Worming my way through history

Working on this week’s column with a cup of tea, made from leaves in a pre-warmed pot and milk poured from a jug
The Darlington Scouts emblem showing the Sockburn Worm with a sword in its neck

As I have mentioned before, I usually have no idea what I am going to write about in these columns before I sit down and read my dad’s piece from the corresponding week 40 years ago.

When I finished reading his column from 24th November 1979, I decided that I was going find out more about Sir John Conyers, who lived from 1255 until 1303, and was gifted lands around the village of Sockburn, seven miles south of Darlington, looped by the River Tees. The lands were a reward for his bravery at having slain the Worm of Sockburn.

I wasn’t sure what this ‘worm’ was, although I assumed it wasn’t the kind I found in my garden, as you wouldn’t need to be brave to slay one of those, let alone defend a whole village from one.

I discovered ‘worm’ was another name for a kind of dragon, known as a wyvern. Of course, then I had to find out what a wyvern was, and found that it’s like a winged dragon but with two legs instead of four.

As it happens, I had unknowingly seen countless pictures of wyverns but had assumed they were your common-or-garden dragon. Some images depict them walking upright, like a tyrannosaurus rex, while others show them in a more horizontal stance. But now that I’ve looked again at such pictures, it’s like looking at a dog or a horse with its front legs missing. It does look a bit odd!

It is likely that the worm story is an allegory for Viking marauders who were ransacking the north at the time and that Sir John was victorious in defending the village of Sockburn against them. Another interesting fact is that the Worm of Sockburn is supposed to have inspired Lewis Carroll, who lived in nearby Croft-on-Tees for many years, to write his poem, the Jabberwocky.

Wyverns will be familiar to Game of Thrones and Harry Potter fans, and one is even featured on the emblem of Darlington Scout Group, with Sir John Conyers’ conquering sword protruding from its neck. They also appear on noble coats of arms, such as that of Prince Edward’s wife Sophie, Countess of Wessex, and of Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II.

It was at this point of this week’s meandering journey of historical discovery that I came across the most interesting fact of all. It wasn’t that Portuguese Catherine of Braganza was married to Charles II until his death in 1685, or that she was never allowed to be called Queen due to her Catholic faith, or that she never bore him a child despite him having at least 14 illegitimate children by seven other women, or that she was noted for making it fashionable for women to wear clothes normally associated with men, such as waistcoats and breeches.

No! It was the fact that she has been credited with introducing tea into this country!

Now, as a fairly snobbish tea drinker, who at home insists on leaf tea made in a pot that has been warmed first, only with water on the absolute point of boiling, and with milk poured from a jug and not the bottle, I think I owe a debt of gratitude to the woman who sparked a revolution in the drinking habits of a nation. She introduced us to a product that I simply could not live without. Tea has seen me through many obstacles in life, such as death, divorce and driving tests, and I have my little ritual every morning. I make time for my first cuppa of the day, taking a break from any work or chores to properly sit down, switch off and enjoy it.

Further research revealed that actually, Catherine couldn’t have been responsible for its introduction to these shores as Samuel Pepys talks about it in his diaries in 1660, five years before she moved here.

But like the princesses Margaret, Diana, Kate and Meghan that have followed her, she set the trend and made something quite uncommon become the height of fashion.

So we’ve been on quite a voyage this week, from Sir John Conyers, to the Sockburn Worm, to dragons, to wyverns, to Vikings, to Lewis Carroll, to the Jabberwocky, to Catherine of Braganza, to Charles II, to Samuel Pepys and finally, we end it all with a nice cup of tea.

Is there anything more satisfying than that?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 22nd and the Gazette & Herald on 24th November 2019

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