I spent last week in Devon, doing some fieldwork and plot brainstorming for the new Quinton novel – and as I suggested in the previous post, anyone wondering why a book focusing on the Four Days Battle of 1666, which was fought in the Thames estuary and southern North Sea, has scenes set in Devon, will have to wait to read it!
It was good to revisit many old haunts in the area, especially in Plymouth, but perhaps the most evocative was Buckland Abbey, just to the north of the city. The home successively of two of England’s greatest seamen, Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Francis Drake, Buckland was one of the principal inspirations for my fictitious ‘Ravensden Abbey’, the seat of the Quinton family. Many of those who bought former monasteries in the sixteenth century demolished the old buildings or altered them so completely that little trace of monastic origins remains. But at Buckland, many elements of the old fabric were retained, both externally and internally – notably the tower of the church – and this is very much my mental image of Ravensden Abbey. The house was devastated by a fire in 1938 but restored, handed over to the National Trust, and now displays a considerable amount of Drake memorabilia, including some of the flags flown from his ships. Understandably, the house guides were cock-a-hoop about the recent discovery that an often ignored portrait in a comparatively insignificant room is actually a genuine Rembrandt!
Rembrandt or no, Buckland Abbey’s greatest treasure remains the legendary Drake’s Drum. This reputedly accompanied him during his circumnavigation of the earth and was also present during his last voyage, when he supposedly ordered that it should be returned to England and beaten to recall him from heaven when the country was in dire danger. It duly returned to Buckland Abbey, and has remained there more or less ever since. It’s been claimed that it was heard when the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth in 1620 (although quite how that would have fulfilled Drake’s original criterion is debatable!), when Nelson was made a Freeman of Plymouth (ditto), on the outbreak of World War I and during the Dunkirk evacuation. Perhaps the best documented instance was that which is supposed to have occurred aboard HMS Royal Oak when the German fleet surrendered in 1918. A victory drum roll was heard aboard the ship, but three searches revealed neither a drum nor a drummer. (There’s a good account of the episode here.) More prosaically, it’s a snare drum, just over two feet high and the same in diameter. The shell is of a thin sheet of walnut, the drum heads probably of calf skin, and the drum is decorated with the Drake coat of arms.
My visit to this evocative location and its mythic relic provides the perfect excuse for some poetry, namely Sir Henry Newbolt’s once-famous Drake’s Drum – now a compulsory part of the new National Curriculum for schools. (Only joking, teachers and pupils everywhere. On the other hand, one can never tell these days, given some of the things that have gone into it…)The poem was set to music by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford as part of his ‘Songs of the Sea’.
Drake he’s in his hammock an’ a thousand miles away,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
Slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay,
An’ dreamin’ arl the time O’ Plymouth Hoe.
Yarnder lumes the Island, yarnder lie the ships,
Wi’ sailor lads a-dancing’ heel-an’-toe,
An’ the shore-lights flashin’, an’ the night-tide dashin’,
He sees et arl so plainly as he saw et long ago.
Drake he was a Devon man, an’ ruled the Devon seas,
(Capten, art tha’ sleepin’ there below?)
Roving’ tho’ his death fell, he went wi’ heart at ease,
A’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
“Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder’s runnin’ low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port o’ Heaven,
An’ drum them up the Channel as we drumm’d them long ago.”
Drake he’s in his hammock till the great Armadas come,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
Slung atween the round shot, listenin’ for the drum,
An’ dreamin arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
Call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
Where the old trade’s plyin’ an’ the old flag flyin’
They shall find him ware an’ wakin’, as they found him long ago!
Anyway, time to get back to work. Odd, though – I swear I can hear the sound of distant drumming…