The Roundhay Worm

This essay first appeared on the electronic
mailing list Piporg-l

When I was in the early stages of research for my recent book, I spent some time amongst the papers of the late Revd. Andrew Freeman (now lodged in the British Organ Archive at the Central Library, Birmingham). These form a delightful collection of material within the larger archive, representing the life's work of a great antiquarian and noted scholar: the author of 'Father Smith' (1921), and a great many learned essays and other publications. There are notebooks of many different descriptions, all packed with interesting information, and usually well referenced to source material. My chapters on the early organ in Britain could not possibly have been written without Freeman's help, and it is a matter of great regret to me that I was born too late ever to meet him.

Freeman was also an exceptionally fine photographer. There is a large collection of glass plates showing organ cases of all periods - and after pretty well exhausting the organ cases of Britain Freeman was able to go on holidays abroad between the wars and photograph instruments in Belgium, Austria and elsewhere. There are even a number of stereoscopic pictures taken with a special camera. I am fortunate enough to possess a hand-held stereoscope, and so on one trip to the Archive I took it with me for the sake of amusement, and passed a happy hour or two looking at Freeman's lovely black-and-white pictures in '3-D'.

As I was rifling through the shoe-box containing the set of views, I came across one with a picture-postcard fixed to it with a paper-clip. I removed the clip to have a look at the picture. It was of an organ that I did not know, at Roundhay in Norfolk (from the hand-written title). It looked like a case of about 1905 or so, perhaps by W.D. Caroë. I could see why Freeman had included it - it was a proper organ case all right - but it was a bit of a brute. One squat central flat with front-pipes expressing an unmistakable grimace was flanked by two right-angled seven-pipe towers arranged across the corners, so that one face of the tower was parallel to the front and the other face formed the side return of the case. The carving was of good quality, but in the way that sometimes happened when gothic revival began to be taken over by Arts and Crafts, it had become heavy, busy and uncomfortably wriggly. I had a look through the viewer, which made the pipe-shades and cresting look yet more restless, and was about to move on to the next picture when I glanced at the postcard that had been attached to the view of Roundhay.

To my great interest it turned out to be a card from none other than M.R. James: a distinguished antiquarian in his own right, at one time the Provost of Eton College, the writer of the 'Prologue' to Freeman's 'Father Smith', and the author of several collections of famously chilling ghost stories. On the front of the card was a sepia view of the village of Roundhay; a mediaeval gateway spanning the end of the long High Street, and the big Norman tower of the church visible on an eminence just behind. The card, addressed to Freeman, read as follows:-

'My Dear Freeman, 'I am greatly relieved that you find the stories to be of some small comfort. I do not know quite why I write them, except that it is something to do with what you and I found at Roundhay, which I will never forget - though I do not at all care to remember it. I expect my readers find the tales curious; they tell me they are enjoyable. Few will ever know why I write them and how much they trouble me. 'With prayers and warmest regards, 'Montague James'

This was rather fascinating and, as at that time I lived at Swaffham not far from Roundhay, I resolved to go and have a look for myself. Something must have given the two old birds a bit of a fright, which amused me rather, and anyway the postcard of the village suggested that it might still be pretty if there had not been too much modernisation.

Exploring the villages in the vicinity of Swaffham (I lived there while I worked for J.W. Walker) was always interesting. The uplands of north Norfolk are surprisingly lonely and in places very beautiful. There are many quiet unspoilt towns and villages, the undulating pastures between them are abundantly fertile, and the quiet meandering roads ideal for exploring whether on foot, by bicycle, or in the motor-car. It was a good hunting ground for organs too - a good Hill at East Dereham; Snetzlers at Sculthorpe and Hillington, and the splendid little organ by Hooghuys of Ghent built for Sir John Sutton at West Tofts, and now on the gallery of the church at South Pickenham.

A few months after my trip to Birmingham, I resolved to visit Roundhay. I found, from the one-inch Ordnance map, that it was only about seven or eight miles north of Swaffham, beyond Castle Acre, and so it was on a Saturday in June of 1989 that I arrived in the village.

To my delight it was still very much as in the postcard. The High Street, of irregular width and flanked with houses of many different periods, rose gently from south to north. At the north end of the village, the street was spanned by a gateway, probably 13th century, which marked the edge of the 'Round Hay' or 'round enclosure' that gave the village its name (and which in former times surrounded not just the Parish Church, but also the castle - of which only fragments now remain). I walked through the gate towards the church yard, in which stood no less than eight massive Yew trees.

The tower of the church, which may at one time have formed part of the fortification of the adjoining castle, was a splendid great lump of flint and rubble, with long-and-short work on the corners (which made me suspect a Saxon origin) a Norman west door with some weathered carving, and later openings at the upper level leading towards battlements restored by a more recent hand. The body of the building was large but plain, again largely flint, with decorated windows and a clerestory rising above the low-roofed aisles.

Having armed myself with a key procured from the village shop (according to instructions pinned to the notice-board in the lych-gate) I entered by the south porch.

Surrounded by the circle of huge trees, the church was not especially well lit. There were shafts of sunlight here and there on the south side, but these mostly served to throw the rest of the interior into the shadows, and the interior was damp. I will not attempt a full description as it is not relevant to my story, but suffice it to say that there was a good, very early, rough-hewn circular font, a fine hammer-beam roof with carvings of angels, a number of good monuments (many celebrating various members of the de Pavilly family who once occupied Roundhay Castle and later Roundhay House), and much evidence of an extensive restoration at the turn of the twentieth century.

I did not look at any of these features in great detail, because I was dressed for a summer's day and the church felt surprisingly cold. Instead I immediately decided to have a look at the organ, which stood on the north side of the chancel. It appeared exactly as in Freeman's stereoscopic view, and was no less lugubrious for being encountered at first hand. It appeared to be out of use, for the organ bench was thick with dust. The doors to the attached console were locked.

I stood back to try and hazard a guess at the contents of the case. Yes, it appeared to be an organ of about 1905, with zinc front pipes, and in this part of the world almost certainly from the Norwich factory of Norman & Beard. But then, just as I was about to give up and leave the church, I stopped in my tracks. Most of the case was, indeed, turn-of-the-century, but the pipe shades in the two side-towers were older. In fact they were very, very old indeed.

I shone my pocket torch up into the shadows of the chancel rafters to try and see more. The carvings were of stylised animals, perhaps even dragons or snakes, surrounded by simple foliage. They were made of oak, and the style was decidedly reminiscent of the shades surviving on the Dallam case at Tewkesbury, or even those on the sixteenth-century organ at Old Radnor. I was dumfounded, for as far as I knew Freeman had never mentioned these carvings in any of his books or articles, and yet they certainly looked as though they had come from an old organ.

I climbed onto the organ bench to see if I could see any more, and as I did so my eye was caught by an engraved brass plate screwed just under the impost moulding.

'This instrument, including some fragments of the ancient organ of this church, erected by the munificence of Sir John de Pavilly, Bart., August 1907'

This was in itself intriguing, for a tablet to the same gentleman on the opposite wall of the chancel indicated that he had died only a few weeks after the completion of the organ, in November the same year.

I peered in amongst the front pipes just in case there was anything unusual. There were the inside pipes of a small Great Organ typical of the period - three unisons, a principal and a four-foot flute - and just behind, with no visible access for tuning, a shutter front indicating the swell. However - here was something odd! - there were some trackers running up the front of the organ, immediately behind the front pipes, about two octaves' worth. I couldnÂșt see where they went or what they were for so I decided to remove a pipe from the central flat.

Well, what I saw certainly excited further interest, for the trackers led to a tiny chest in the position where in a much older organ one might find a mounted cornet. On it were a number of very odd looking pipes, almost completely black with age, and very irregular in shape. This certainly warranted further investigation.

I glanced down to make sure of my footing as I lifted the pipe down to the ground, and as I did so I noticed a small rusty key sitting in the dust between the feet of the front pipes. Ah! - a common trick for hiding an organ key! I put the pipe safely to one side, and climbed up again for the key. Having got it, I was now able to open the console.

Yes: Norman & Beard of Norwich, 1907 - and in almost every way typical. Good quality manufacture, a rather unadventurous stoplist with no two-foots and just an Oboe on the Swell as the only reed. However, there was a third manual, of only twenty-five notes starting at middle c and ending at top c, which appeared to have no stops of its own. '....some fragments of the ancient organ....', I read again on the brass escutcheon. Could it really be that a handful of valuable ancient pipes remained in this organ, operated from a little keyboard of their own?

At once I climbed back up to have a closer look at the battered pipes on their tiny mounted chest - heavens above! - one of them was actually embossed! - and on another appeared traces of gilding! - and what a peculiar narrow scale! - and was it a trick of the light, or were they actually slightly flared towards the top?

I reached up to try and remove one from its rack, but in my excitement I has not noticed the fact that I was very near to the end of the bench, and I fell. It was very lucky I did not hurt myself seriously, but as it was I landed across the back of a pew, and my head was catapulted to the stone floor and I was - as became obvious later - knocked unconscious.

I awoke from a dream - the contents of which I will describe later - in a most agitated state. I was probably suffering from concussion, and the effects of my fall; the fact that I was now somewhere I did not recognise with people I did not know made me quite alarmed. I jumped up - but within a few moments kind voices and soothing hands encouraged me to rest again, and it was quickly explained that I was in the Rectory and that a doctor was present. The lady in the village shop - from whom I had borrowed the key - had become alarmed at the fact that I had not returned after an hour or so, and had gone to the church and found me, from whence I had been carried across the road by the Rector and his gardener.

Once it had become clear that I was not seriously injured and was quite lucid, the Rector was left alone with me. I introduced myself, apologised for my foolishness and for my presumption in removing a pipe from the organ, and explained as clearly as I could why I was so interested.

The Rector stared at me for a few moments, and then spoke to me. I remember clearly what he said, for he was both clear and definite in tone.

'Mr. Bicknell, I understand completely why you are so interested in our organ, but I must insist that you make no further investigation of the instrument. I have replaced the missing pipe myself, and have closed the console, and have taken away the key. As you may have seen from the inscription on the organ, it was given by Sir John de Pavilly in 1907. He died in most tragic circumstances very shortly after and, for reasons which I am not at liberty to explain, he left express instructions both on his deathbed and in his will that the organ was never to be played, nor even unlocked. His wishes are most rigorously upheld by members of his family and by myself, as they were by Canon Bartleby, my immediate predecessor.'

I moved as though to raise an objection, but he interrupted me at once with a glare:

'I am afraid there can be no further discussion about it.'

Having said his piece, he relaxed, and a most welcome cup of tea was brought in by his wife, who was charming, and I also began to relax, and there were some home-made biscuits that were really exceptionally good. I was most civilly looked after and, in due course, the rector and his wife drove me home - in convoy on the way back, the rector's wife driving me in their car, and the rector behind in mine (just in case the effects of the fall should affect my control of a vehicle).

Just before they dropped me off at my house in Swaffham - and it really was very kind of them to take so much trouble after I had intruded and imposed - the rector's wife pressed a little old book into my hand.

'Do have a look at this', she said, 'I think you will find it quite helpful, and when you have finished with it you can pop it back to us in the post'. I shook hands with the Rector before he parted.

'Tell me', he asked, 'you didn't actually touch any of the old pipes inside the organ, did you?' I thought it an odd question but, as I had not done so, I was able to give a reply in the negative, and he seemed relieved, and drove off.

The book I had been lent was a bound-up version of what used once to be called a 'Penny Dreadful', a popular broadsheet from the nineteenth century. These often relate supposedly true stories of a sensational nature, usually with illustrations. They were inflammatory little documents, which hid their brazen contents behind a lot of flowery language and a sudden turn of moral rectitude towards the end; they satisfied, during a famously prudish period, that taste for the salacious to which we all sometimes find ourselves drawn.

And the title? 'The Roundhay Worm' - written by Elhanan Prout, and published by him in 1819 at the sign of the Cross Keys, Swaffham. The tale? - an ancient local legend of a great worm (for which we would now normally read 'dragon'), which terrorised the people of Roundhay at some time in the distant past, descending on them especially at times of music and festivity, and carrying away small children and other defenceless individuals, and generally eating only their heads. It was eventually chased away by brave members of the de Pavilly family and by exorcism, and troubled the village no more. The apparently well-informed Elhanan Prout had a few words to add to the legend:

'To this day', he wrote, 'the good people of Roundhay are so superstitious of this tale that they will not be induced to sing, or to dance, or to play music of any kind within the confines of the great round enclosure or Hay, and this is a most odd fact, for within in the boundary stands the grand old Parish Church, which is therefore forever devoid of musical accompaniment to its services, and at which, from time immemorial, the psalms &c are said, not sung. It is further said that, during the time of Queen Mary, when the Papists were in the ascendant and there were moves afoot to introduce organs into churches, that an organ was built at Roundhay, but that the worm at once returned, though some said it was mere phantasie or the effects of intoxication upon persons ensible to its effects or to suggestion, and that, as soon as Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, the organ was taken down again and the parts of it melted down for pots or broken and burntÂș.

Well, all this would have seemed conventional enough - a local legend with much symbolic meaning. The 'worm' of course would represent pre-Christian practices of worship, perhaps associated with pagan festivals in the round enclosure at the top of the village, driven away by the arrival of Christianity, represented for the purposes of the legend by the de Pavilly family, who were Normans. The subsequent tale about the organ - likely based in fact - was merely typical of incidents all over the country in the mid sixteenth century, which culminated round 1570 in the widespread destruction of organs all over the British Isles as part of the new Puritan backlash against practices seen as tainted with papism and idolatry.

I say that this would have seemed conventional enough, but for the nature of the dream which had so troubled me while I lay unconscious after my fall, and which returned in exactly the same form that night, and which still sometimes recurs to this day. The subject is really rather horrible. I am standing in front of an old organ - surely that at Roundhay as it might have been around 1550 - and the carved woodwork is black and the elaborately embossed pipes a dull grey. There is music - a strangely turned melody - elaborate, modal, highly ornamented, and sounding as though played by a soloist on the renaissance Cornett - that bow-shaped woodwind instrument fitted with a brass mouthpiece. Then the organ slowly melts and the centre opens, and there is a hole of impenetrable depth, and in the centre of that hole is the worm. The worm is not a dragon at all, but most decidedly and horribly a worm. It is white, and blind, and as it comes towards me it appears to be enormous, and its mouth is gaping, and there are many rows of teeth.

And then I wake. The first time I woke from that dream I was in the Rectory at Roundhay. The second time I was in my own bed in Swaffham some twelve hours later. My bedroom window was open and banging in the wind and a full moon shone dolefully through the curtains. I had the dream again last night - yes, it was a full moon again - and felt that I had at last to relate the story as far as I could tell it.

There is one further addendum, for quite recently I had an opportunity to visit Herbert Norman, late of Norman & Beard, who is now ninety-four, to listen to certain reminiscences of his regarding another matter on which I am currently working. I asked him casually if he new anything about Roundhay.

'Now that was an odd story', he said at once, 'for my father told me that when that organ was built in 1907 there were some very old pipes in the village belonging to an old woman, and also some old carving. The architect at the time was interested in music, and the organ was given by old Sir John de Pavilly, who was an educated man, and it was agreed that these were to be incorporated in some way, and my father was instructed to put the carving in the case and prepare a little short-compass keyboard for the pipes. The organ caused no end of trouble in the factory, for there were two quite bad accidents when it was being put up, one chap fell off a ladder and broke his head, and another in the mill put his hand across a saw and lost it, but it was probably all a coincidence. Anyway, the old woman was eccentric and difficult and she refused to allow the pipes to leave her sight until the organ was ready in the church to receive them, and when eventually they were put in by our man installing the job, after he had finished tuning the rest, he had a stroke or a fit or something and died on the spot. Then, within a couple of days, Sir John de Pavilly, who played the organ a little and whose new toy it was, he was taken very ill indeed and apparently had terrible fits of delirium. He insisted that the organ should be shut up and left unused - and then he died too! Then no-one could find the old woman, each thinking that the other had taken a note of her address, and she did not reappear to explain herself or where the pipes had been found. It was all very strange. That was the last we heard of it, and I have often wondered what happened to the organ after that.'

I did not tell Mr. Norman either about my visit to Roundhay, nor about the legend of the worm, nor about my dream.

Stephen Bicknell