It was a beautiful day, and our first port of call on the weekend workshop was the picturesque Derbyshire village of Eyam which nestles within the shelter or moorland hills. With its mellow stone, quaint cottages spanning centuries of architecture, a medieval church and the riotous colour of its cottage gardens, it should be the perfect place to spend a pleasant afternoon… but we had other ideas and Eyam is a village with a long history and a story to tell.
On the moors above Eyam are a number of barrows and ruined stone circles, almost lost beneath the heather and bracken, attesting to a living presence in this area since before recorded history. With views across to Higger Tor and Carl Wark, which we had visted on a previous workshop, there is little doubt that these sites were linked to the wider landscape, both mundane and sacred.
The Romans mined lead beneath the spot that grew into a village and many caverns and mines are still being explored by cavers… with names like Merlin Mine and Carlwark Cavern adding to the sense of mystery.
The village of Eyam, though, was founded by the Anglo-Saxons, who called it Aium, which comes from the Old English word for ‘island’. It was to become a prophetic name, as Eyam is best known for its role and reaction to the outbreak of bubonic plague that struck the village in 1665.
Bales of flea-infested cloth are thought to have brought the disease to the village; the tailor, Alexander Hadfield, had ordered materials from plague-ridden London, where, by August of that year, ten thousand people a week were dying of the plague, according to the St Paul’s Broadsheet…which also contained adverts for astrologers, coffins and dubious remedies.
A previous outbreak of bubonic plague during the fourteenth century, known as the Black Death, is estimated to have killed around a hundred million people worldwide. The disease, untreatable in the days before antibiotics, was justly feared and almost all who caught it died a swift and painful death.
The bale of cloth from London was opened by Hadfield’s assistant, George Viccars, who took ill and quickly died, followed by his stepsons and Hadfield himself. The disease spread rapidly, claiming seventy-eight lives in one month alone. Figures vary widely, but it is certain that between a third and three quarters of the villagers died. To a village of just a few hundred souls, this was a shocking loss.
Not all who came into close contact with the disease contracted it. This may be due to a genetic anomaly, still present in villagers today, that renders them immune to the plague. Helen Jones, who was with us on the weekend, pointed us in the direction of new research that suggests the mutant gene, known as Delta 32, increases the body’s immune system and may yet prove to be effective against AIDS and other virulent diseases.
But back in 1665, such glimmers of hope were few and far between. Measures were taken to try and limit the spread of the plague and it is these measures that have earned the village a place in history. Villagers buried their own dead. All church services and gatherings were moved to a field, Cucklett Delph, so that no-one needed to come into close contact with each other, yet the life of the community could continue, at some level at least.
The village, at the urging of Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, then placed itself under strict quarantine to contain the infection. The Earl of Devonshire, lord of Chatsworth, along with other local notables, ensured the village was supplied with the necessities of survival. Goods were left at the boundary stones and wells, some of which still survive, and still have the depressions that were filled with vinegar to sterilise coins left in payment.
In the early days of the infection, before the quarantine was self-imposed, many who had the means to do so had left the village. Rev. Mompesson and his wife, Catherine, chose to stay, offering what comfort, succour and guidance they could. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak and is buried outside the church.
The decisions taken by the villagers saved many neighbouring villages from the horror of the plague but we wanted to explore how they must have felt as they cut themselves off from the outside world and watched their loved ones sicken and die, one after the other, never knowing who would be next.
Even today, with the tourist focus on Eyam’s history, a heavy pall of darkness seems to cling to the village. As is so often the case with human tragedy, the outer appearance masks a deeper pain. Walking the pretty street towards the church, we all felt the weight of sorrow… a kind of psychic uncleanliness that modern interest is helping to perpetuate as so many hearts and minds relive the horror felt by parents who watched their children die a horrible death, couples who imagine the death of a partner and children the loss of their parents.
It does no good to bury your head in the sand when disaster strikes, nor does it help to deny or ignore tragedies of the past… such things are part of who we are and will become. But to dwell upon them, constantly reliving them and reanimating the associated emotions, keeps the past all too present.
Such grief, fear and hopelessness … and yet, somehow, when the plague had struck, the villagers of Eyam had found a way to turn from their own despair and had chosen to serve a greater good, protecting the people of their land from the horror that was to decimate their own village. Perhaps this tragic episode in history had something to teach about how we could transmute our own fears?