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WEIRD NORFOLK: A strange Valentine for February, the Ice Skating Ghost of Potter Heigham

PUBLISHED: 18:00 15 February 2020 | UPDATED: 13:06 16 February 2020

The ghost of a drummer boy is said to haunt Hickling Broad.  Picture: James Bass

The ghost of a drummer boy is said to haunt Hickling Broad. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2015

The drowned drummer boy who paid with his life after skating on thin ice all in the name of love, a Weird Norfolk Valentine that will touch all but the coldest of hearts

It was the winter before Waterloo, bitterly cold, and Norfolk's Broads were thick with ice and perfect for skating. In Potter Heigham, the icy grasp of winter didn't cool the ardour of two young lovers whose romance was blossoming despite a frosty reception from close quarters. A drummer boy, home on leave, fell in love with a village girl and the pair made plans to marry before he was called back to his duties - drummers played a pivotal role in warfare, the beat of their drum sending messages during battles when voices were drowned out. Their bright uniform made drummers instantly recognisable both by their brothers-in-arms and the enemy who would try to pick them off the battlefield and put an end to a vital line of communication. The yellow coat with scarlet trim also made the drummer boy stand out against the ice as he skated from his home to the secret meeting place where he would spend evenings with his love, in a small hut on the edge of Hickling Broad at Swim Coots.

Each night as he approached on the ice, his blades gliding across the frozen water, he would beat a tattoo on his kettle drum to let his sweetheart know he was approaching.

In his 1890 book History and Legend of the Broad District, Ernest Suffling recounts what happened after a few evenings when the star-crossed lovers had grown accustomed to being able to meet with ease thanks to the icy temperatures and a swift crossing. It was a cold February night in 1815, daylight had melted away into starry splendour, the iced Broad stretched out in front of the drummer boy, a glittering path leading straight to the warm embrace of his love.

"...though cautioned against it, he ventured once too often - when near the wherry channel he must have gone through the ice, for only his ghost kept the appointment with the waiting girl," wrote Suffling

"He was not found for several days as the ice was too thin to walk on, but too thick to pull through in a boat. Now he can be seen in February early in the evening skating..."

It is said that as darkness falls on cold winter nights, the beat of a drum can be heard echoing across the Broad as the poor, shivering drummer boy tries to keep his rendezvous with the girl he hoped to make his wife.

Like a heartbeat, his drum announces his eternal search for his sweetheart and also serves as a warning to would-be skaters that the ice is not safe.

Another tale adds a chilling detail to the story of lost love.

According to a version of the Drummer Boy of Potter Heigham, his sweetheart had one last glimpse of him before he vanished: when she rushed to the edge of the frozen Broad after failing to hear the familiar tattoo she had grown used to.

She was heartened to see the boy skating towards her, pale and shivering, his drum making no sound - eagerly, she held out her hands to catch his and help him to shore.

But as the pair touched, she felt only icy water and, as she looked down to see why her hand felt so frozen, the Drummer Boy disappeared.

The next day, the Wherrymen of Potter Heigham fished out a body that had drifted to the edge of the Broad as the ice began to break to herald a thaw: nobody needed to ask who it was.

The yellow and scarlet uniform said it all.

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