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A Plague on all your Houses
Eyam Village (Derbyshire, England)
Member Name: SWSt
Eyam Village (Derbyshire, England)
Advantages: A touching tale around every corner, hasn't sold out to tourism
Disadvantages: Involves a lot of walking; needs nice weather
Eyam in Derbyshire is an unlikely tourist destination, yet every year it attracts thousands of people. Although it is a picturesque little village in the heart of Derbyshire that has existed in some form or other as a settlement since Roman times, its notoriety ultimately derives from a period of roughly fifteen months in the late 17th century.
A Quick History Lesson
During the summer of 1665, a resident of Eyam received a package of cloth from London. Finding the cloth to be damp on its arrival, he hung it in front of the fire to dry. This awakened some dormant plague bacteria in the cloth and within a week, he was dead. As the plague ravaged the village, the local Rector, William Mompesson persuaded many of the villagers to shut themselves off from the outside world to prevent spreading the disease to the rest of Derbyshire. This brave decision was a death sentence for many of the villagers as, over the course of September 1665-November 1666, many succumbed to the disease. It is estimated that out of a pre-plague population of around 350 (some put it higher), around 80 survived.
Although only a small village, Eyam is highly accessible. It sits in the centre of the Peak District and is easy to reach from Sheffield, Manchester or other parts of Derbyshire. Probably the easiest route is to head towards Bakewell on the A6, following the signs to Stony Middleton and then to Eyam. The approach to Eyam is up a steep hill, but all the roads are well maintained and should offer no problems for anyone in a car.
On arrival in Eyam, you will be directed to one of two car parks at the upper end of the village. The first is a pay and display one which costs (on average) about a pound an hour. However, literally next door is a free car park and I'd advise trying here first. The only downside is that both car parks are relatively small and at the peak of summer, I suspect that parking could be an issue.
The most pleasing thing about Eyam today is that although it is a significant tourist attraction it has not sold out to the tourist dollar (or pound, Euro or yen). Its development has been well-managed so that it can continue to function as both a village community and a tourist site. Places and buildings of significance are clearly identified by green plaques which are easy to spot and contain information about the history of that particular building, whilst a number of well-written information boards are posted throughout the village. Many relate to the plague year, although there are a few that point out the historical significance of other buildings, reminding visitors that Eyam is not just about the plague. It has not sold out or become "Disney-fied" and has managed to strike a good balance between tourist spot and local community.
Things to see
It is the terrifying, yet touching story of the plague that will attract most visitors and there are a number of well-maintained sites to visit. A map (obtainable from the tourist information point in the village) is essential to make sure you don't miss anything out as the sites are scattered throughout the village.
These include the Riley Graves (see below), the boundary stone and Mompesson's Well, which marked the area beyond which villagers could not go and where food was left for them by the outside world. The church, too, is well worth visiting. Inside, there is a memorial book which records the names and dates of death of all known victims. This really brings home the personal impact of the disease. The church also contains some a fascinating and very well-written display providing background information about the plague in Eyam and which combines general information with more personal, touching stories.
Don't be too quick to just look at these items and go, though, since the church itself - regardless of its plague connection - is a beautiful building and well worth taking time to look around.
Almost everywhere you go in Eyam, there is a tragic story. Cottages bear plaques indicating who lived and died there. Many families lost significant numbers (including one poor woman who lost her husband and all her children, only to remarry and see her new husband succumb to the disease.) Then, there is the case of the Hancock family, where the mother was the sole survivor, having to bury her six children and husband over a period of just seven days. Their graves (the Riley Graves) can still be seen on the outskirts of the village and are a poignant reminder of the terrible fate of some of the villagers.
When I arrived at Eyam, I thought we would probably spend a maximum of two hours there. In fact, we were there for at least double that and even then we didn't see everything (Eyam Hall was shut for the season when we visited; we also didn't visit the museum). Better still, the whole day cost us virtually nothing: car parking was free, as are most of the sites (only the museum and the Hall charge). Our only expense was some light refreshments from one of the coffee shops. There are not many places where you can experience such a fascinating, inspiring and emotional day for absolutely nothing.
One thing you do need to bear in mind in Eyam is that there is quite a lot of walking involved, as the various plague sites are scattered throughout the village and surrounding area. Many of the key sites (the church, the plague cottage) are clustered in the middle of the village and are easily accessible. A few, though, involve walking across fields or along stony tracks - some of which are up steep hills. This includes Mompesson's Well, the Riley Graves and the Boundary Stone. Although none of the walks are particularly long (the furthest is about 0.5 miles out of the village), they are all in different directions, so you do find yourself backtracking quite a bit. However, given how beautiful the village and the surrounding area are, this is no great hardship, providing you are reasonably fit. Given the nature of the village, you would also be advised to visit Eyam on a nice day, as almost everything you do is outdoors.
Thanks to its historical significance, Eyam can get incredibly busy. As well as being a popular tourist spot, it is also a destination for school trips and even when we went (in mid September) it was packed with schoolchildren and tourists. The good thing is that since there are a variety of sites to visit, you can choose your own route and if one site is busy, you can simply move onto the next one and return later.
Eyam is a deeply moving place to visit and should be on the list of anyone who finds themselves in Derbyshire. It might not be the biggest place in the world, but it is safe to say that it is one that has always fascinated me. Tremendous credit should be given to the Town Council and authorities for successfully managing to maintain a proper sense of village life and community, whilst at the same time making sure this terrible, touching tale is still being remembered almost 350 years on.
© Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: Go there. Now. No matter how far away you live
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