A village sacrifice

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Eyam welcomes visitors now but preserves the pathos of its isolation during the plague in the 17th century, says Kevin Berry

Let me say it plain. Here we are and here we must stay." When the Great Plague came to Eyam in Derbyshire in 1665 - brought by plague-carrying fleas in a parcel of cloth sent from London to an Eyam tailor - villagers were persuaded by their rector, William Mompesson, to stay in Eyam rather than spread the disease to other villages and the rest of the county.

The rector arranged for food and other provisions to be left at two collection points - Mompesson's Well and the Boundary Stone - on the edges of the village. Some villagers did flee, but the majority stayed on. Their stories are harrowing but are ready testament to a remarkable episode of self-sacrifice.

Seven members of Mrs Hancock's family died, and she was seen dragging them out to the field next to her house to bury them; Jane Hawkesworth survived the plague but lost 24 relatives; and young Emmott Sydall kept in touch with her sweetheart, Roland, from the next village, by waving to him, but eventually died of the disease. Roland lived on to an old age but never married.

The Eyam story continues to have tremendous power today. Some schools have been making annual visits to the village for more than a generation, with many children returning, in adulthood, with their own families A young girl buying a story pamphlet from the church book stall today, and struggling to explain how moved she is, says, "I'm taking this back for my Dad, because I don't think he'll believe me."

Eyam, to its great credit, is anything but sombre. But its tragic past lives on in the minds of the young. "Yes, yes I if we cough, the children take a few steps back," says one affable gent I meet at the post office. "They sometimes look at me as if I'm about to fall over!" There is plenty to visit in the Derbyshire village. Eyam Hall, a home fairly dripping with interest, was built after the plague and provides some welcome relief from body counts and talk of death. The hall has been lived in by members of the same family - the Wrights - for over 300 years. Walls are lined with portraits, so the family features can be traced through the generations, and photograph albums stretching back to the 1850s add extra interest. The presence of a "live-in" family makes for delicious incongruities, such as an impressive four-poster bed with an electric tea-maker next to it. The rooms have many of the "Hey, look at this" things children will remember: a harpsichord with its keys darkened so that ladies could show off their milky white hands and a glorious "pop-up" anatomy book published in 1675.

Eyam Parish Church, where William Mompesson preached, has a permanent exhibition and many artefacts from the plague years and is close to the cottages where the plague first struck. Each cottage has a prominent notice with a list of the plague dead - and each cottage is still lived in.

Boundary Stone and Mompesson's Well, the sites where food and provisions were left, are still intact but visiting both will take up a lot of walking time, so it's best to pay a call on just the one The plague years take much of the space at Eyam Museum. Colourful new story boards were introduced last year, and they include one depicting a man with huge plague sores, clearly on his deathbed. My guide, Dr John Beck, explains its presence. "We had some primary schoolchildren round. And they said - 'Great, but there are no dead bodies!' So we decided to get one."

Eyam, pronounced 'eem', is just off the A623 between Baslow and Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire. For Eyam Church, contact Joan Plant, tel: 01433 630777; Eyam Hall is open from March to October inclusive, tel: 01433 631976; Eyam Museum is open March 31 to November 8, tel: 01433 631371 Out of season tel: 0114 230 5723 or 01433 6313503

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