Pocket Britain

A beautiful Peak District village with an ugly history

In the summer of 1665 Eyam's tailor, George Viccars, received a package of cloth from London. He found it to be strangely damp, so he hung it out to dry. This released a swarm of fleas that had been hiding in the folds of the fabric. George thought nothing of it, not realising the consequences that this simple action would have.
A few days later he was dead. His body was covered in bulbous blisters, and the villagers knew what this meant. It was another outbreak of the bubonic plague, which had previously killed over a third of Europe's entire population in the 14th century. Everyone's first reaction was to run as fast and as far as they possibly could. However, their vicar, a man called William Mompesson, knew that this would spread the disease even further. He convinced the villagers to sacrificially shut themselves off completely from the outside world.
It was a courageous decision, but the locals stuck to it. They asked merchants to leave food and supplies on the edge of the village. In return, the villagers would leave money to soak in vinegar-filled holes. This purified the coins, ensuring that the merchants couldn't be infected.
It was over a year until the plague finally ran its course. In that time, Eyam had been completely devastated. Its population had been reduced from 350 to just 90, three quarters of them paying the ultimate price. However, their self-sacrifice played a huge part in slowing the advance of the disease, an act which saved thousands of lives.
The village has long since recovered, and Eyam today is a healthy, peaceful place, overrun with trees and grass. Nevertheless, there are still countless reminders of the horrific events which unfolded here 350 years ago. Many of the houses and buildings bear plaques, explaining what became of their inhabitants during that fateful year. You can see the graves of the Hancock family, where a poor mother had to bury six of her children in the space of a week.
Eyam's church wasn't used during the plague outbreak, because such a busy gathering would spread the disease too easily. Nevertheless, the building contains a small exhibition about the incident. You can also find the parish register, where all the deaths were recorded.
There's a more detailed retelling of the story at Eyam Museum, on the outskirts of the village. It follows the outbreak from its beginnings in London, to its eventual end. The museum also covers Eyam's history both before and after this event.
As well as the museum and the church, the village has several other interesting buildings. One is Eyam Hall, a 17th century mansion built just a decade after the plague died out. The same family has lived there since its completion. The public can visit both the house, and its beautiful gardens. The nearby farm buildings have been converted into a craft centre and shop.
One of the centres of Eyam's social life is the Miners Arms, a pub and restaurant that also dates from the 17th century. It's reputedly the most haunted building in Derbyshire. The ghosts in residence include murdered wives, burned children and - inevitably - countless plague victims.

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