fair stands the ancient Rectory
The Rectory of Croft
The sun shines bright upon it,
The breezes whisper soft.

Lewis Carroll

Pieces written at Croft by Lewis Carroll include the first verse of one his best known poems, the 'Jabberwock', which was written in 1855 though not published until a number of years later. The rest of the poem was written further north during visits to relations at Whitburn near Sunderland where he is also said to have composed the Walrus and the Carpenter.

Carroll had other Sunderland connections - his sister lived at Southwick - and he was no doubt also aware of the Wearside legend of the Lambton Worm but in Carroll's time there was a more famous worm legend associated with his home village of Croft.

Lewis Carroll


A mile to the east of Croft, the River Tees forms a rather long and unexpected meander that penetrates in serpent-like fashion deep into North Yorkshire to form what was historically the most southerly portion of County Durham called the 'Sockburn Peninsula'. In local legend this area was the domain of a notorious creature called the 'Sockburn Worm'.

This terrible beast, a kind of winged serpent or wyvern with very bad breath terrorised the local neighbourhood until it was eventually slain by a certain young man called Sir John Conyers, a member of a wealthy local family.

From that day on each new Prince Bishop of Durham was presented with the sword that killed the worm upon entering their new Bishopric for the first time at Croft on Tees bridge. The ceremony includes the following presentation speech, traditionally made by the Lord of Sockburn and in later times made by the mayor of Darlington;

"My Lord Bishop. I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent which destroyed man, woman and child; in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn, to hold by this tenure, that upon the first entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented."

Conyers Falchion

The eighteenth century Durham historian Hutchinson was of the opinion that the legend of the Sockburn worm was a reference to some long since forgotten Viking rover or Viking army that had sacked and plundered this part of the Tees valley. It is possible as there are certainly some very strong Viking links to this area. A similar theory of a worm symbolising a Viking raiding party has been suggested for the Lambton Worm.

The sword used in the presentation, known as the 'Conyers Falchion' can still be seen and is in the collection of Durham Cathedral. It has been dated to the 1200s, although it features the emblem of Morcar, an Anglo-Saxon Earl of Northumbria of earlier times. One theory is that the sword is a copy of a much earlier one that was perhaps associated with a local Viking or Anglo-Saxon dragon-slaying legend. If so, it would predate the arrival of Conyers' Norman ancestors and Conyers's supposed asociation with it may have been designed to justify Conyers' land claims in the area.

Lewis Carroll grew up in the rectory overlooking the bridge at Croft on which the sword ceremony took place so he would have known the tale of the worm very well. The Sockburn worm is almost certainly immortalised by Lewis Carroll in his brilliant Anglo-Saxon rhyme 'Jabberwock' that is featured in Alice through the Looking Glass. The vorpal blade of the poem could well be the Conyers falchion:

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought -
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood a while in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood
And burbled as it came!

One two! One two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to  my arms my beamish boy !
O' frabjuous day! Callooh ! Callay !"
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Worm legends are a feature of both Anglo-Saxon and Viking mythology, where 'worms' take the form of ferrocious dragons, wyverns or serpents. There are other worm legends associated with the North East of England, most notable of which are the 'Laidley worm' of Bamburgh in Northumberland and the famous 'Lambton Worm' of the River Wear which is undoubtedly the best-known of the North East legends.

There is some doubt about the antiquity of the Laidley Worm legend but both the Lambton and Sockburn worm legends have much older roots going back to medieval times if not earlier. Historically the Sockburn Worm legend was the better-known of the two but a Tyneside music hall song of tne nineteenth century popularised the Lambton Worm story and it has become the better known legend today.

Today Sockburn is a sleepy, hidden and rather mysterious area cut off from the villages of the neighbourhood and the nearby town of Darlington by narrow country lanes in private farmland. The main feature is the Jacobite style Sockburn Hall of 1834, a private house, currently for sale. It was built by the Blackett family on the site of an earlier hall and it was here that the poet William Wordsworth first met his future wife, Mary Hutchinson.

The poet Coleridge who was married by this time was here too and fell briefly for Mary's sister, Sara. Coleridge described Sara leaning against a statue of the worm-slayer John Conyers within the ruined church of Sockburn Hall's grounds.

She leant against the armed man,

The statue of the armed knight!

She stood and listened to my lay

Amid the lingering light

The medieval statue of Coleridge's verse features Conyers in armour with shield and sword as a battle between a bear and a wyvern takes place beneath his feet.

The Sockburn peninsula encompasses an ancient Christian site that is much older than Durham to which it later belonged. Like Durham it lies within a meander of a river - this time the Tees rather than the Wear but is in a very different setting. There is no town, city or village or great cathedral within the peninsula and the extensive fertile and largely empty farmland is very flat. The meander at Sockburn could swallow up the steep river peninsula of Durham several times over.  

In Anglo-Saxon times and in Viking times the Sockburn peninsula was a place of great importance. It was here that Higbald, a Bishop of Lindisfarne and Eanbald, Archbishop of York were consecrated in the 8th century A.D showing it to have been a place of religious significance.

It has been suggested that the name Sockburn derives from being at the soke or edge of the jurisdiction of a bishopric, or that it is from a personal name Socca or that it comes from being the shape of a sock - which indeed it is. In truth the name is a mystery but early spellings of the second part of the name show that it was a burgh (a fortified manor or stronghold) rather than a burn.

The ruins of the ancient chapel in the grounds of Sockburn Hall are dedicated to All Saints and partly date to the Viking era of the 9th or 10th century (Vikings in Britain had converted to Christianity around this time. The church probably stands on the site of the earlier Christian site. The only other feature of note is a stone called the grey stone within the local farmland where the worm is said to be buried. It lies within private land.

The Sockburn area was settled by the Vikings and like the Teesdale village of Gainford to the west of Darlington, Sockburn was an important centre of Viking age sculpture. It was seemingly one of the most important centres of Viking settlement and worship in the North East of England. A number of Viking sculptured stones from Sockburn are in the collection of Durham Cathedral. Known as hogbacks they display a transition between pagan styles and motifs and Christian themes.

The presence of Vikings in the area is also indicated by local place names such as the nearby hamlets of Hornby, Girsby and further south Birkby. Girsby derives from `Grisa by' - `the village where pigs were reared'. In the North East (except in Yorkshire) such Viking place-names are rare outside the Tees valley area.


The Jabberwock as depicted in Alice through the Looking Glass


From the southern tip of the Sockburn peninsula, the Tees flows three miles north, before reaching the villages of Dinsdale and Middleton St George. Dinsdale is the site of a manor owned in Norman times by a family called Siward.

Sometime after the Siwards settled at Dinsdale in the eleventh century they changed their name to Sur Tees which in Norman French meant `on the Tees'. The Siwards included the eleventh century Earl of Northumbria of that name. Descendants of this Dinsdale family later included Robert Smith Surtees, the author of Jorrocks, Bessie Surtees, the famous eloper of Newcastle upon Tyne and Robert Surtees the great historian of County Durham.

Under the entry for Dinsdale in `the History of the County Palatine of Durham' Robert Surtees compares this sleepy place of his ancestors to the `Border Country' of the north

"The knights of the Tees might mingle in the border warfare; but the bugle horn of an assailant would seldom startle the inmates of their quiet halls. Their mansions stood without tower or peel"

An important Roman road once crossed the Tees near Dinsdale on its way to the Roman forts at Chester-le-Street and Newcastle. The road sometimes named Cade's Road after a Gainford historian, can be traced near the villages of Middleton St George and Middleton One Row and would have linked the Viking centres of Sockburn and Sadberge. Here the old road is known by the name of Pountey's Lane and is probably named after a Roman bridge that crossed the Tees here called Pons Tesie - `Bridge of the Tees'.

The bridge has long since disappeared with some of its foundation stones used in the construction of buildings at Middleton St George. The Roman road from Middleton St George passes through the village of Sadberge a few miles to the north. This was a place of considerable importance in Viking times.


The seemingly insignificant little village of Sadberge just off the A66 half way between Stockton and Darlington has one of the most extraordinary histories of any little village in the North East. If we exclude Yorkshire then this was the North East's ONLY Viking wappentake - a kind of Viking administrative district. Later known as the Earldom of Sadberge, this district stretched from Hartlepool towards Middleton in Teesdale (beyond Barnard Castle though that didn't exist then) but strangely the district didn't include Darlington or Stockton.


Wappentakes were found in those parts of England settled by the Danes and continued to be important administrative centres in medieval times. There were neighbouring Wappentakes to Sadberge at Northallerton in Yorkshire and at Langbaurgh in Cleveland. The word wappentake literally means `Weapon Taking' and refers to the way in which land was held in return for military service to a chief.

Sadberge is a name of Viking origin deriving from Setberg, meaning `flat topped hill', - an accurate description of the location of the village from where good views of the surrounding countryside can be obtained. The place name Setberg from which Sadberge derives also occurs in Norway and in Viking settled Iceland. Closer to home in Norse settled Cumbria we may find the village of Sedbergh near Kendal which has the same meaning.

Rather like many areas of the so-called Tees Valley today, Sadberge had a rather confused sense of identity. Culturally it was an overspill from the Viking colonisation of Yorkshire where the Viking hogback stones and Viking place-names are so numerous. The major Viking cult centre of Roseberry Topping in Yorkshire is not far away but that was in a different wappentake. Sadberge's cult centre was very probably the peninsula just over two miles directly to the south along the old road Roman road.

Northumberland, Durham, Scotland, Sadberge ?

Although it less than two miles north of the River Tees, Sadberge was never in Yorkshire and it originally wasn't in Durham either. When those two counties began to develop Sadberge was left out and because it had originally been in the Kingdom and Earldom of Northumbria it became an outlying part of Northumberland.

This makes the history of Sadberge rather confusing because in early Norman times the Earldom of Sadberge though north of the Tees was not initially under the rule of Durham's Prince Bishops. This was because it had been a significant area of Viking settlement and had not been acquired by (or had had in some cases been taken from) the Anglo-Saxon Bishops of Chester-le-Street - who were the predecessors of the Bishop of Durham.

So the district became an outlying part of the county of Northmberland by virtue of the fact that it had been part of the old Earldom of Northumbria. To further add to confusion Northumberland was effectively given to Scotland by King Stephen of England in 1139 so that the Tees actually became the southern boundary of the kingdom of Scotland ! This situation continued for eighteen years until Northumberland was repossessed for England by King Henry II in 1157.

Sadberge stone

Hugh Pudsey, Prince Bishop of Durham (1153-1195) was the man largely responsible for the decline in importance of the Sadberge district. He added the `earldom' to Durham in 1189 and from then on Sadberge was ruled by Durham's Prince Bishops.

The Earldom of Sadberge included the old parishes of Hart, Hartlepool, Greatham, Stranton, Elwick, Stainton (near Sedgefield), Elton, Long Newton, Egglescliffe, Middleton St George, Low Dinsdale, Coatham Mundeville, Coniscliffe and the baronry of Gainford in Teesdale.

Despite its fall in status, Sadberge retained a degree of independence and continued to be administered as an almost separate county until 1576. Even as late as the nineteenth century there were still occasionally references to `the Counties of Durham and Sadberge'. In 1836 the revenues of the Bishopric of Durham including Sadberge passed to the Crown. A plaque attached to a large ice age stone on the village green reminds us how important Sadberge once was;

"This stone was placed here to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, Empress of India, and Countess of Sadberge 1867"


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