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The English Legend of the Little Drummer Boy is Ghostly and Heroic

Charlotte Bond

Richmond is a small town in North Yorkshire which 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 Carroll (known as Charles Dodgson at the time).

But Carroll isn’t the town’s most famous little boy. That honor goes to the Drummer Boy. There has always been a rumor floating around that Richmond Castle was secretly connected to Easby Abbey which was about a mile away along the River Swale.

Richmond Castle, taken from the Station

Richmond Castle, taken from the Station

The story goes that the entrance to this tunnel was uncovered by soldiers at the castle at the end of the eighteenth century. The passageway beyond was so narrow and full of rubble that the soldiers couldn’t fit 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. Either way, a plan was formed: the boy would walk along the tunnel, banging his drum. On the surface, the soldiers would follow his drumming and hence figure out where the tunnel went. This plan seemed to go quite well at first. The soldiers walked along, listening carefully, and were led out of the castle, across the marketplace, and down towards the river.

The Drummer Boy

The Drummer Boy

In fact, they managed to follow the drumbeats all the way to Easby woods but then, all of a sudden, the drumming stopped half a mile away from Easby Abbey. The drumming never resumed and the Drummer Boy was never seen again.

This event 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 thought that the tunnel roof might have collapsed on the poor boy, while others whispered that his drumming had drawn a dreadful underground monster to devour him.

Approach to the Drummer Boy’s stone in Easby Woods

Approach to the Drummer Boy’s stone in Easby Woods

There is a happier ending to this tale, but it is wild conjecture. In one version, the Drummer Boy ceases beating his drum because he comes across a large cavern where a legion of soldiers lay sleeping, their weapons and armor scattered about them. The boy realizes he has come across King Arthur and his sleeping army. He is about to start beating his drum again when one of the knights wakes up and asks the boy whether England is under attack.

The boy answers that it is not. “Then it is not time to awaken King Arthur yet,” replied the knight. But before he returns to his slumber, he invites the Drummer Boy to join their ranks. The boy readily agrees and falls asleep surrounded by the legendary knights.

Lombards Wynd, part of the Drummer Boy walking trail

Lombards Wynd, part of the Drummer Boy walking trail

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 stopped. It 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.”

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Like many local legends, are a lot of holes in this story. Who were the soldiers and what was the name of the Drummer Boy? If he was important enough to have his own stone, why didn’t anyone remember his name? What happened to the tunnel entrance? Can you really hear a drum being beaten beneath the ground and follow it over the sound of a nearby river?

 

Banner outside the Green Howards Museum, Richmond Market Place

Banner outside the Green Howards Museum, Richmond Market Place

Whether or not the legend of the Drummer Boy is true, the town has taken the story to its heart. Evidence of the legend is everywhere you go. The Green Howards Regimental Museum stands in the market square. As well as documenting the history of the regiment, the Museum also offers a map of a walking route that follows the same as that taken by the soldiers and the Drummer Boy. Alternatively, there are many descriptions of the walk online.

Plaque on the Drummer Boy’s Stone

Plaque on the Drummer Boy’s Stone

The Richmond Brewing Company is a microbrewery set up in 2013 and is located in the renovated station. It 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. Various large Christmas lights decorate the Friary Gardens and, if you look carefully, you will see a full-length illuminated drummer boy. Writer William Mayne was also inspired to write a children’s book, Earthfasts, based around the legend.

The Drummer Boy’s stone, allegedly marking the place where the soldiers above stopped hearing the drumbeats below

The Drummer Boy’s stone, allegedly marking the place where the soldiers above stopped hearing the drumbeats below

In Mayne’s 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 fresh from the 18th century.

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In 1994, the book was adapted into a TV show which was filmed on location in Richmond and Wensleydale, North Yorkshire. Whether or not there is any truth to the tale of the Drummer Boy and his sad fate, the legend looks set to live on for many more generations in this picturesque Yorkshire town.