A few months ago, with what now appears to be an uncanny and uncomfortable prescience, we began a workshop in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. The village is one of those pretty places of old stone and cottage gardens… but it is best known for its response to the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665.
The plague arrived in the village from London in a bale of flea-infested cloth and swiftly infected the tailor who had ordered it and his assistant, killing them both. This was at the time of the Great Plague of London… the last time bubonic plague reached epidemic proportions in England and during what is now known as the Second Pandemic. The pandemic had begun in China in 1331, with devastating global effects in the days before modern medicine, killing hundreds of millions over the centuries of its periodic resurgences. The Great Plague of London killed at least a hundred thousand people in the city during the eighteen months between its onset in 1665 to its end around the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The little village of Eyam, knowing the devastation that the disease would wreak should it spread throughout the north, chose to place itself in strict quarantine, cutting itself off from neighbouring villages completely and holding their socially distanced prayers in a field until the disease had run its course, killing a tragic proportion of the villagers.
Their sacrifice… a true sacrifice that was chosen, not imposed… saved uncountable lives at the cost of their own. Mothers buried their children, whole families were wiped out and plaques around the village today commemorate both their lives and their deaths.
We had called the workshop weekend ‘Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear’ and our aim was to show that fear can be both destructive and positive… and can, when faced, lead us to places and experiences of which we may not have thought ourselves capable. The village of Eyam was a perfect place to start.
Today, the village derives much of its income from tourism based upon its role and sacrifice during that dark time. The tragedy has not been allowed to sink into the memory of the land, but is kept raw and alive in all its shocking detail. It is an unsettling place, especially with its chocolate-box appearance contrasting against its history. Almost all of our companions on that weekend felt the deep and long-held pain and darkness that hangs over the village like a sticky pall.
Helen Jones was with us and shared an account of the weekend on her blog. Of her experience at Eyam she wrote:
“As we neared the old church I was finding it difficult to breathe, a weight on my chest. Another member of the group felt the same way – there seemed to be no explanation for it. I was struggling against surging emotion, like being at the centre of a storm, despite the bright sunshine.”
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