I am just about to start a short online course called Plagues, Witches and War. The plague part refers to Geraldine Brooke’s novel: ‘A Year of Wonders’ which concerns the year 1665-1666 in which the people of the tiny Derbyshire village of Eyam were struck by an attack of the Bubonic Plague, brought there by bundles of cloth from London. The year in which the people of the village agreed to shut themselves off from the rest of the world to prevent the infection spreading. The year in which they decided to let the plague run its course in their own village.
I moved from London to Derbyshire when I was nine years old. It was like going back in time. This feeling was strengthened by the many well-dressings which took place in little villages, well-dressings which commemorated the life-giving properties of ancient springs. They were festive occasion when the wells were decorated with pictures made of flower petals; a time of pageant, dressing-up and make-shift kitchens where sheep or pigs were roasted.
One of the places which had a well-dressing was the village of Eyam. It was situated in the centre of the county, in the middle of rugged and desolate country. The locals pronounced the name of their village Eeem with a final sound which sounded sharp, cut-off and mind your own business. We went there every year for the well-dressing and I became haunted by the memories of it.
When I was sixteen I became friends with a lad from Eyam and began to know the village much better. Every August they held their well-dressing. Brass bands would play, sheep-roasts were held and the all-important wells were dressed. I helped with the dressing a couple of times. I can still recall pressing the petals from the fresh cut flowers into the cold, wet clay. It was a delicate task. If you were too forceful the petal would become damaged and filthy. Too gentle and you ran the risk of the petal coming loose from the clay.
I always found Eyam a melancholy place. Whatever the season it felt like autumn. Not the mellow, sunny autumn of September but the bleak, forlorn and dismal autumn of November. A chill wind blew along the wide lanes, a dank mist clung about the little cottages. The only birds you heard were crows which built their nests in the high trees around the village and flapped their shadows across the village.
Sometimes I parked my car at the far end of the village from my friend’s house and had to walk the length of the village to return to it. A couple of times as I trudged alone in the twilight I felt that I was being watched. To my imagination the watching eyes seemed cold and reproachful, perhaps a little yearning, perhaps not.
Yes, Eyam is a melancholy place. And most melancholy of all are the graves of the Hancock family, a place I found myself drawn to time and time again.
You leave the village and head a little north. The high moors are to your right, and the wind blows stiff and cold from them. A little way along you come to a stone wall.
You climb up the wall and see another wall in the middle of the field, a circular wall, looking much like an enclosed garden. You walk across the field and look over.
It is a place containing seven grave-stones. This is the burial place of the Hancock family. One after the other they fell victim to the plague. After little more than a week only the mother Elizabeth Hancock was left alive. Single-handed she buried her husband and six children in a plot which had became a graveyard.
As I gazed at the graves a chill would run through me; and admiration and disbelief. I cannot begin to imagine the courage of the people of Eyam, the courage of the Hancock family. Most acts of courage are done in the heat of passion, out of love or hatred. Their courage was considered, stalwart and grim. It was the daily courage of waking up not knowing who amongst your friends or family might be stricken by the plague. Not knowing if you would wake with the tell-tale signs of the disease upon your body. The people of Eyam faced their doom over weeks, months, a dreadful, heroic year.
The villagers faced death with implacable resolution. The plague did not spread.