Scones, bells, bubonic plague

Travel Jul 28, 2016

Eyam, Derbyshire, England, 2016.

A veil of morning fog has slowly lifted. Thin light seeps into the village, unmasking 400 year old stone cottages still damp from the overnight condensation. Carved pumpkins sit forlornly on stone walls and limp decorations from last night’s Halloween celebrations hang forlornly from several of the cottages. Wisps of listless smoke meander upwards from small chimneys and disappear amongst the stunning colours of the autumn foliage. Locals say that within a few days most of those leaves will be on the ground as winter gradually overwhelms the trees. Much of the Peak District is swathed in colour at the moment and the village of Eyam (pronounced Eem) is no exception.

The village is relatively quiet, except for the occasional smack of frozen birds plummeting into the pavement and shattering into hundreds of feathery shards. But today, at 10am, the silence of the village and the chill of the air is punctuated by staccato peals of bell-ringing from the ancient church. Jeanne and I are at the church to witness the 6 bell ringers in action. We are their only audience. And they “jam” for over an hour as they work the crowd. An hour of non-stop tugging on a rope! The 6 ringers each have a rope (there are 6 bells, each with a different note) and off they go, changing patterns of rounds regularly. Can you imagine the triceps and biceps working out in an hour? So what was the occasion? I’m glad you asked. Today is the 350th anniversary of the end of the bubonic plague in Eyam. The last villager to die of the black plague in 1666 did so 350 years ago. This is a village which defines itself as a destination due to a disease!

Couldn’t have been catapulted into a more interesting village.

In the 1660s, a tailor in Eyam received a bolt of cloth from London which contained plague carrying fleas. The tailor and his household were infected by the fleas, and unknowingly passed it on through contact with other villagers who gradually succumbed to the plague. There was no known cure in the 1660s and over 260 villagers died, and it is believed about 70 survived. The village of Eyam quarantined itself from nearby unaffected villages. During 1665 and 1666, the church vicar conducted sermons in the open air outside town so that infected people couldn’t spread the plague in the confines of the church. Parishioners had to stand in family groups separated from other families. Families had to bury their own dead. For 14 months, food and supplies were brought up the escarpment from the small village of Stoney Middleton, one mile away, and left at a boundary stone outside Eyam. The Eyam villagers paid for it by leaving coins, which had been sanitized by dipping them in vinegar, at the boundary stone.

But one’s senses can only take so much bell-ringing. After having been worked into a frenzy, the whole crowd exited in two groups, i.e. Jeanne first and me behind her.  Passing the Village Green tea-shop was difficult, and once again we succumbed to scones. They speak to us through shop windows. Alehouses also dogwhistle us. As penance, we undertook a circuitous 6km hike across verdant green pastures and native forests with their underlying carpets of yellow, russet and red foliage, passing moss covered stone fences and inquisitive sheep. We visited the site of the Riley graves where, in 1666, a whole family of 7 was wiped out by the plague within 7 days. Then, descending a steep, rocky path we stumbled into the village of Stoney Middleton and, yes …. its ancient pub, the Moon Inn.  Woohoo… lunch sorted!

But all steep, downward paths must be countered by a steep upward path if one wishes to return. It’s a law of physics. Leaving the Moon Inn we found a track through farmlands which our map indicated should bring us back to Eyam via the boundary stone. Jeanne stepped out ahead and was leading by 20 lengths. Reaching the long, steep climb upwards, the lead gradually became 200 lengths. The handicappers had deemed that I should carry a large cottage pie, side of veges, chips, half of Jeanne’s carrot soup, and a pint of locally brewed bitter. It was no contest, as the lightweight filly, carrying only half a serving of carrot soup and a sprig of parsley, broke from the rest of the field and bolted to the boundary stone where the changeovers of goods and money had occurred 350 years ago. Perhaps she thought there may still be coins there. She is a pensioner after all. The views across the Peak District National park, and other stone villages were sensational. Or so Jeanne said. Sucking for air was my priority.

Each village in the Peak district has a Guy Fawkes bonfire night. Eyam’s bonfire has a very unique twist. Instead of burning a Guy, the villagers of Eyam have a torch procession through the town, past the old stone plague cottages. The local schoolkids carry a large papier-mache rat towards the bonfire while chanting, “Burn the rat! Burn the rat!” As the bonfire reaches its peak, they symbolically rid the village of the plague by tossing the rat onto the fire.

It’ll be sad leaving our little village after a week but there are so many more scones to seek out and destroy.

David Dodd.


Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.