10. The Peaks and the Plague!

Roaming through the Derbyshire countryside, we made our way to Chesterfield for breakfast and a quick walk through the market. At this point we were both in hayfever/spring cold hell and needed meds stat! Our real search was for a pharmacy, so we wandered Chesterfield city center in search of something to turn off the constant flow from our noses. 

Chesterfield's claim to fame is the 14th century crooked spire of it's parish church- many myths surround the crooked and leaning tower, the funniest one being a legend that says that a virgin once married in the church, and the church was so surprised that the spire turned around to look at the bride. My favorite tale is of course the most gothic of the folktales surrounding it. The story goes that the devil was running amok and causing mischief in Chesterfield. In his dalliances he seated himself atop the spire and wrapped his tail around it. The townspeople rang the bells to scare the devil away and when he jumped off to get away from the noise his tail was still wrapped around the spire causing it to twist and lean. The real reason is of course far more mundane. It is thought that the twisting and leaning is caused by the lead on the tower being heated on the south side from the sun's rays. This expands the lead at a faster rate on that side than on the north side. This results in unequal expansion and contraction, as well as putting added weight on the spire's bracing which was not designed for the weight of the lead- hence the lean.  But let's be honest, we aren't here for a leaning, crooked spire, we're really here for the majesty of the high peaks and the fascinating tale of a plague village. 

This was my second visit to the Peak District, specifically the part in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, and there is just something about it that makes me feel at home. The hills and peaks feel familiar, which I mentioned in a previous post about the Peak District in 2016. To quote myself, "The landscape was starting to resemble something familiar but so different. Charming stone cottages and pubs replaced modern wooden and stucco homes in my mind, but I felt like it was a landscape I could find my way in." I still feel this way two years later. 

I would love to take a walking holiday in the High Peaks, disappear with Daniel into the wilderness and pop back up again in some village to have tea for two. The Peak District is made for walking, for exploration, for communing with yourself and maybe some wild bunnies. Our car wound through narrow, winding roads but also wide open high spaces where you could see in all directions for miles. We saw ramblers with their large walking sticks and rucksacks out for day hikes and wished we were them. 

We were on our way to Chatsworth House, but made good time driving through the countryside so we decided to quickly detour to the village of Eyam (pronounced Eem). I've been fascinated with Eyam since I read the novel, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks in 2001- it is a fictionalized account of the very real events of 1665/1666 when The Great Plague came to the tiny village of Eyam. The plague nearly decimated the small village in the 14 months that the illness ran its course. According to most sources I could find, less than 25% of its population was left at the beginning of November 1666 when the last infected villager died. (One source: the Royal Society Publishing, Biological Sciences has different numbers. They estimate the village as having a population of 689 before the plague, death toll of 257, with 432 surviving, giving the percentage at 63% surviving. The majority of the other sources I found list the pre-plague population as 350, with 260 dying and 83 surviving.)


When the plague arrived in the village in late summer 1665 it was a silent killer. Hiding in a bale of damp cloth sent from London the infected fleas within unleashed the infection on the unsuspecting residents. The plague had been sweeping through London for months before arriving on the door of Alexander Hadfield, Tailor of Eyam, and I imagine the villagers felt far removed from the panic and chaos of the city so very many miles away. The tailor's assistant George Viccars was the unlucky one who opened the parcel, and was dead from the disease within a week, making him the village's very first victim. By the end of 1665, 42 villagers had died from the pestilence. Fear was spreading through the community- many residents were talking about fleeing their homes and Eyam to try to save themselves from the death that was surrounding them and taking their neighbors in ever higher numbers. 

The story of Eyam is remarkable in that the villagers and their leaders eventually made the heroic decision to quarantine themselves to stop the spread of the almost always fatal illness- (without modern treatment the disease kills 30-90% of those infected). When the villagers reluctantly agreed to the quarantine they were almost certainly facing death, for to quarantine themselves meant they were trapped with pestilence. The rules that the Rev. William Mompesson, with the help of the former Rev. Thomas Stanley, enforced were absolutely genius in a time when communicable diseases and the spreading of them was not understood. First, he decided to move church services out of the cramped parish church to the open, natural amphitheater called Cucklett Delph. This allowed the parishioners to spread out and households stayed in groups away from each other- thus lessening physical contact amongst the residents. Second, families were required to bury their own dead in their yards or on their own land. This rule seems cruel but I can understand why it was imposed. Again, Mompesson was trying to lessen the contact between residents. Even in 1666 they knew to bury their dead quickly when the person died of the plague. They also knew to try to have as little contact with the infected corpse as possible. They wouldn't have known why, but instinct must have informed their decision and also just the practical reason of smell. Plague victims begin to decay even while still alive so if nothing else the surviving members of the household would want to rid their homes of horrible smell.

The third rule and the one that I've already mentioned: the voluntary quarantine. A boundary stone and a well were used as exchange places with neighboring villages. Money in the form of coins was left in drilled holes of the boundary stone and the well of Mompassen's Well. The money was then submerged in vinegar which was thought to disinfect the coins. In exchange the villagers of Stoney Middleton and the Duke of Devonshire (who resided at nearby Chatsworth House) would leave food and medicine. Again, Mompassen was smart to come up an idea that allowed the healthy occupants to receive food and the sick to receive medicine but restricting human to human contact with the people of Stoney Middleton thereby controlling the spread of the disease. 

Stoney Middleton

The people of Eyam had real faith and truly believed in their self sacrifice as the months went by of their self imposed quarantine. People continued to die at an alarming rate but August of 1666 saw the highest death toll. 78 people died in the month of August alone, and still the villagers honored their pledge and stayed within the boundaries of the village. I would hope that I would be that brave and selfless, to be surrounded by death on all sides and ignore the urge of self preservation and not to sneak away in the night. 8 people died on August 13th alone- that had to be frightening to witness.You  never knew who was next or truly how it was contracted. The villagers must have felt like sitting ducks, never knowing if they were in the sites of a hunter's gun. 

It was clear by the second week of November 1666 that the plague had run its course and the people of Eyam were free from the terror of the previous 14 months. With modern science it has come to light that many of the surviving villagers carried a gene which made them immune to the effects of Yersinia pestis bacterium, the bacteria which causes bubonic plague, also called The Black Death. This gene, CCR5 gene Delta 32 has been passed down through the generations and direct descendants of the original plague survivors carry this gene to this day. I find this so fascinating! 

We parked our car at the Hawkhill Road car park and found a path to walk towards the hills where Daniel thought he remembered the boundary stone being. He had been to Eyam once before as a child on a school trip so his memory was a bit foggy. Because our trip to Eyam was spontaneous I hadn't researched where the boundary stone or well was at all. I'd also long ago run out of cellular data on my phone and it was costing a whopping 25cents a minute and that was adding up quickly, so I dared not turn it on to check where these things were. I turned it on for like 30 seconds to quickly download a map and instructions to the boundary stone and then shut the phone off. Those instructions were the most confusing things ever, and Daniel is really good with directions and maps! That's saying a lot!! For some reason he kept saying that it was near the church, which it definitely isn't, but he was pretty adamant about that. So, we set off wandering. Eventually we came to an area where the houses and roads seemed to stop. There was a large group of school children with backpacks and sensible walking shoes, so we decided it was best to follow them. Where there are large groups of children with 2 adults there is likely an educational walk happening and it's best to follow. 

Walking along the path from the car park

We walked along behind the school group for awhile but then looked at our watches and realized we needed to head back to the car. I felt quite deflated that we hadn't seen the boundary stone- I know we couldn't have been to far from it. Upon researching when we got access to wifi later that day, it turns out we had been following the children to the Riley Graves. I haven't mentioned the Riley Graves before because the story is just so tragic but I feel as though I can't write a post about Eyam being the Plague Village and not mention Elizabeth Hancock and her tragedy. 

The Hancock family lived on the Riley Farm about a half mile outside of town. They had managed to stay safe from the plague until their immediate neighbors, the Talbots became ill in July 1666. Elizabeth is said to have helped the Talbot family as one after the other they died, leaving no one but Catherine Talbot, a babe of only a few months old. Elizabeth Hancock took in the baby by July 31st, possibly introducing the plague into her house. The Hancock family may have been exposed already by this point but taking in baby Catherine sealed their fate. By August 3rd, three of the Hancock family were exhibiting signs of the plague- 2 of whom died in the early hours of that day. Over the next eight days Elizabeth Hancock would lose all six of her children and her husband to the disease. Elizabeth had to drag the bodies of her loved ones out on blankets or with towels tied to their ankles to a nearby field where she alone had to dig their graves and bury them. According to the diary of Catherine Mompesson, wife of the Reverend Mompesson the villagers of neighboring Stoney Middleton, who were delivering the supplies to the boundary stone would stop and watch Mrs Hancock in her tragic task. They were too afraid to come to her aid and so just stood witness to the tragedy. Elizabeth was now alone with little Catherine Talbot, who then died on August 30th. Elizabeth Hancock must have had the Delta 32 gene, her exposure was great but she never contracted the disease. She left Eyam after baby Catherine died, breaking the pledge of quarantine and stealing away to her only surviving child- a grown son living in Sheffield. Fortunately she did not bring the plague with her when she left Eyam and nothing more is known of her. I can't imagine what it must have been like to live out the rest of her life with this tragedy stored away in her memory bank. 


With this sad tale yet to be learned we made our way back to our car with just enough time to get to Chatsworth House for our tour. I reluctantly dragged my feet a bit and left without finding the boundary stone or viewing the Riley Graves. I will say, Eyam is just lovely- it's worth visiting even if it wasn't the Plague Village. I'd really like to return one day and take more time to wander and just enjoy the place for what it is- but if fate doesn't return me to Eyam I'm glad I had the time that I did. 

Leaving the High Peaks



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