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Published: December 11th 2014
Winter has definately come overnight to this part of Derbyshire. A light dusting of snow has covered the ground and hedgerows. And there is that biting wind. Lead boots are needed to keep your feet grounded as it blows in from the Arctic. The sky is leaden, the clouds grey and overcast blanketing the county with that grey look of winter. We have months of this to look forward to and the chances are it will get colder. It is only the beginning of December a cold old month. January and February will probably be worse.
It is the sort of day where you wake, put your nose out of the bed, sniff the air and go back to bed tucked under the duvet. A cup of hot steaming coffee to start the day before snuggling under the covers. A day of watching TV, reading, doing nothing but waiting for the weather to improve. A day to read blogs and dream about fulltiming in sunnier climes.
However when I retired I made a decision to do at least one thing a week and in the main have succeeded especially in the late Spring, Summer and early Autumn when National
Trust and English Heritage houses and castles are open for business . This time of year , from half term in October until early Spring their doors are firmly shut and bolted as they clean, check over and do renovations to the properties. This is a shame as many of us retirees need somewhere to go and are out on the road wanting something to see, something to do and find something to eat.
We set out in the heavy rain which pounded against the windscreen. As it splattered it showed signs of sleet and snow. Where were we going? I had checked last night what was open locally and we chose the small hamlet of Eyam and Eyam Hall. Only open 28 days a year it was a real pleasure to see the doors would be open and the house would be decorated for Christmas.
So what about Eyam - I had been before a few years ago and found it interesting so wanted to go again. The village is a small on the face of it very ordinary little village. The houses built with local limestone each with pretty gardens. All self respecting Derbyshire school children
would know all about Eyam and the story of the plague of 1666. We drove through the narrow streets and parked up at the car park for Eyam Hall.
So this is a story, a horrible history with a very sad end. Reports of the plague around Europe had begun to reach England in the 1660's and steps were taken to try to prevent the nasty disease from crossing over the Channel . Ships coming in were quarantined to try to contain the threat of the plague. The duration was 40 days but the plague continued to spread. On board on one of these ships were bales of cloth. And what else was likely to be on those ships. Rats. Those long tailed unloved rodents which at the time harboured the even nastier fleas that spread the plague. Once in London the plague was only going one way and that was to spread all over England leaving in its wake death and a horrible one at that.
And so to Eyam it came. The year is 1665, Charles II is back on the English throne. It is the year before the Great Fire of London. A flea infested
bundle of cloth arrived in Eyam for the local tailor. Within a week his assistant George Vicars was dead and more began dying in the household soon after.The villages must have thought that they had done something wrong or had upset the Almighty when death stalked the village and the grim reaper appeared at everyones doors. As the disease spread the villagers looked to their vicar and a puritan minister for guidance. They made a very radical decision to try to contain the plague. One of their measures was that no-one could have their dead buried in the churchyard and the families had to bury their own dead on their own land far away from the houses and population. Many families found that the father buried the mother and his children before succumbing to the pustules and pus of the plague. Church services were suspended in the church and held outside in the amphiteatre of Cucklett Delph so that the villagers could still worship but keep themselves away from each other. The whole village made the decision to quarantine themselves. No-one came in and no-one went out.
The plague ran its course over 14 months and it is said
it killed at least 260 villagers. From a population of 350 only 83 survived. The plague as always had no regard for families, some never caught the disease being immune in some way. Others like Elizabeth Hancock who survived had to bury six of her children and her husband within 6 days. The official gravedigger also survived despite handling so many dead bodies.
Money was left in vinegar in a stone just outside the village boundary where it was used to purchase food. It is hard today to imagine what life must have been like in Eyam during the year that the Plague visited.
We parked up and walked across the road to the hall. Free entry for us as we are members of the National Trust but entry fee would be £8. The hall is fairly small but has a lived in charm. The guides inside were charming as always and knowledgeable. They welcomed us to the beautifully flagged hallway with a roaring fire. We were told that the house was wedding present in 1671 built just after the plague as life began to return to normal. What a wedding present. It has been in the same
family the Wrights for nine generations. The hallway was decorated in the style of a Christmas of the 1660's where all the decorations were just greenery from the hedgerows. Ivy, mistletoe and holly draped along the beams. The hall was decorated with a kissing ball hanging from the ceiling. Mistletoe hanging and for each kiss a berry was taken off. When all the berries were gone the kisses stopped.
The next room was the dining room decked in a Georgian style. The chairs prettily decorated with bright ribbons. A selection of olde fashioned food stuffs on the table many with labels written up in the style of the time. How the English language has evolved since this time was clear.
The kitchen fairly utilitarian but functional. Bread dough being kneaded on the table , mincemeat home made in a jar ready for use. It all looked very homely. Upstairs to the library a room much modernised and housing a piano and games from the 1960's to date. A christmas tree in the corner decorated in a more modern style reflecting the love of trees as brought in by Prince Albert. There was an invitation to play the piano
if you could play. Us - well we have not one single note between us.
Back downstairs down a beautiful Jacobean staircase probably older than the house - recycled from somewhere else. And into the last room the library again decorated in period. What a lovely house . If there was a shame it was that we couldnt see the other rooms of the house where there are bedrooms and that in winter the garden was bare. It would have been nice to have gone on one of the walks around Eyam. The Two Survivors Walk which followed the life of the gravedigger, The Three Decisions via the churchyard and church , The Lone Mother which takes the walker up to the Riley graves and finally the Lovers Walk along the route where Rowland who lived in the next village Stoney Middleton used to meet his lover Emmott Sydall. He could not go into Eyam and she could not go out so they had to content themselves with views of each other across the fields. He came as usual in the spring of 1666. She failed to turn up having died from the plague. Perhaps with some better weather
in the Spring we might return to Eyam to look at the church and try the walks. Sadly by now we needed feeding and the Miners Arms called. The weather was closing in and the snow falling.
What a find at Christmas. Eyam Hall is a charming place and especially pretty decorated for the season.
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