For my birthday, my mum sent me a copy of Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It’s a historical fiction novel based on the true story of an English village as it is ravaged by an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The novel’s setting, the village of Eyam, is a real place in Derbyshire, not too far from where I live in Sheffield. I wouldn’t call this past year one of “wonders”, but as we slowly ease out of the global pandemic, it felt all too apt to visit the Plague Village!
Eyam is a village of less than 1000 people nestled in the Peak District, about a 45-minute drive from Sheffield. It’s exactly what you’d think of when you imagine a historic English village: old stone houses, narrow streets, a parish church. The village also acts as something of a trailhead for public paths and walking trails in the Peaks.
The first thing that we did when we got to Eyam was hike up to Mompesson’s well, a 30 minute walk outside the village proper. Tucked off the side of the road, the well itself is a bit unassuming, but it’s also an important part of the village’s plague history.
1665 was the year of the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England. The plague spread from London to Eyam via a bolt of flea-infested fabric bought by Alexander Hadfield, the local tailor. The first plague victim in the village was the tailor’s live-in assistant, George Viccars. As the disease spread throughout the village, leadership fell upon Reverend William Mompesson. It was under his direction, with the help of former Reverend Thomas Stanley, that the village of Eyam sequestered itself from the outside world. For 14 months, Eyam was under quarantine from the outside world.
Mompesson’s Well, named for the Reverend, acted as one of the many “boundary stones” that surround the village, marking its quarantine limits. These boundary stones were also exchange points where surrounding communities would leave food and supplies for Eyam, to avoid any direct human contact with the villagers. Villagers paid for the supplies by leaving coins in the well (believing that the underground current would wash away the plague), or in small holes filled with vinegar to soak (at the boundary stones).
Walking back into Eyam from the well, we passed the Eyam Museum. Unfortunately, the museum wasn’t open the day that we visited, which was a bit disappointing. It looks like a wonderful museum, curated and run by local volunteers to teach visitors about the village history. This includes Eyam’s plague history, but also the village’s history as a mining town, and a collection of prehistoric artifacts local to the area.
Back along the main street of Eyam are a collection of historic homes known as the Plague Cottages. These homes are marked with plaques that detail their inhabitants in 1665. Many of them are simply lists of the dead, perhaps with a sole survivor left to bury them in the back garden. Home burials, as opposed to a churchyard burial, was another strategy adopted by the villagers of Eyam to reduce the spread of the plague within the village.
Something that I love about England is the connection between past and present. These houses date back to the 17th century, and were infamous in the village as being the origin of Eyam’s plague outbreak. In North America, buildings with this much history would likely be preserved as historic sites, perhaps serving as the local museum or visitor’s centre. Instead, they’re just homes. People live here. This is always what I come back to when I ramble about England: it’s impossible to seperate yourself from the history of where you are, and I think that’s entirely wonderful. It must be a bit strange to have people visiting your village and taking pictures of your home and posting them online as a tourist site, but the household living at the Plague Cottage have embraced it, filling their front garden with an assortment of gnomes, animal figurines, and other kitschy pieces. Eyam’s main street is a lovely walk through the village, and led us to the Coolstone.
The Coolstone is a café and car serving food and drinks in a lovely courtyard that used to be part of Eyam Hall. There is lots of seating if you want to grab a coffee, a pint, or a meal during your visit to Eyam. I got a full English breakfast (brunch?), which was absolutely delicious. Since the village is nestled between Peaks and farmland, the food is locally made and you can tell. The sausages were so flavourful (why are English style sausages so hard to find in Canada?) and the egg yolks were so pigmented they were almost orange. We didn’t have drinks because I had to work in the evening, but there was a large collection of beers and spirits to choose from. Further food and drink options can be found in the village’s square. Here you can find the pub The Miners Arms, the Village Green Café, and the Eyam Tea Rooms.
The last spot in the village that we visited was the Eyam Parish Church and surrounding cemetery. One of my favourite places to explore are cemeteries, particularly those with a long history! The Eyam churchyard is home to an 8th century Anglo-Saxon Cross, as well as gravestones dating from the Plague to the World Wars to the present.
Among the plague graves in the churchyard are those of former Rev. Thomas Stanley, who supported Rev. Mompesson’s decision to isolate the village, and Rev. Mompesson’s wife Catherine Mompesson, who survived until the end but died of the plague shortly before it finished running its course. Many victims of the plague were not buried in the churchyard, as I mentioned earlier. This was another effort by the village to stop the spread of disease: keeping bodies isolated at the property where they died so as not to spread the plague further. The church itself also fell out of use for the later months of the plague years, as church ceremonies were instead held outdoors, in an attempt to quell the disease’s spread.
There are several other points of interest in the Churchyard: an unceremonious headstone marking the deaths of three brothers, all of whom died at sea during the First and Second World Wars. A bed of herbs for public picking, with a sign explaining their medicinal values as used during the plague years. The burial place of a famous cricketer from the turn of the 20th-century.
For being such a small village, there is lots to see and do in Eyam. If we had more time and it were open, I would have liked to visit the museum, but I think we had just enough to do for the amount of time we had to explore the village. It makes for a great daytrip with historical value.
I think my favourite thing about visiting Eyam was learning about the techniques that were implemented to protect the village from the plague, because many of them hold up to contemporary scientific theory. Although the Enlightenment of the 1600s meant an increase in scientific interest and experimentation, there was still minimal understanding of how disease spread (for example, many people believed that the plague spread through miasma, an invisible cloud of poisonous gas that could be thwarted by strong smells). However, many of the strategies that were taken by the Plague village hold up to scientific scrutiny:
- Protective isolation stopped the Plague from spreading from Eyam to the surrounding towns and villages. Quarantine (both individual households and entire cities or countries) was relied upon to slow the spread of Coronavirus in the 2020 outbreak.
- Soaking coins in vinegar would help to disinfect them. As vinegar is acidic, it acts as a mild disinfectant by killing viruses and bacteria. This was used before people even knew what germs were!
- Burying people in their gardens and on their own property reinforced the isolation of disease, and the speed of burial.
- Holding church services outdoors acted as a form of social distancing, another strategy against disease that was utilized during the Covid outbreak.
- Many of the herbs used for their medicinal properties are still relevant in contemporary medicine. Willow bark is one of the most effective herbalist cures that holds up today – it contains salicin, a natural painkiller related to aspirin.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my trip to Eyam! It’s well worth the visit, and put into perspective the sacrifices that were made to quell the spread of disease, both for the villagers of Eyam 400 years ago, and for those of us who have been living through the Coronavirus pandemic these past years. Don’t forget to check out Sam’s blog, Historically Sam, if you’re interested in learning more about English history!