It seems there is a particular charm that attaches itself to the world of hidden tunnels, especially to ones that are held to possess ecclesiastical associations.
Somewhere deep in the English imagination there seems to lurk the suspicion that the monks of yore, dispossessed and done away with during the years of Henrician terror, held close a knowledge of secret subterranean networks that connected their abbeys to other centres of worldly power and, in some instances, to realms neither secular nor holy.
Hidden treasures, madness, slumbering knights and kings: these are some of the motifs woven into the weft of such tales and the North Yorkshire town of Richmond has one of this charming legends.
Richmond boasts its own castle, one of the largest cobbled market squares in England, and Lewis Carroll as an alumnus of the local grammar school.
For many years, the school had an old table top affixed to the wall, allegedly showing graffiti carved into it by a young and bored Lewis, known as Charles Dodgson at the time.
However Carroll isn’t the town’s most famous little boy, as that honor goes to a little drummer boy.
The precise date of the occurrences narrated by the story is not specified, although it is commonly believed to have taken place towards the close of the 18th century.
As story goes, a group of soldiers, having heard rumours that a communicating tunnel had been dug centuries before linking Richmond Castle to nearby Easby Abbey, allegedly uncovered its entrance beneath the castle keep. It was small, nothing more than a narrow crevice and none of the men could squeeze through it to explore further.
Depending on which version you read, a little drummer boy either volunteered to enter the tunnel or else he was lowered in without much choice about it.
In any case, with him he took his drum and a torch, as well as the instruction that he should follow the course of the tunnel, drumming all the while, so that his comrades might trace his steps on the ground above and hence figure out where the tunnel went.
Quite how he is supposed to have drummed whilst carrying a torch is maybe one of the greatest mysteries of this story, even if it may have been affixed to his hat in a manner familiar to miners of the time.
The drumbeat sounded out below, its muffled rhythmic sound audible through the rock and soil, with the soldiers tracking its beat across the market square and down out of the town along the course of the River Swale in the direction of Easby.
However, at Easby Wood, some half a mile distant from the ruins of Easby Abbey, the drumming abruptly ceased. It never resumed and the brave guy was never seen again. This fact seems to have so unsettled the soldiers that they gave up their task right there and didn’t try to determine where the tunnel went ever again.
Some were of the opinion that the roof of the tunnel had there collapsed, trapping and killing the lad, whereas others whispered his drumming had drawn a dreadful underground monster to devour him.
There is a happier (and more fantastical) ending that claimed that at that point he had entered a cavern where a legion of soldiers lay sleeping, their weapons and armor scattered about them, whom he inadvertently woke with the loud beating of his drum.
All were clad in armour, and bore weapons of a like antiquated nature and the boy realizes he has come across King Arthur and his sleeping army.
One of these knights enquired of the boy whether England were in danger, and hearing that it was not, told him that now was not the time to awaken King Arthur. The child was invited to rest with them, and to rise again only in time of England’s need.
It seems that the invitation to join such an illustrious band was willingly accepted, and there he remains to this day.
Whatever fate the Drummer Boy met, in the world above his story is commemorated by a plaque at the spot where it is said the drumming ceased that reads:
“According to legend, this stone marks the spot where the Richmond Drummer Boy reached in the tunnel supposed to lead from Richmond Market Place to Easby Abbey. Here, the drumming ceased and he was never seen again.”
Some claim that his drumbeats may yet be heard, while others think it nothing more than a legend and, like many local legends, are a lot of holes in this story including who were the soldiers and what was the name of the Drummer Boy, what happened to the tunnel entrance and if you can you really hear a drum being beaten beneath the ground and follow it over the sound of a nearby river.
Whether or not the legend of the Drummer Boy is true, the town has taken the story to its heart and evidence of the legend is everywhere you go.
For instance,The Green Howards Regimental Museum, in the market square, as well as documenting the history of the regiment, also offers a map of a walking route that follows the same as that taken by the soldiers and the Drummer Boy.
The Richmond Brewing Company, a microbrewery set up in 2013 and is located in the renovated station, offers a beer called “The Drummer Boy” which is described as “a copper coloured, easy-drinking session ale.”
The local council has even incorporated the legend into its Christmas celebrations, and various large Christmas lights decorate the Friary Gardens including a full-length illuminated drummer boy.
Writer William Mayne was also inspired to write a children’s book, Earthfasts, based around the legend.
In his novel, the two protagonists hear a strange drumming noise coming from the moor near where they live. When the hillside unexpectedly opens up, a drummer boy emerges directly from the 18th century.
Whether or not there is any truth to the story of the Drummer Boy and his more or less sad fate, the legend looks set to live on for many more generations in this quaint Yorkshire town.
Images from web – Google Research