Nestled in the heart of the #PeakDistrict, deep in
the #YorkshireDales lies a small village steeped in an incredible history; one of bravery and outstanding selfishness that led to this small village forever more being known as ‘The Plague Village.’
The name ‘#Eyam’ actually derives from Old English and was first recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 as ‘Alum’ which translates to ‘an island.’ This could potentially refer to it being a spot of cultivable land within the somewhat hospitable surrounding moorlands or otherwise its placement as an island between 2 brooks.
The areas surrounding the village were occupied by Ancient Britons more than 4000 years ago as suggested by the scattering of stone circles and earth barrows in the adjacent moorlands. The most notable of these is ‘Wet Withens Stone Circle’ on Eyam Moor, a Bronze Age stone circle consisting of 10 upright stones and the largest of its kind in Derbyshire. The large number of Roman coins unearthed in the area pointed to the fact Romans used the area for lead mining while the Anglo Saxons settled here around the 5th century AD.
The landscapes surrounding the village are awash with ancient landmarks and locations, you can really get a sense of the history as you wander around the area. The present parish church (St Lawrence) dates back to the 14th century although as the windows, font and pillars date back to Saxon and Norman times there may well have been a church occupying this site long before. The Merican style cross occupying the graveyard is 8th century and covered in complex, and somewhat magically mesmerising carvings.
Mining has played a significant part in the history of Eyam throughout the millennia with the last mine (Ladywash) closing in 1979. It is fascinating to think that within a 3-mile radius of the village there are 439 mines known to exist, many of which run beneath Eyam itself.
While the history of Eyam spans thousands of years, it’s a more recent history for which it found its fame.
In 1665 a local tailor, Alexander Hadfield, received a bundle of cloth from London. Unbeknownst to his assistant George, who unpacked the damp cloth and set it to dry in front of the fire, it was infested with fleas. In no time at all George, followed by his stepsons and immediate neighbours, was found dead. The Black Death has arrived in Eyam.
The Bubonic Plague spread rapidly throughout the small village in the Autumn months that followed, although the spread slowed slightly in the winter months it returned in the spring and summer with an added vigour reaching its peak in August 1666, where it claimed the lives of 78 people in a single month.
During the 14 months the plague coursed through the village, 273 lives were lost - more than 30% of the village's population of 800. (Some accounts however suggest that the village's population at the time was around 350 leaving only 83 survivors behind.)
The town turned to their religious leaders William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley for guidance in those horrifying times. The Reverand persuaded his people that to flee would mean spreading the plague to neighbouring villages, in order to save the lives of many others they would need to quarantine from the rest of the country and remain locked in Eyam. Astonishingly the villagers agreed and from May 1666 numerous precautions were introduced to limit the spread of the disease (some of which may seem quite familiar to us today.)
Families were required to bury their own dead, close to their own homes as opposed to on consecrated ground. They believed that a quick burial would limit the spread and so with the exception of the Reverend's wife, there are no graves belonging to plague victims in the church graveyard.
Church services were relocated to Cucklett Delph, a natural limestone amphitheatre, allowing the congregation to remain distanced from each other and thus reduce the spread. The Delph is also said to have been the secret meeting place of two sweethearts in love. Emmott Sydall from Eyam and Rowland Torre from a neighbouring village would meet at Cucklett Delph and call out to each other before, heartbreakingly, Emmott succumbed to the plague.
As mentioned, the most famous precaution taken by its populace was to quarantine the village itself, to limit the spread of the disease beyond its boundaries. They were supported by numerous charitable neighbours including the Earl of Devonshire, who helped to provide the community with the necessities it needed to survive. One of the boundary stones on edge of the village can still be seen today between Eyam and Stony Middleton, it was one of several stones which marked the ‘no cross’ point for villagers and outsiders. These markers were used as exchange points where outsiders would leave goods and supplies in exchange for money placed in vinegar, to kill the pestilence.
Perhaps even more interesting than the village’s story of selfless isolation is how a small number of the community, who were in direct contact with the plague, did not succumb to it themselves. The village gravedigger, for example, Marshall Howe avoided infection completely as did Elizabeth Hanock, who buried her husband and 6 children within just 8 days but remained free of the plague herself. The Riley graves on the outskirts of the village mark the site where she buried her family.
It has since come to light that there is a particular chromosome that protected these villagers from death itself. This same chromosome is still present in the direct descendants of those who survived, and they still live in Eyam today keeping their ancestors legacy alive throughout the centuries since.
Eyam today is truly a Picture Perfect Peak District Village, very much proud of its history as well as its bright future. On the last day of August each year, Plague Sunday is celebrated at Cucklett Depth to commemorate their brave forebears and remember their sacrifice. Many of the stone cottages scattered throughout the village have markers denoting their previous residents, who fell victim to the plague. The village Museum tells the stories not only of the Plague Village but the miners, spinners, weavers, villagers and literary minds who called Eyam home.
Those wanting to visit the village today and explore its history are well-advised to visit the Miner’s Arms, the village’s only pub. It was built in 1630 (before the Black Death came to Eyam) and was originally called The King’s Arms. The Inn was renamed in 1762, commemorating the numerous meetings the mine owners used to hold under its roof. Today it is a wonderfully quaint pub, restaurant and B and B, although it is supposedly haunted. The ghosts of 2 young girls who died in a fire on the site before the Inn was built are said to frequent the Inn along with an ex landlady who, murdered by her husband, is said to roam the corridors at night making rustling noises in her old fashioned dress.
Jacobean Style Eyam Hall was built in the years following the plague and, having been home to the Wright family for more than 11 generations, after a brief lease by the National Trust, is now back in the hands of the family. Its courtyard is made up of old farm buildings adjacent to the hall in the centre of the village and The Coolstone, a bar café and restaurant built in the old stables is definitely worth a visit. The ancient set of stocks in the centre of the village green are also unmissable for anyone who enjoys a little piece of macabre history.
For a little village of fewer than 1000 people, Eyam has history, stories and local tales in abundance. It’s the perfect stopover if you’re hiking in the area and the ideal place to explore the past, enjoy some downtime and embark on your next adventure.