The Last Plague Town in England

Monday, January 4th, 2021 - 5:09pm

The Executive Suite

Eyam is an ancient town. Been there since around the 14th Century or more, if you believe the tourism agency, ruins and carbon dating. I was there on my way to a hiking sojourn at the Eyam Moors in Derbyshire, in the Peak District, and needed a hostel (hostile?) to stay in. I wanted to go hike one of the infamous English Moors because two of my heroes solved a crime there. I also wanted to experience a countryside I never had before, a wide open world with no signs of civilization that I had never experienced previously. The countryside in the Derbyshire would be just such a place for me.

I had booked a room at the YHA (Youth Hostel Association) Eyam, which was in a castle built in 1887; not quite as ancient as the town it overlooked from the hillside above. But it suited my needs. Secluded, not many people there, a private room with running water, the toilet just down the hall. And it was the last plague town in England.

I had been in England for several weeks, and was feeling overwhelmed, lost, maybe a little homesick, but at the same time revelling in my time in a foreign but easily understood country. This was the first time I had travelled abroad, and my understanding of the language and most of the customs made it a trip that wasn’t terrifying for someone with social anxiety. Yet, upon arriving in Eyam, I was tired and weary.

So much so, that it was quite unfortunate the bus dropped me off at the bottom of the hill. You see, the entire town is built upon a steep hillside. To get anywhere from where the bus drops you off, you have to travel uphill. And that castle was at the very top of the hill. With a 60 litre hiking pack on my back that weighed about 50lbs, and a 20 litre daypack on my front, and being as tired as I was, I would have to travel through the entire town, uphill, to the castle on the crest. It was like a story your parents told you of what it was was like walking to school when they were children. In snowstorms, uphill, both ways.

Walking up the narrow stone stairway to the perch the castle rested on, I was looking forward to a bed. It had been an incredibly long journey to get there from my last destination. Which was Manchester, I think? Many trains and subways and buses…and yet I was amazed I could easily get anywhere on public transport, no matter how far, with simple transfers and bus passes. Try getting from Montreal to Toronto with one purchase, and a couple passes. It’s not gonna’ happen.

I got to the front archway of the ‘castle,’ and there, at the top of the stairs, was an orange tabby cat laying on the warm stone in the sun. He seemed eager and happy to see me. I pet him. He was excited to be touched, and rolled over on his back, exposing his belly. I scratched and pet this beautiful animal who had exposed his most vulnerable self, and he loved it.

Now generally, I don’t like cats. I’m a dog guy. A big dog guy...German Shepherds and the like, but a smaller dog like a Beagle will do. Chihuahuas are out. Yet this cat actually warmed my weary heart. For no reason, he was excited to see me and loved the attention. I was more than happy to oblige. He had this way of making me feel like I was at home. A feeling I needed after my long travels. After the love fest, which probably lasted longer than I care to admit, I entered the hostel.

The only point I need to make here is that the desk clerk, a robust, apple cheeked English maiden, was incredibly kind and made me feel entirely welcome. She was very friendly, and seemed very happy to come to realize that I was Canadian. Americans have most definitely made their mark in various places of the world. But I’ll spare you the rest of the check-in details.

I made my way to my room and was pleased with what I saw. Clean, a sink, bathroom was just outside my door. Of course, this can be both a blessing and a curse. When you’re staying in strange accommodations on the other side of the world, especially in hostels, which host the who knows who of the travelling world, you never know what kind of creature will need a toilet in the wee hours of the night. That creature might very well be you. And if it is, you’ll be happy you don’t have to go too far, clawing at architectural sign posts you never bothered to pay attention to in order to get to your receptacle. You’ll be glad you can reach out your door, and there you are. But sometimes, so are they. Every other creature in the building clawing at every architectural sign post they never bothered to remember to get to the receptacle just outside your door…and they may not make it. Blessings and curses.

A further blessing of my experience at the YHA Eyam was that at the time, it was virtually empty. My first two days there, I never ventured beyond the castle walls. I enjoyed my bed, enjoyed the meals, enjoyed the sink in my room so that I could wash my clothes that hadn’t seen soap in many weeks, and I enjoyed my isolation. I relaxed, I read. And I prepared for my sojourn into the pastures just a few kilometres up north.

Before I did that, however, after my restful uptake, I decided to explore the town of Eyam first, just to get my body moving again. Filled with ancient domiciles, all with a placard or sign in front of them, telling tourists…me…who died there during the great bubonic plague of 1665. And people live in these houses. So they’re sitting there having dinner, and tourists are walking around, standing in front of their houses reading these signs telling you who died there and how awful it was, staring at your house…at you!…as you’re chowing down. Imagine those folk, sitting down to dinner, to a soundtrack of your oohs and awws. What a strange way to live. Especially considering none of the houses had any blinds in the windows.

Eyam is strange. It’s an attraction, but the houses are occupied. Every structure has a historical relevance, and every house is an artifact. Yet people live there. The town is a living museum, but also a functioning small town. How, they don’t tell you when you’re there, but I was most interested in this morsel of fact; what do the people living in these houses do? The entire town doesn’t seem to have any businesses...but are they hiding that for the sake of tourism? Do people who live here travel to other towns for work? Who would buy one of these houses when they’re under such strict rules of keeping and valuing their historical relevance...you can only update them so much. So what is the allure to living there? At the time, the only answer I got is “they know their houses are tourist attractions, and they know they can only go so far to making their houses upgraded to modern amenities.” Any further questions were met with subterfuge. I guess I learned to live with that, as soon enough, I was finally on my hike.

The English Moors are an element of nature that, if you’ve only ever been in Canada, is a sight to behold. Rolling hills covered in bright green moss, beckoning you to travel ever further. Land cordoned off by stone fences that seem nothing more than informal land divisions, including steps to get over every wall that is in your path and signposts to direct you on your journey. Take a moment to consider the national psychology of that, and how it contradicts American ways of thinking, and to a lesser extent, a Canadian way of thinking. This land isn’t lorded over with a “trespassers will meet the end of a double barrel shotgun” mentality. Instead, it is welcoming, and everything about the landscape makes you feel as much.

Eventually, after walking long enough, you get to a point where you can’t see anything over the horizon, no farms, no houses, no nothing. But that sense of isolation doesn’t last long. You might come over a hill, and suddenly find yourself face to face with a flock of sheep. They’re not unidentified, they have spray painted markings for... whatever reason farmers spray paint sheep. And yet as far as the eye can see…no farm. No house. No nothing. So confusing. Only sheep…for as long as the eye can see.

Something struck me about the sheep. How important they are. How this massive section of this entire country...and even more, to be true...relies on this livestock. Sheep provide clothing and blankets and warmth. They provide nutrition and great tasting food. They provide companionship and entertainment. They provide work and a way of life that provides money. They provide everything you need to exist. Sheep are the kind of folk I want to hang with.

I crested a hill and there was nothing there to be obviously seen, but suddenly, in a particularly green, rocky divot, I found a lamb leg, severed just above the knee. Severed from the whole body, which was nowhere to be found, and yet it was bleeding. It was raw. What should I take from that? Fresh, raw, severed lamb leg, the rest of the body nowhere to be seen!?! What has England wrought!?! The barbarism, just discarding this useless piece of flesh. I can’t express how disturbing it was to find a freshly severed lamb limb, with nary animal nor farmer in sight within the very far horizon, and it wasn’t even a fleshy part I could take back to my hostel and cook up. How disappointing. But what of the praiseworthy intestinal fortitude of such a creature?

Would a sheep rip its own leg out of the jaws of some horrendous, ravenous coyote? Would a sheep, it’s hoof caught in some gauntlet of labyrinthine stones, rip it’s own leg off in a desperate attempt to survive? Would a sheep have to stoically suffer the indignity of a farmer blowing its head off to save the wool and the meat while the farmer forgoes the part of the body he can’t cook? But where was the blood!?! I remember neither Batman nor Sherlock Holmes solving this particular crime. Yet apparently, sheep are the kind of folk I want to hang with.

This entire section of the country ran deep on sheep. I loved my hike, I loved the ruins and the asteroid hits and the moss and the smell and the walls and the ladders around them and the desolation and the massive flocks of sheep. The country ran on them. What a valuable, noble, useful, hard working creature. And the people respected them. I’d be a sheep any day of the week in this world. Not a bad life. Grazing, enjoying the sunshine, having an amazing coat that completely repels the rain and keeps you warm when there is no sunshine...a common occurrence in England. Just loving your days outdoors…you just have to get shaved now and then. It’s the life I want now. I’m born, I spend my days outside doing what gawd intended me to be doing, shaving occasionally, then one day, dead, without my foreknowledge or anticipatory anxiety. Just done and over with, happily.

“Little Lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Gave thee life & bid thee feed.

By the stream & o'er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,

Softest clothing wooly bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice!

Little Lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I'll tell thee,

Little Lamb I'll tell thee!

He is called by thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb:

He is meek & he is mild,

He became a little child:

I a child & thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little Lamb God bless thee.

Little Lamb God bless thee.”

- “The Lamb,” by William Blake

Climbing back up the steps of YHA Eyam, I was once again both mentally and physically exhausted. I had spent about eight hours hiking, and I was ready for my room, hot water, and sleep. As I topped the steps, there was my favourite tabby cat, eager to see me, loving the rubs and scratches, and exposing his delicate belly. As I had for the several days before, I scratched that belly. He seemed just as happy to experience these scratches as any other day that week…until he lashed out! He grabbed my hand by DIGGING in his CLAWS, PULLING my hand to his mouth and BITING down HARD! The PAIN immediately crept up my arm, and as any instinctual beast would do, I RIPPED it away!

What else could I do? Other options popped into my mind as I saw the blood SPURTING from the pulsar branch of my median nerve. My palmar aponeurosis went dead. My hand was useless. The pain was intense. The damn cat ran away due to my screams of obscenities directed its way. I wish I had a pellet gun. Never trust a cat. I held my hand to staunch the profuse bleeding and went to seek assistance.

“Umm…do you have a first aid kit? Or…how close is the nearest hospital?” The apple cheeked English maiden was a little confused.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah. I’m fine. I don’t want to scare you. Do you have a first aid kit?”

“Of course! For what?”

“You know that cat that basks in the sun on the stoop? Do you know who owns that?”

“I don’t. It belongs to someone in town. Why?”

All questions were answered when I brought my left arm out from behind my back and exposed the torn apart, profusely bleeding mound of venus on the meaty part of my thumb.

“OH MY GAWD!” I appreciated her concern.

“I don’t suppose there’s any indication that cat has rabies, is there?”

“NO! Of course not! He’s always been the sweetest thing.”

“Any chance he has the plague, I mean, this is the last plague town in…”

“No!” She said sternly.

I suddenly seemed to lose her sympathy. So the folk in Eyam have no sense of humour about the plague. Noted.

Some shocked employees went looking around for something to stem the tide of seeping blood from my hand, as I tried to prevent it from dripping onto the carpet. I ended up with a giant blue bandage wrapped around my extremity. I’ve only bled like that one or two other times in my life. Fucking cats. They can’t be trusted.

“…And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears

And water'd heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

- Excerpt from “The Tiger,” by William Blake

The history of the plague in the village began in 1665 when a flea-infested bundle of cloth arrived from London. Within a week, a local tailor, noticing the bundle was damp, opened it up. Before long he was dead, and more began dying in the household soon after.

As the disease spread, the villagers turned for leadership to their rector, the Reverend William Mompesson, and the Puritan minister Thomas Stanley. They introduced a number of precautions to slow the spread of the illness from May 1666. The measures included the arrangement that families were to bury their own dead and relocation of church services, allowing villagers to separate themselves and so reducing the risk of infection. Perhaps the best-known decision was to quarantine the entire village to prevent further spread of the disease. Merchants from surrounding villages sent supplies that they would leave on marked rocks; the villagers then made holes there which they would fill with vinegar to disinfect the money left as payment.

The plague ran its course over 14 months and the church in Eyam has a record of 273 individuals who were victims of the plague, with only 77 surviving out of a population of 350. The village's actions prevented the disease from moving into surrounding areas, and thus prevented the plague from spreading. And Eyam became the last plague town in England.

The people of Eyam had learned to trust their shepherds. They saw the pain and death that was surrounding them, and they knew they had to do something. They trusted those who knew better than they, and they behaved as one, to stem the tide of the great bubonic plague. One could say, they acted as sheep.

There were no ferocious and untrustworthy jackals…loving you one minute the turning on you, ripping important flesh from your body. No one was trying to convince the others to act one way, then pouncing on the town when it suited them. There were no people in Eyam like we have today. Politicians telling you to do one thing and then acting in accordance with their own selfishness the next. Or folks who were only into life to satisfy their own hedonistic needs, demanding the need to shop or even demanding they may congregate in worship. There were no dishonest people, no cats exposing their bellies.

They sacrificed everything they had. Their livelihoods, their community, their lives, to save everyone beyond their borders. If only we could expect that now, if only it was a given that people would work to protect the social whole with no ego or pride, just an understanding that life, any life, is valuable.

If only more people today were like sheep...working as a whole to protect the flock. Instead, we have a world full of cats, willing to turn on you in an instant. Sheep are loyal...a world of folk I want to hang out with. Cats will fuck you at the soonest instant just because they want to. Here’s hoping, contrary to seemingly popular opinion, that 2021 is full of more sheep. And the jackals can go fuck themselves.


End of line.

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