Insider's guide to the 'plague' village of Eyam. Pronounced 'eem' it has its place in the folklore of England being the village that was voluntarily isolated by its own inhabitants in the 17th century when struck by Bubonic Plague, then rampant in London and carried to the village on a piece of cloth ordered by the local tailor.
‘THE PLAGUE VILLAGE’
The heroic self-imposed quarantine by the villagers of Eyam after the Plague struck during the years 1665-66 has been called “the greatest epic in the annals of rural life,” and the village will forever be associated with the tragic ‘visitation.’
Despite this grisly past, Eyam today is a lively village, and the Victorian Village Institute opposite the church is the centre for most social activities, including a sell-out annual village pantomime at Christmas time. The Eyam well-dressings are among the last to take place but among the most accomplished of the season, and are held during late August and early September.
WHERE IS IT?
Eyam is five miles (8km) north of Bakewell. The unusual and often mispronounced name (it’s pronounced “Eem” as in “stream,” by the way), comes from the Old English and means “island” or literally, the “land between two streams.” That is still a pretty good description of the location of the village, which stands on a shale promontory below the gritstone of Eyam Edge and above the limestone of Middleton Dale, between the valleys of the Hollow Brook and Jumber Brook.
There is much more to Eyam’s history than the well-known story of the Plague. Deep in the heather of Eyam Moor, reached from the minor Sir William Hill road, is the Bronze Age Wet Withins Stone Circle (now protected by English Heritage). There are numerous other burial mounds and clearance cairns nearby, showing that 4,000 years ago, this area was populated and important enough to attract these lasting monuments to the dead. Incidentally, when the heather is in bloom in the late summer, Eyam Moor has one of the finest displays in the Peak.
The Plague years
In a 14-month period between September, 1665 and November, 1666, a total of 259 Eyam villagers died of the Bubonic Plague, and in some cases, whole families were wiped out. Many cottages in the village are marked with plaques recording the names of the victims, ensuring that the epic story of the self-imposed sacrifice which the villagers made will never be forgotten.
Led by their minister, the Rev. William Mompesson, and his non-conformist predecessor, the Rev Thomas Stanley, the villagers imposed a quarantine so that the deadly virus would not spread through the rest of the county. The result was that nearly 360 villagers died over the two years. Some of their pitiful graves can be seen in the fields around the village, because they were not allowed to be buried in the churchyard during the “visitation.”
One such family was the Hancocks, all of whom died of the Plague within a week of each other in August, 1665, and were each buried in turn by the distraught mother of the family. The six evocative headstones marking their graves can be seen grouped inside a walled enclosure known as the Riley Graves (National Trust), just a short way outside the village, off the minor road leading east towards Grindleford.
Neighbouring parishes and the landlord, the Earl of Devonshire, left supplies for villagers at special points on the village boundary, some of which can still be seen, such as Mompesson’s Well, to the north of the village. Church services were also held in the open air to minimise the risk of infection, at the little limestone crag of Cucklett Delf in the dale below the village. You can descend from the village centre into the rocky hollow to see where the villagers worshipped, and this is where the annual Plague Commemoration Service is held on the last Sunday in August, which coincides with the village well dressings.
Some modern observers have questioned whether the fatal outbreak was in fact the Plague, as an epidemic of any disease was known as “the plague” in those days. They have also challenged the wisdom of the self-imposed quarantine, which resulted in a concentration of the virus and a far higher death rate than might have been expected. But medical knowledge was not widespread or common in 17th century Derbyshire, and the villagers undoubtedly took their brave action from the highest possible motives.
Along with many other White Peak settlements, Eyam became a thriving lead mining and quarrying centre in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the remains of lead mining activity, in the form of grassy bumps and hollows in the fields surrounding the village, can still be seen. Nowadays, however, the most valuable mineral is flourspar, and at Ladywash Mine, where the chimney still exists, it is still being extracted although now by less-obtrusive underground methods. There are still large limestone quarries to the south of the village, in Middleton and Eyam Dale.
The neighbouring village of Stoney Middleton is home to a legend of thwarted love and a spectacularly unsuccessful suicide bid. Local girl Hannah Badderley was jilted by her lover in 1762, and decided to end it all by leaping from a crag now known as Lover’s Leap in Middleton Dale. Much to her despair, her voluminous skirt opened out like a parachute, got caught in some brambles where she hung suspended for a while, before she fell gently into a saw-pit, virtually unhurt. The popular climbers’ and cavers’ café in Stoney Middleton Dale was once known as the Lover’s Leap Café but is now an Indian restaurant known as Little India.
PLACES TO GO
The Parish Church of St Lawrence
St Lawrence's church is steeped in history, having been home to Christian worship for over a thousand years and playing a key role in fighting the Great Plague.
Close to the church and opposite the tiny Village Green with its restored Stocks for wrongdoers is the late 17th century Eyam Hall, a lovely gritstone gabled and mullioned building which has been the home of the Wright family ever since it was built in 1676. Eyam Hall is a wonderfully intimate and lived-in house, and guided tours are available throughout the summer months. Don’t miss the exceptionally fine tapestries in the upstairs rooms and the restored knot and herb garden. There is also a craft centre with shops and a buttery-type restaurant in the stables at the rear of the building.
The Eyam Museum in the former Methodist Chapel in Hawkhill Road has award-winning exhibits and displays which graphically tell the story of the village from prehistoric to modern times, plus the harrowing story of the Eyam Plague. The museum was inspired by Clarence Daniel, a lifelong resident and local historian of Eyam who ran a small private museum in his house, but was thwarted in attempts to set up a public museum. His collection was passed to the Village Society on his death in 1987, and Eyam Museum Ltd. was formed. Seven years later, the former Methodist Chapel became available, and the museum eventually opened in 1994.
The rat on the weather vane on the roof of the building gives away the guilty carrier of the Plague virus, which was transmitted to man by the fleas of the black rat.
Eyam dresses three of its wells or springs on the last Saturday in August, which coincides with the Plague Commemoration Service in Cucklett Delf (see above) and village carnival. The late date of the well dressings means that the choice of flowers available for the Eyam dressers is often limited, but the designs are always interesting and attract large numbers of visitors. The largest well dressing in Eyam is the Town Head Well, which has one of the biggest screens (nine feet wide by nearly six feet tall) in the Peak. The theme of the Eyam well dressings often commemorates the dreadful but never-to-be forgotten visitation of the Plague three centuries ago.
THINGS TO DO
Eyam is a wonderful centre for outdoor activities, especially walking. A favourite walk from Eyam is the five-mile stroll past the Ladywash Mine and crossing Sir William Hill and Eyam Moor to descend into Bretton Clough and return via Bretton and Eyam Edge to the village.
The limestone crags of Middleton Dale, below the village of Eyam and alongside the A623, are a magnet for rock climbers, and various routes exist for the experts on such outcrops as the Garage and Windy Buttresses, Dies Irae and the Tower of Babel. For more information on climbing and climbing clubs in the area, contact the British Mountaineering Council on 0161 445 6111 or at www.thebmc.co.uk.
Middleton Dale is also riddled with former lead mine workings and caves, including Merlins Mine, Carlswark, Lay-by Pot and Eyam Dale House Cave. But it must be stressed that these are for expert cavers only. The British Caving Association can be contacted for details about caving and caving clubs operating in the Eyam area at The Old Methodist Chapel, Great Hucklow, Buxton, Derbyshire, SK17 8RG or www.british-caving.org.uk.
There is also a superb and secret waterfall between Eyam and Foolow known, variously, as Waterfall Swallet, Swallow Falls and/or Swallow Waterfall. Hidden away in a large limestone depression protected from view by a copse at the side of the road - this waterfall is a rare phenomenon in the Peak District and a real gem when in full spate.
FOOD AND DRINK
For such a small village, Eyam is well served with good pubs and restaurants. If you are looking for a special meal, try The Stables at Eyam, which overlooks the gardens of Jacobean Eyam Hall (see above) and has a lovely ambience created by stone walls, beams and candle-lit tables. The Tea Rooms & Bistro at Eyam Hall are also worth a try, because they specialise in home-made cakes, scones and savoury snacks, including vegetarian options.
Little India is a popular Indian restaurant in Stoney Middleton, formerly a climbers' and cavers' café known as the Lover's Leap, after Hannah Badderley's unsuccessful suicide attempt in the 18th century, and there’s also an excellent fish and chip shop housed in a former toll house in the village.
The locals’ favourite pub is the Miners’ Arms in the centre of Eyam, which dates from the 17th century and serves both pub and restaurant meals at lunchtime and in the evening. The highest and one of the oldest pubs in the Peak is the Barrel Inn at Bretton, which claims to date back to the 12th century and stands at over 1,150ft on Eyam Edge. From the pub door or the beer garden, you overlook a stupendous panorama to the south across the rolling White Peak landscape.
Another fine local pub is the Bulls Head on the village green at nearby Foolow, which has flagged stone floors and an inglenook fireplace with an open fire usually burning. The wood-panelled restaurant serves delicious food-cooked local food. The
Moon Inn at Stoney Middleton has the gory legend of a Scottish pedlar who was murdered there two centuries ago.
Holiday cottages and B&B accommodation are available in Eyam.
Check out our Eyam holiday accommodation page for the best places to stay.
Bakewell, ancient market town
Chatsworth, the “Palace of the Peak”
Haddon Hall, medieval manor house popular as a film set
Hathersage, home of Little John
Buxton, spa town and shopping centre
Sheffield, with its museums and theatres
Tourist Information Centre
Bakewell TIC, The Old Market Hall, Bridge Street, Bakewell, DE45 1DS; Tel: 01629 816558; www.peakdistrict.gov.uk, open daily.
Public toilets and car park
In Hawkhill Road, Eyam, opposite the Museum.
Eyam Surgery, Church Street, Eyam, Hope Valley S32 5QH; Tel: 01433 630836.