Visit Eyam - Historic Plague Village in the Peak District

by JoHarrington

Beautiful views over the Derbyshire Dales and 17th century buildings greet visitors to Eyam. It's a little village with an awe-inspiring historical tale to tell.

Nestled in the heart of the Peak District National Park, Eyam is a very scenic place to visit. But that is not why it is famous.

In 1665, plague came to the village. The residents chose to quarantine themselves within their own boundaries. Fourteen months later, only a quarter were left to tell the tale.

Today Eyam wears its memorials with respect and pride. It quietly caters for its inevitable tourists with craft shops and cream teas. No-one can leave without feeling incredibly moved and thoughtful.

Stepping Back in Time in the Derbyshire Dales

When much of Eyam was built, the Stuarts were on the throne. This is no ghost town. Today's residents occupy every home.

It is easy to imagine the 17th century in this place. So little has changed.

The houses clustered around the village green, and for several streets around, were all there then.  Their sandy stonework was hewn from the surrounding moorland by medieval miners. The thatch may have gone from the roofs, to be replaced by slate tiles, but the rest is much the same.

That isn't to say that time has stood still here. The roads are tarmacked and cars are parked outside those houses.  Double glazing is fitted in the window-panes.  Sky TV aerial dishes are affixed to walls built during Stuart times.

Eyam is a village which honors and luxuriates in its history, but it is not bound by it.

Outside many houses is a plaque explaining who lived here in 1665-1666; and how many died.  But those same gardens also once contained gravestones, most of which have been removed to make way for driveways and roses.

The tourists come for the history and they get it too. But the people that live here do so in the modern day.  The compromise feels quite harmonious.

Learn Why Eyam is so Famous

In 1666, around 800 people chose to sacrifice themselves, in order to save the lives of thousands of strangers. Could you have done that?
When plague came to Eyam, the villagers chose to quarantine themselves to save their neighbors. This is a novel about what it was like to be there, trapped within deadly streets.

Trekking Up to the Riley Graves on the Outskirts of Eyam

Of all the plague memorials here, the graves of the Hancock family are perhaps the most poignant.

I visited in early August 2012.  In some ways, this was an error. 

The wiser souls would come on the last Sunday in August.  That's when memorial services to the courageous plague victims are annually held, alongside many historical re-enactment events. Presumably you aren't required to contract the Black Death in order to participate.

As it was a pleasant afternoon, I started with a trek up to the Riley Graves. This area is sign-posted from the center of the village, but involves a short walk. 

At the very edge of Eyam, the track forks upwards. The Riley Graves are 300 meters up a reasonably steep hill. It is possible to drive for much of the distance.  However, those with mobility issues would then be confronted with a stile and a field.

Elizabeth Hancock and the Tragic Story of the Riley Graves

Riley Farm House has gone now, but the headstones tell their own story. One woman buried her whole family there.

The Riley field was farmed by the Hancock family in 1666. They were far enough out of Eyam, that they must have believed themselves reasonably safe from risk.  This proved to be true until August 1666, nearly a year after plague was first diagnosed in the center of the village.

Then the Talbot family, on the next farm along, began to sicken.  They all died, quickly and without mercy, until only elderly Bridget Talbot and a newborn baby were left. 

Elizabeth Hancock did her Christian duty. She tended to her neighbors and unwittingly brought the plague into her own home.

On August 3rd 1666, she buried the first of her children.  A week later, the last of her six children and her husband lay in the graves, that she had dug herself outside her home.

Image: The Riley Graves of the Hancock Family
Image: The Riley Graves of the Hancock Family
Jo Harrington

The Hancock farmhouse no longer stands, but those seven graves still do. 

You can just discern a patch of darker ground where the house should be.  The walled graveyard would have been practically on the doorstep.  The agreement that the people of Eyam made in 1666 was that they would not flee, and they would bury their own dead in land made hallowed by their sacrifice.

Elizabeth Hancock did just that. She cared for her family, then single-handedly dug their graves.

It's difficult to imagine what she went through. Her children must have started with the fever and open sores by August 1st.

On August 3rd 1666, she buried seven year old Elizabeth and five year old John. It can hardly be expected that she had help from her husband, as he would have already been sickening himself by then.

John Hancock died on August 7th 1666.  His wife, stupefied with mourning her earlier losses, had to contend with both that and the death of two more children. Sixteen year old William and three year old Oner went with their father into the Riley graves.

Still there was no respite, because by now the two remaining daughters had begun showing symptoms of plague. 

Fourteen year old Alice died on August 9th.  Her nine year old sister Anne followed the next day.

The Riley Field was so high up and exposed, that the villagers in Stoney Middleton would have been able to observe Elizabeth's desperate plight. But they couldn't help her. To do so would be to undo all the sacrifices that the people of Eyam had made. The plague would simply have spread.

No doubt Elizabeth Hancock was in some degree of shock by now.  The Black Death is not an easy nor pretty way to die.  She had tended those she loved dearest through it all, then consigned them to the ground.

But she didn't stop there.  Back over on the Talbot farm, seventy-eight year old Bridget fell to the plague too.  The baby was alone, so Elizabeth brought her back to her home. The ad hoc adoption didn't last long.  Within days, the Black Death had taken the infant too.

Image: The Riley Field with the Hancock family grave enclosure.
Image: The Riley Field with the Hancock family grave enclosure.
Jo Harrington

The instant that the villagers judged Eyam's borders safe to open again, Elizabeth Hancock left her lonely farm-house.  She went to Sheffield, where her sole remaining son lived.

He came back later on and erected the headstones to his father and siblings.  Unfortunately the children had to be moved. Their graves were too shallow, so they were taken to a mass grave in the center of Eyam. 

John Hancock remains there still, under the box tomb that bears his name.

Discovering Eyam's Plague Village History

Just wandering through the streets will do that. There is plenty for historical tourists to see and read, in the actual locations that it all happened.

Being up at the Riley graves helps contextualize Eyam's history, like nothing down in the village could do. 

After a while contemplating the story, visiting the headstones and staring out over that desolate and stunning view, you get the reality of their choices. 

From hereon in, all of those names on plaques, outside the houses of Eyam, aren't merely lists. They represent people, real people, who were there and lived, then died as circumstantial heroes.

Forgive me if I've made it sound like Eyam is depressing.  It's neither morbid nor grim. The bright streets carry their lists of the dead with pride; and the over-riding feeling is one of respect.

The details of the plague, and its personal stories are given in bite-size pieces, on notices dotted around the village.

If you want more, then Eyam Museum should certainly be on your agenda. It is open from 10am until 4.30pm (last entry 4pm), every day except Mondays. It is open on Bank Holidays.  It tells the plague story with the help of mannequin tableaus and other resources; but it covers the rest of Eyam's history too.

But that isn't all.  Another stroll out of Eyam will take you to either the Boundary Stone or Mompesson's Well (or both, if you're feeling particularly energetic). These were both used to bring supplies into the quarantined plague village.

The village stocks, which were there in 1666, are still there now, just awaiting a happier usage as a photo opportunity prop.

Once you've explored all of that, you can refresh yourself in The Miners Arms public house.  It was also there during the plague years and it's still fortifying folk now with a wee dram.

Exploring Historic St Lawrence's Church

This was where that fateful decision to close Eyam's borders took place. Reverend Mompesson and Reverend Stanley persuaded the villagers to sacrifice themselves.

There has been a church on this spot since Saxon times. An 8th century Celtic cross in the grounds attests to the presence of Christianity even earlier. 

Eyam Church, as it's viewed today, was built in 1350.  Its Norman architecture is still in evidence, if you look closely enough.  But St Lawrence's Church has been greatly extended over the years.

It was unfortunately closed on the day that I visited, so I missed seeing the historical features inside.  They include a register of the 276 members of the congregation, who died during the self-imposed plague quarantine (out of a population of 350). 

I did have a lovely stroll through the extensive graveyard though.  It's still growing, having recently added yet another field right down the back.  I spotted the graves of plague victim Catherine Mompesson, wife of the famed reverend, and Henry Bagshaw, a noted Derbyshire cricketer, who died in 1929.

Most of my attention was upon the Celtic cross though.  It has been dated definitely to the 8th century, though it could be even older. It has weathered extremely well, having been brought in off the moors when the church was established.

The original monument didn't have a cross on top. It was a post, covered in the ornate spiral-work of an ancient stoneworker. The engraved figures of Gods or kings are very stark.

However, I have to admit that it looked very Saxon to me.  I've seen similar monuments in Ireland and Wales (Celtic) and in Wolverhampton (Saxon). Despite being distinctly labeled as a Celtic Cross on the sign, it reminded me much more of the latter, albeit in a Celtic style.

Don't listen to me though.  I haven't researched its history, nor am I an expert on Derbyshire's ancient past.

Visit Eyam Hall: A 17th Century Stately Home

This isn't merely a Jacobean style house, but a craft center too. The little shops around the back are really charming.

Despite what you may have read in Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders, Eyam Hall was not built during the plague years. 

The Wright family were not living in the village.  They were established there in 1676, a decade after it was all over.

Though built during the reign of Charles II, Eyam Hall's architecture owes more to the Jacobean period.  It was out-dated when it was constructed, but that does help it fit in aesthetically with the rest of the village.

Today, the manor house is open to the public. However, if you are planning a visit, it is best to check their opening times. They aren't regular and only occur on selected dates.  The house is also the venue of several events during the year.

Around the back of Eyam Hall is a delightful courtyard, which is open during usual business hours.

The little craft shops here sell pottery, jewelry, silk work, art, home accessories, furniture, cakes, local produce (honey, chutney, etc.), gifts and cards. These aren't mass produced items, but exquisitely rendered, unique items.

It's a great place to grab a souvenir of your visit.

Eating and Drinking in Eyam

There are plenty of places to choose from. I can personally recommend the cream teas in the Tea Rooms.

For such a small village, Eyam certainly knows how to feed its visitors!

The Miners Arms serves meals, as does the Buttery and Greek Heaven, which is located in the craft center behind Eyam Hall. 

I'm sure that they are wonderful, but I was more in the market for something lighter.  I headed into Eyam Tea Rooms, where I had a massive scone complete with jam, cream and butter. It all washed down beautifully with a nice cup of tea. 

They also served lunches and some baked goods.

If you are only after snacks, then there's a house right on the corner of the green that serves home-made ice cream.  I partook of one of them too and it was wonderful!  (All in the name of reporting back here, of course.)

In Church Street, there is a general store; while a post office, also selling chocolate bars, is opposite Eyam Museum.  You won't starve on your visit there!

More Historic Places to Visit in England

On April 14th 2012, the 100th anniversary of Titanic striking an iceberg, her home city showed me the human cost.
In 1653, most British churches were being smashed up by Roundheads. But in Leicestershire, one was being built.
The Victorians thought the chalk figure pornographic, but they would. Visit Cerne Abbas to see for yourself.
Decorated throughout by William Morris and filled with pre-Raphaelite paintings, this manor house near Wolverhampton is worth a visit.

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Updated: 10/12/2012, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 03/08/2013

Then my job has been done here. It's worth going there to walk them for yourself too. Eyam is a fascinating village to visit.

georgettejohn on 03/07/2013

Excellent article Jo, easy to imagine walking the same steps along with you!

JoHarrington on 03/06/2013

no u and gtfo meh article!!1!!

jake on 03/06/2013

stfu

JoHarrington on 09/02/2012

I'm glad to have made history come alive for you. :D These were real people, just as you and I, that's the most important thing to remember, when hearing the historical stories.

I have massive respect for Elizabeth Hancock. I can't imagine having to go through that.

Mira on 08/29/2012

The story of Elizabeth Hancock is incredible, and you told it so well. And then the quarantine. Your article makes one more interested in actually looking at stories unfolding in various families since the Middle Ages. Nice work! I really enjoyed it.

JoHarrington on 08/27/2012

I wasn't sad, just fascinated and in awe of the villagers, right up until I went to the Riley graves. Then the reality hit me and, yes, that was upsetting.

2uesday on 08/27/2012

The peak district is a nice place to visit but I have never been to the village Eyam. It made me feel sad reading this about the village.

JoHarrington on 08/22/2012

Another place for your itinerary, when you tour Britain? I'll come too!

Ragtimelil on 08/22/2012

Beautiful place. I'd love to visit. And what a history!


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