A visit to the plague village

riley graves

We came upon the graves suddenly, part way round a muddy walk in the grey half-light of a January afternoon.

They are protected by the National Trust now, a low wall like a sheepfold enclosing six weatherbeaten headstones and a tomb that mark the last resting places of the Hancock family: a father, John, and his children, who died of bubonic plague in 1666.

Only the mother, Margaret, survived and she is remembered today for having to drag the corpses away from the farm where they lived, then dig the graves herself.

Everywhere you go around the Derbyshire village of Eyam (pronounced ‘eem’) you see memorials to the people who died of plague in a few traumatic months nearly 350 years ago.

The headstones, the tourist signs and the little plaques on the walls of cottages commemorate an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice. For when plague arrived in the village, via some fleas that flew out of a piece of cloth the local tailor had ordered from London, the villagers decided they would not escape to neighbouring Sheffield but would remain in their homes in order to stop the disease spreading.

It was a voluntary quarantine and it almost certainly saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the north of England.

But it cost them dear. More than 250 people died out of a population of just 800. The rector, William Mompesson, wrote in a letter to his uncle: ‘I may truely say our Town has become a Golgotha, a place of skulls; and had there not been a small remnant of us left, we had been as Sodom and like unto Gomorrah. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations. My nose never smelt such noisome smells, and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles.’

I find the villagers’ selflessness hard to comprehend. It would have been so easy to walk out of Eyam, over the surrounding hills and into nearby places where there was no plague.

View across Eyam

View across Eyam

Instead, they stayed and if they did not catch the disease themselves they had to watch their families, friends and neighbours die slowly and painfully, their bodies covered in stinking, oozing sores.

The carved letters on the lid of John Hancock’s tomb were full of rainwater but gradually we managed to spell them out:

‘Remember man, as thou goest by, as thou art now, even once was I, as I doe now, so must thou lye. Remember man that thou shalt die’.


Perhaps this is the clue to how the villagers stuck to their courageous decision. Unlike us, they lived in a time when death was on display all the time, not sanitised and shut away in institutions.

They also had a moral framework that made it hard for them to kid themselves that their actions had no consequences.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to why there is so much suffering in the world, or why some people seem to get so much more of it than others.

I also know that most of us are not called to make the extreme sacrifices that the villagers of Eyam did in the 17th century.

But I did go away from the place wondering whether part of living a daring life might be having the courage to look death squarely in the face and let that reality shape more of my decisions.


If someone asks for directions to your home, how do you respond? Our house is some way from the city centre and if I ever get a cab from the railway station I usually have to give the driver a rough indication of whereabouts to go. I generally say something like ‘near the Co-op’ or ‘not far from the shops’.

I do it without thinking. Or I did until I read this very challenging post from Leah Kostamo at the A Rocha conservation group. ‘Where on Earth are you?’ she asks – and ‘near the shops’ is definitely not the right answer.

Kostamo breaks this big question down into ten smaller ones designed to challenge the reader to see how well they really know the area where they live. Getting to know your own place, she says, is the first step towards caring for the natural environment.

Her first question is: ‘What is the name of your watershed?’

Excuse me? I have a watershed? And it has a name?

The question hit me as extraordinary – despite the fact that I walk almost daily beside Porter Brook, the stream at the bottom of our valley.

porter brook

Stupidly, I had never consciously linked this stretch of water, which I love, to the wider context of the landscape that surrounds it.

Yesterday I set off to discover ‘my’ watershed. I pulled out the Ordnance Survey map, traced the Porter Brook to its source and arrived at a place called White Path Moss.

Stanage Edge and White Path Moss

As is the nature of watersheds, it’s a big, boggy area and while it may appear to lack exciting features, it turns out to be the source of three watery landscapes to which I have a huge emotional connection. As well as feeding my beloved Porter Brook, the waters from White Path Moss also flow down to a reservoir where I used to run with a lovely neighbour who has now moved from the area.


To the south, ‘my’ watershed feeds Burbage Brook in the valley below Higger Tor, a gritstone hill that I have climbed countless times, often in the company of precious people, some family, some fleeting visitors from overseas.



I wandered in the valley for a while yesterday, enjoying the contrasts of dark green reeds and almost neon moss against the rich, peaty water.

burbage brook


As I walked, I realised that understanding how this stretch of water was linked to the one near my house had made me feel more connected to the entire area. I was beginning to see what Leah Kostamo meant by saying that the first step towards caring for a place is to really know it.

What I hadn’t expected was that the discovery would make me feel differently about myself. When I tell people I live ‘near the Co-op’ I am unthinkingly buying into the dominant culture that would define us all as consumers. I situate myself with reference to shops.

To say ‘I live near Porter Brook, which flows from White Path Moss, which also feeds the waters at Burbage and Redmires’ is quite a different thing. It is to situate myself with reference to the landscape and particularly to the water that is so essential for life.

I doubt I’ll be using it as a direction for cab drivers any time soon but I will definitely be saying it to myself. I want to assert my identity as a creature at home in a landscape, not unthinkingly accept one that places me as a consumer whose primary connection is to shops.

In another piece I read this week the outdoor learning specialist Dr Robbie Nicol spoke of the importance of emotion in spurring us to make ethical decisions about the environment.

Few things make us more emotional than a risk to our very identity. I hope that as I gain more understanding of the importance of the land to who I am, so I will be quicker to respond when it comes under threat.

UPDATE: This morning I received an email from Steve Dumpleton, who lives not far from me and clearly knows far more about geology than I ever will. He gently corrected my statements about White Path Moss and then explained how the waters near us actually travel. I thought the sequence of place names read a bit like a found poem, so have copied his words exactly and also included one of his beautiful photographs.

“As you have said, your local water flows via the River Porter into Sheffield and beyond, but you need to think of Stanage Edge as the true watershed divide.

stanage after rain

View NW along Stanage Edge. The photo was taken just after a shower had passed over and everything was sparkling wet and clear.

“Here are two contrasting routes for raindrops depending on exactly which side of Stanage Edge they fall:

“1. East side of Stanage Edge (River Don catchment)
White Path Moss/Hallam Moors -> River Porter; flows into River Sheaf near Midland Station; flows into River Don at Blonk Street bridge; flows into River Ouse at Goole; flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“2. West side of Stanage Edge (Derwent/Trent catchment)
Various streams into Ladybower Reservoir or directly into River Derwent near Bamford/Hathersage; flows into River Trent near Long Eaton (between Derby and Nottingham); flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“Route 1 is the fairly direct route, about 100 miles ignoring minor river ‘wiggles’.
Route 2 is much longer, about 190 miles.”

Thanks, Steve!

Picture of White Path Moss copyright John Topping and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Picture of Stanage Edge by Steve Dumpleton, used under Creative Commons Licence.