Plague village

31st January 2003 at 00:00
The residents of a Derbyshire village made a memorable decision when they were hit by the plague. Kevin Berry visits the scene

Bubonic plague came to Eyam in 1665 when a box of cloth was delivered to a tailor. The box was from London, where the plague was raging, and there were infected fleas in the cloth. The tailor was taken sick and died, and the disease quickly spread. How this Derbyshire village faced up to the plague is a fascinating and intensely moving story.

Two clergymen persuaded the villagers to stay in Eyam ("eem as in steam," the villagers will helpfully intone) so that the infection would not spread beyond their village. The two men showed remarkable foresight, isolating the sick, insisting on immediate burials and holding outdoor church services.

In the beginning, some children were sent to stay with relatives and were followed by a number of adults; one or two even took to the hills, but the majority of the villagers stayed. The plague eventually claimed 250 lives, 78 in one awful month, but it was contained.

Eyam has a secretive quality. It has that elusive magic associated with other villages that have remained half-hidden from history. It is approached from the A623 Chesterfield-Manchester road, turning into a tree-canopied lane and then climbing steadily upwards.

Each cottage has a list of its plague victims written on a small whiteboard near the door. They are not empty memorials - the plague cottages are still lived in and the death lists do not cast morbid shadows. Joan Plant, who supervises the gift stall in the parish church, is descended from someone who survived the plague. "Children sometimes look at me, thinking 'she doesn't look 300 years old'," Joan chuckles. "But being in the place where it actually happened does make it all so real for them."

The church has a small exhibition and a number of artefacts associated with William Mompesson, one of the clergymen from the plague years. It is an ideal starting point for younger children, and the plague cottages are next to the churchyard. At Eyam Museum, the storyboards are more detailed and there is more of the village history, how and why it grew, and the years following the plague. The museum is quiet and almost reverential, but not gloomy. There are displays of dire warnings from plague doctors - "all should avoid running, leaping about, lechery and baths" - and there are examples of elaborate cures: "If there do a blotch appear, take a pigeon and pluck the feather off her tail, very bare, and set her tail to the sore and she will draw out the venom till she die I also a chicken or a hen is very good."

Joan Plant advises careful planning before visiting Eyam. There are sites on the village boundary where food and other provisions were left by people from other villages. The Delph is where outdoor church services were held.

There are also numerous grave sites, but visiting everything leaves little time for the church or the museum.

The experiences of the villagers still linger. There is the story of the woman who buried seven of her family in eight days; of the "dead" man suddenly asking for a drink; of the young man from a neighbouring village who used to wave to his Eyam sweetheart, but she did not survive and he never married. Eyam is where the plague came. It claimed many lives in this village, but it went no further.

Booking is essential for the Parish Church of St Lawrence. Donations 25p per pupil, 50p with a talk. TelFax: 01433 630930Email: admin@eyamchurch.org

EYAM MUSEUM

Open late March to October.

Tel: 01433 631371 Cost: 70p per child, 85p with a video, pound;1 with illustrated talk.

Teachers free

* Mick Nadal teaches at College House Junior School in Nottingham We have been taking Year 5 children to Derbyshire for 15 years. Eyam is one of our visits - not just because of the plague connection. We look at its development over the years.

Our resources have been built up by many colleagues and we have our own village trail. The visit helps with PSE work, history and literature. We read Berlie Doherty's book Children of Winter, a fictional account of how the plague came to a Derbyshire village. It is a stunning book and is highly recommended.

On one occasion, we were near the Riley family graves when a woman and her dog appeared out of the fog. She told us the story of the Riley family, how all except Mrs Riley died and she had to bury them. Then the woman walked off into the fog. The children had been silent, then one said, "Do you suppose that was Mrs Riley?"

We ask children to focus on individuals in the plague story. Many villagers are descended from families who were in Eyam when the plague came.

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