The Drummer-Boy of Potter Heigham

sailing boats and ducks on water under a grey sky, surrounded by trees
Hickling Broad, Norfolk (photo by James Bass)

I was a few minutes late. The car-park of the village hall was full, people had abandoned their cars on nearby verges. I had to park on a nearby side-street and dash back through the darkness and driving rain. A poster on the door heralded a talk for the Potter Heigham Local History Group. Inside, a large lady in a floral print dress stood beside an elderly man in front of a packed church hall. She was middle aged, with streaks of grey in her short chestnut hair. He was tall, wiry and dressed all in black, except for a purple cravat at his open shirt collar. The small amount of white hair that he had left was closely cropped. Despite his age, he exuded an air of authority. On the table in front of them was a primitive slide projector with a screen behind it. The way they both commanded the audience reminded me of a pair of teachers. She raised her voice to talk over the excited chatter.

“In the final talk in our series about the history of the Norfolk Broads, we are honoured to be joined by local authority on the supernatural, and long-standing minister of the chapel in Potter Heigham, Doctor Rowan Birkett.” Warm applause rang around the hall. “He will talk to us about the power of stories, recount the tragic and chilling tale, the drummer boy of Potter Heigham and how through hours of careful research, he fixed it once and for all to our world.”

The interior of the village hall was crowded and slightly muggy, but there were still some spaces in the front rows, hoping I would reach them before the introduction ended, I made my way down as quietly as I could.  

“Thank you, Beverley, for inviting me,” said the Doctor in a clear voice. Beverley turned and smiled uncomfortably at me. Realising that I had taken her seat, I slid across onto the one next to it. Doctor Birkett stood behind his lectern and looked out over the audience, as if delivering a Sunday sermon. A respectful silence fell instantly.

He made an elaborate sweeping gesture at the projector and the carousel whirred into life and the neo-classical painting of the expulsion of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise appeared on the screen beside him. “Well I never!” he grinned, looking incredulously at the remote-control in his hand. “Now, this is Adam and Eve. As you can see, they are being expelled from heaven. Why? for consuming the fruit of wisdom, which revealed their shameful nakedness. They belong to a powerful story. Just one of many stories we find in the Bible. You see, stories are important, they give structure to our lives and allow us to understand complex problems; they are not accounts of actual events, but exist because we cannot comprehend God. We human beings add extra layers to those stories, but they remain our stories.” He paused as someone arrived late and took a place at the back of the hall. I could almost see him look at his watch and say ‘Hurry up, it’s your time you’re wasting!’ He resumed. “For the last thousand years, Christian Theologians have struggled to reconcile these stories with their faith.” He gazed intently at the projected image. “Benjamin West attempted to explore this particular story through this painting as Milton had before him through his sublime verse of ‘Paradise Lost’. Both were searching for meaning and by so doing, added to our understanding of the story.”

The carousel whirred again and a picture of a toy drummer-boy wearing a yellow military jacket with red braiding and a black shako hat with a black feather appeared on the screen next to him. “Now I’m going to tell you a story from about the same time as that painting. A fascinating and tragic story that, like me, many of you will have grown up with.” I could feel him draw the audience in.

“It’s a cold February evening in 1814. A drummer boy, home on leave is preparing to cross the frozen Hickling Broad to keep a tryst with his lover. One can almost feel the excitement. This young man has finally realised his own importance, his place in the world. For the first time in his life, he has a little money, a smart uniform and a few days leave in which to impress family and friends in his home town. He has met a beautiful girl and he has fallen in love with her.” He sighs deeply and shakes his head. A storyteller’s dramatic pause. “He sets off on the ice as he has done these last few nights, to meet his beloved.”

“The ice takes his weight without complaint as he glides towards her. Of course, she is waiting for him, her heart fluttering with anticipation and the pure joy of early love. When he draws near, he plays a brief tattoo on his drum. He doesn’t notice that the ice is dangerously thin at the wherry and he falls through. Sensing something is amiss, his beloved calls and calls. She is about to go for help when, to her great relief, she sees him approach in silence, his arms outstretched pleadingly. She reaches out to touch him, but he remains silent, freezing cold and dripping wet. As her eyes move up to his face, he disappears. His body is found a few days later and buried in the churchyard here. It is said that his spirit can be seen on Valentine’s day each year, repeating the journey he was doomed to never complete.” He paused, looking around the room at his rapt audience.

“Like many of you, I grew up hearing this story. It is a tragic reminder of our blindness to high risk when we are in love, or what I would call today, an important health and safety message.” He paused and looked up, cueing a gentle buzz of approval. “Most importantly, it proves the existence of the afterlife. This poor young man is trapped between this world and the next, unable to cross over. His own paradise lost to him forever.” He smiled, as if surprised by his use of word-play. “I began to look for meaning in this story could be true. I wondered if I could I take this folk-tale, bring it from the abstract and fix it in our world?”

The projector clicked and changed to a sepia photograph of a heavily-whiskered elderly man, sitting and with a blanket on his lap. He was looking straight down the camera, his stern expression typical of Victorian photographs. “The story first comes to us in print in 1890 from a local historian called Ernest Suffeling. Here he is”. Birkett gestured to the screen. “He was the first to identify the female protagonist, one May Everett, to put the sightings in February around Valentine’s Day and to reveal the discovery of a body. I was fortunate to have served with his Grandson in the Army. He explained to me that as several variations were already doing the rounds, his Grandfather had combined them to make a more robust story.”

“Now, we all know that folk-tales must contain a kernel of truth to endure, I was undeterred and made it my life’s work to find that truth in Suffeling’s ‘embellishments’. I quickly found May Everett living here with her family since her birth in 1798 and that there was a burial of an unidentified teenage male in 1814.” The carousel clicked and a photo of a handwritten entry of a burial in the St Nicholas Parish register from February 1814. Spidery handwriting in faded ink.

“I knew I was looking for a young soldier in the British Army at the time of the Napoleonic Wars who came from this area. After years of searching through public, parish and regimental archives, I just couldn’t find him. I realised I had to widen my search. I spent years trawling through surviving records of the local regiments, not knowing what I was looking for. I finally found him.” The carousel clicked and displayed the service record of one Christopher Monroe. “He was just seventeen and originally from Wroxham, on the way to Norwich, and was serving with the 9th Regiment of Foot, The East Norfolks. He disappeared in early 1814 whilst on home leave and was never seen again. He was duly court martialled in absentia for desertion. His records only survive because they were requested by the Board of Ordinance for his court martial. The picture on the screen changed a small paper booklet. His pay-book shows that he received an extra shilling a week as drummer-boy. Another stroke of luck came when I found an inventory from later that year. As the Regiment were preparing to go to America, the Regimental Quartermaster requested a new drum to replace one recently taken by a deserter that Winter. A brief investigation identified Potter Heigham as a place of interest, but no further action was taken.”

Birkett bought his hands together in a praying gesture. “I thank God I had brought new meaning to this story through records from over two hundred years ago. It brought the story back from the abstract, it returned the boy’s identity and has brought comfort to many who have turned to me before making that final journey themselves.”

He looked up at the audience. “I seem to have run through my slides but would be happy to answer your questions.”

Beverley stood and turned to face the audience.

“Let’s thank Doctor Birkett for giving up his evening to come and to talk to us.” Animated applause erupted. She looked uncomfortably hot as she glanced up at the clock over the door. When the applause died down, she continued. “Yes, I think we’ve got time for a few questions, please put your hand up if you have one.”

I put my hand up straight away. As I was sitting in the front row, and at least thirty years younger than the most of the other attendees, I thought I had a very good chance of being chosen. “Yes, the young lady at the front” said the lady straightaway, smiling at me with the slightest unease. Feeling I was back at school, I stood up.

“I’m Angelica Briggs, I’m working on a story about local ghosts for the Norfolk Enquirer. I think there is no drummer-boy, the story was just a cover-up, a hoax.” It was my turn to employ a dramatic pause. “I’ve done some research too.” The warmth in Birkett’s smile only seemed to grow, spreading to his eyes. His face lit up.

“Have you my dear? Do tell us.”

Undaunted, I continued.

“According to church records, May’s parents baptized their seventh child, a boy, at the end of 1814. As they were both in their fifties, it was a miracle birth by all accounts. I think that May used the drummer-boy story to explain her pregnancy and the tragic loss of the father to her parents. The parents brought May’s son up as their own.” The Reverend remained smiling, as if he wasn’t taking me seriously. I decided it was time for the killer blow. “I think you missed this because it would not occur to a man without a family of his own.”

There was a collective gasp of shock from the audience. I instantly regretted my words and expected him to lose his temper. Instead, his smile broadened.

“Yes, your hard work shows that as human beings we explore our stories, unconsciously add our own layers and change them. Which is exactly what I’ve been saying tonight, and exactly what you have done. The story now fits the meaning you have chosen for it.” “Just one thing,” he waited for everyone in the room to look at him. “It cannot be a hoax because I have seen him many times, and so have many here.” Murmurs of agreement swirled around the hall “Have you ever seen him?” he asked. I looked down sheepishly, knowing I would lose the argument with my answer.

“No, I haven’t.”

He tutted and shook his head slowly.

“You’ve tried though, haven’t you? You can never see him because you don’t believe.” He raised his voice, preaching to the room. “Young people today move so fast through life, it is a wonder that they see anything at all.” There was a murmur of agreement, I knew he had won. Beverley was already looking around for the next question. He had used his skills as a preacher and my own youthfulness against me.

After few more questions about other ghost stories, his time in the Army and a final blessing, the audience began to file out to meet at the local pub. Leaving Beverley to fold up the chairs on her own. I picked up my chair, folded it and slid it into the rack mounted on the back wall. As I headed for the door, Birkett called. “Young lady, thank you so much for your,” he paused, “comment. Please leave me your contact details.” Realising that he had already forgotten my name and would probably struggle to send an email or find me online, I gave my business card to Beverley as I left.

The next day, I was still thinking what to do next when I received a voicemail from Doctor Birkett asking me to visit him at home as a matter of urgency. He carefully repeated his home address, twice.

Part 2

Two central figures are being pushed away bu a winged angel.
The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise by Benjamin West (1791)

I didn’t know what to expect from the Doctor’s summons. I pulled up on the gravel outside his house. It was too big for a single man, its grey stone façade and large windows were perfect for an expert in the supernatural. As soon as I pulled the handle of the old-fashioned doorbell, I could hear clanking from the depths of the house, the low hoarse barking of large dogs, accompanied by the claws skittering on a hard floor. The noise grew louder, then stopped abruptly. I heard the sound of bolts being drawn back and the door opened to reveal the Doctor with two large dogs sitting patiently beside him. “Angelica, how nice of you to come.” Before I could ask what the urgency was, he turned and shuffled slowly down the hallway, stopping at open door at the far end. I was still at the front door, being sniffed by the dogs. “Come in, come in” he called, somewhat impatiently. “Don’t mind them, we don’t get many visitors” he added. as I followed him, I noticed very tidy looking rooms on one side and a grand wooden staircase on the other. The heavy scent of furniture polish hung in those doorways like a warning to keep out.

This was a study or workroom and looked like it had been hit by a bomb. Roughly crammed bookcases covered two walls, a large sash widow framed by heavy black-out curtains occupied most of one, a large fireplace the other. Above the fireplace hung a framed print of the painting of Adam and Eve from last night’s slide-show, before it stood two easy chairs covered in faded green corduroy. In the centre was a desk and a chair. Motes of dust circled lazily in the watery winter sunlight that beamed through the window. The desk did not seem to have been used for some time and was piled high with assorted books magazines and paperwork. The projector from last night, with its power cable wrapped around it, balanced precariously on top. No sign of a telephone or computer. This room had not been decorated for a long time he obviously spent a lot of time in here, working or dozing. He sat down heavily and gestured to the other high–backed chair in front of him. One dog laid down awkwardly at his feet, the other sat next to his chair. “This room is strictly off limits to my housekeeper,” he grinned.

“I’ll get to the point” he began. The doctors tell me I only have a few days left to me, I have been preparing to go at peace with this world. But there is one last thing I would really like to do, I would like to see the drummer boy again. My eyebrows raised. “I know you don’t believe he is real, and you are a fine journalist. We are both storytellers of a kind. I would love for you to document it. Call it a last wish.” He smiled.

I realised it was late November because I had just celebrated my birthday. I was confused, it was another ten weeks until the ghost was due to appear, didn’t he realise he wouldn’t have time? This was hardly a matter of urgency.

“Of course,” I agreed. “I’m sure you can tell me lots of interesting stories while we are waiting.” I took out my phone and began to tap in the new appointment. “I don’t think I’ll get any better offers on Valentines’ Day,” I added glumly, getting up to go.

“We don’t have time to wait that long, we must go tonight!” Now go home and put some warm clothes on and pick me up at midnight, and bring some soup.” He added, comfortable to be issuing orders once again. Stunned, I could only nod in reply.

On the short drive home, I wondered what one should wear to a rendezvous with a ghost? I checked the weather, no rain. I knew it would not take long for the cold to penetrate our bones. I would wear my full-length puffa jacket. It claimed to be suitable for arctic wear, but it made driving awkward because it was so big and heavy. I put two folding picnic chairs and plenty of blankets into the boot of my car along with the bird watching binoculars, which I bought and never used, and filled a flask with boiling tomato soup.

The moon hung brightly in the clear night sky, it was nearly freezing, but a perfect night for seeing a ghost. I started to feel quite excited. The house did not seem to have any lights on and as I pulled the old heavy bell again, I was quite prepared for there to be no answer. I began to feel relieved. Perhaps he’d forgotten his request or had been taken to hospital that evening. I was deciding what to do next when I heard barking from the depths of the house. It slowly became louder and stopped abruptly as the heavy front door opened slowly. Doctor Birkett stood behind it in a thick tweed suit, a thick claret and blue striped scarf neatly tied in an elaborate knot. “Sorry about that, I have been looking everywhere for my hat!” He patted his deerstalker.

He pulled the door shut behind him and crossed the gravel to my car. “Aren’t you going to lock that?” I asked as he settled himself into the passenger seat.

“Oh no, I don’t need to you see, the dogs will take care of anyone who tries to enter.” I started the engine. “We can leave your little car at Hickling Broad sailing club, there’s a birdwatching hide at the water’s edge.” As we drove, he told me stories about his days in the army, other local paranormal activity he had investigated on behalf of the Methodist Church his time at Cambridge and his deep regret at never having a family of his own. It was fascinating, but it felt more like a lecture than a conversation, there were so very few opportunities for me to explore his answers with further questions. He also had a very irritating habit of spelling names and repeating dates, but I didn’t want to interrupt or upset him.

We parked outside the sailing club. The lake was smooth and flat, but not frozen.

“I’ve checked the weather and it isn’t going to rain tonight, but I’m not sure how long we should can stay out in this cold.”

“Good job, your little car only has the one windscreen wiper, I don’t think it could cope!” Once again, I noticed how he pushed away my concern for his well-being with a flippant answer.

The hide was little more than a garden shed with panels removed at eye height. Inside it smelt like every musty shed, damp wood with the sweetness of wood preserver. A pile of brightly coloured buoys strung together with white rope occupied one corner. I set the folding picnic chairs down and took out my phone for some light. At least it wouldn’t be so cold in here, I thought. He tutted. “Oh no my dear, we can’t have any lights in here” I switched off thinking about responding angrily that ghosts are not birds and are not bothered by lights. I sighed loudly instead. This was going to be a long night.

He raised his binoculars and looked out over the lake. “We need to look to the trees in the far corner.” His voice slowing as he concentrated. “The first time I saw him was in 1960, yes, 1960.” I rolled my eyes. “I had just been ordained. and was very much looking for answers. I remember that night well. It rained fiercely and visibility was terrible. The weather broke and I…” He suddenly tailed off. “By Jove, there he is, look!” I drew myself up and stood beside him.

“I thought you said I couldn’t see him?” I asked cheekily.

“You’re part of the story now. Go on, have a look.”

I was suspicious, but I felt his youthful excitement. I raised my binoculars and looked as directed. The sight took my breath away.

A figure of a young man with a large drum was moving unnaturally slowly and jerkily across the lake. His movements were broken, syncopated somehow. The figure was made up of swirling mist which was trying to coalesce into human form. It seemed to sharpen and blur like a projected image running on dying batteries. He was wearing a yellow jacket with scarlet sleeves, the colours faintly flickering in and out of focus with his jerky movement. I had never seen anything like this, I was overwhelmed with excitement and strangely, longing. Here I was, seeing a ghost for myself with my own eyes.

“So, you do see him then” I glanced at him briefly. He lowered his binoculars and sat down heavily in his chair. He let out a deep sigh. Confused, I looked back over the water and caught sight of the ghost again.

“Can you see his face?” he asked.

“Just, it’s difficult, it seems to come in and out of focus like the rest of him. He seems to keep looking over his shoulder. He looks absolutely terrified.”

“Yes, like he is being chased by the devil himself,” he mused. “Keep watching, we are approaching his crucial moment.”

As I watched, the stuttering journey continued. Suddenly, his movements became faster and stronger, the colours of his jacket and his features sharpened into reality. The sound also seemed to crystalize for a few seconds, a new sound, a snatch of an urgent rhythm of a drum. Then he slowed right down again. His body shook grotesquely, and with arms raised, he slowly dropped to his knees and began to fall forward through the surface of the water. His entire form disappeared in this final moment. I felt the greatest urge to try and save him. I was overcome with sadness, I felt tears rise. Trembling, I lowered my binoculars, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. I realised I had been holding my breath.

“Tell me what you just saw.” This was an order. I looked at him with confusion, worried he would slap me. Through choking sobs, I managed to say: “I saw a drummer boy skating across the ice, I heard his drum, then he fell through, oh God.”

He gripped my shoulders firmly. “You didn’t see what you think you did. You took what you saw and fitted it to a familiar story you knew. Think. Could you see his skates? I’ve seen him many times now, at all times of day and throughout the year and I’ve never seen his feet. His legs are a blur at best.” He pushed me back into my seat. “I know this is difficult, but please listen. This boy was somewhere else, and he was running away from something, and I know what. Let’s get back to your little car and I’ll tell you everything when we get home.”

We drove in silence, the heater and the fan turned up to full.

Part Three

a monk holds a book
Saint Thomas Aquinas

Back at the Doctor’s study, I enjoyed the oddness of pouring the luke-warm soup into two fine china teacups as he stoked the embers in the fireplace. “We should really have toast with soup, but biscuits will have to do.” I handed him his soup and he stared into the teacup.

“So, if he wasn’t skating to meet his lover, where was he and what was he running away from?” I reminded him gently.

Startled, he looked up. “What we all run from my dear, what is catching up with me now.” He reached over to pat one of his dogs on the head, speaking earnestly to his friend who cocked his head as if trying desperately to understand. “Mine is gentle and something of a relief which I fully accept, his was anything but.”

He looked up and continued. “But where was he, and when? The story perplexed me for years. There were so many elements that didn’t add up”. He reached inside his jacket pocket and brought out a silver hip-flask. He unscrewed the top and took a long drink. “The deeper I looked into it, the more unsettled I became. I was concerned by his uniform, what he was playing on his drum and why he didn’t just take the twenty or so minutes to walk around the Broad,” He took another pull on the flask replaced the cap and returned it to his pocket. “The story puts the incident one year before the battle of Waterloo in 1815. His uniform of reversed scarlet and yellow was being phased out by the British Army a few use earlier because it was making the drummer boys too conspicuous a target. Of course, it is still possible that he was wearing an older uniform, but I began to wonder if I should be looking at the Napoleonic Wars or even the American War of Independence. It also bothered me that the apparition wore his shako, it was a delicate and costly piece of kit, only to be worn on parade or on the battlefield. I searched through old books and early sound recordings and eventually recognised the pattern of his drumming as a retreat.”

“I concluded that what we were seeing are the last moments of a terrified young man’s life. He was running away from a terrible battle, sounding a retreat. He didn’t die on this lake, or even in this country. He probably never came here in life. He can be seen all year round. But what we are seeing is his very soul.” I stared, open mouthed in shock.

“But how does Christopher Munro fit in to all this? did you make him up?” I blurted out.

“No” he said defiantly. “Everything I said about Christopher Munro is true. He is a very likely match for our drummer-boy. He fixed the story in our world again. Now he lives forever in a message of warning and a great source of comfort to others.” He reached up to the mantlepiece and picked up a card folder secured with a treasury tag. Within was a large bundle of papers. “There was a burial in 1814, but we just don’t know who is buried in the grave, what became of Christopher Munro, the true identity of our drummer or when the apparition actually started.”

 “But why are you telling me this?”

“My dear,” he smiled, “I am telling you this because this is your story now.” I stared at him with anger.

“You knew, all this time you knew.”

“Yes, I suspected that the only reason you had researched May Everett in such depth must have been for your own family history. I made some discreet enquiries earlier today and that confirmed your ancestral connection to May Everett. Now you must decide what this story means.” He handed me the bundle of paper and I clutched it to my chest.

“This is huge. There is no ghost, just a broken echo, a glitch in the matrix. There is no God, so what is responsible? I can’t expose the world to this.”  I shot him an angry glance. “But I can’t keep the truth hidden from people either.”

“Who decides what is truth? You?” he snapped. He took a deep breath and gave a sigh. “You’re overthinking this. As Thomas Aquinas says, ‘All reason is in God’. We cannot always understand His purpose, we need to have faith. The supernatural proves the existence of heaven and hell and we cannot live without our souls and the promise of resurrection. We need the structure our faith gives, we must protect it because without it we are lost.

His calmness returning, he added, “I see you’re struggling already. I hoped your lack of faith wouldn’t cause you difficulties. Maybe you need some more time.” He stood uneasily, as if our conversation had taken the last of his energy. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I am very tired and must go to bed. Thank you for your help, please let yourself out.” He seemed to climb the stairs quickly, his burden lightened. “Please see that my dogs are looked after,” he called down from the landing.

I didn’t register his last comment as with my head spinning, I stepped over the now sleeping dogs and walked softly down the hall to the front door.

Predictably, Doctor Birkett passed away during that night, fully at peace. I had a phone call the next morning from his housekeeper, whom I recognised instantly as Beverley from the other night, to ask me if I would write a piece celebrating his life and achievements to serve as an obituary and read parts of it as the eulogy at his funeral. I accepted, thinking I would need to do a lot of research. I realised quickly he had cleverly fed me all the information I needed to make a framework of his life during our brief time together. I understood that throughout our encounter, I had been the child to his overbearing parent. Beverley assured me the next occupant of the house would inherit the dogs and her services and she would see that all of his papers were carefully archived. I have to admit, I was more concerned for the dogs.

Speaking to his family and friends for the obituary, it was clear that as a leading authority on spiritual matters, his great faith was tied up in his studies of supernatural phenomena around the world. Had he manipulated the facts of those cases to reinforce his belief in the afterlife and protect his fellow man? In the end, he had protected and helped a great many people, but had also added another layer to this story, one which I decided I would not unravel.

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