Christmas Holidays (in the UK),

December 2010



We surfaced the Tuesday morning and after a sumptuous breakfast, we packed the car and headed out on the road towards Castleton, the countryside shrouded in thick mist. Still keen to have my brother experience the magnificence of the Peak District by strolling along the ridge from Mam Tor, which effectively separates the villages of Edale and Castleton, we drove up the steep road through Winnats Pass to the National Trust car park located near the hilltop. Temperatures had risen overnight and much of the snow had begun to melt, forming a thick, wet sludge. Within twenty metres of leaving the car park and my brother still hampered by his damaged hamstring, we realised that this was a futile exercise, the path slippery and treacherous underfoot. We returned to the car. From here we proceeded back via Bradwell to the village of Eyam, famous for the local church and the plague cottages, as the village chose to isolate itself when the plague was discovered there in August 1665, rather than allow the infection to spread. The village was founded and named by Anglo-Saxons, although lead had been mined in the area by the Romans.

Eyam's Plague Cottages, The Peak District












The Great Plague (1665-1666) was a massive outbreak of disease in the Kingdom of England that killed an estimated 100,000 people, 20% of London's population. The disease is identified as bubonic plague, an infection by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, transmitted through a flea vector. It had arrived in Europe 300 years previously as the Black Death and returned in fresh outbreaks every 10 years or so, of which the Great Plague of London was the last major outbreak. The 1665-1666 epidemic was on a far smaller scale than the earlier "Black Death" pandemic, a virulent outbreak of disease in Europe between 1347 and 1353. The plague of 1665 was only remembered afterwards as the "great" plague because it was one of the last widespread outbreaks in England.

The plague had been brought to the village in a flea-infested bundle of cloth that was delivered to tailor George Viccars from London. Within a week he was dead and was buried on 7 September 1665. After the initial deaths, the townspeople turned 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. These included the arrangement that families were to bury their own dead and the relocation of church services from the parish church of St Lawrence to Cucklett Delph, to allow villagers to separate themselves, reducing the risk of infection. Perhaps the best-known decision was to quarantine the entire village to prevent further spread of the disease. The plague raged in the village for 14 months and it is stated that it killed at least 260 villagers with only 83 villagers surviving out of a population of 350. This figure has been challenged on a number of occasions with alternative figures of 430 survivors from a population of around 800 being given.




The church and plague cottages in the village of Eyam, Peak District, Derbyshire.


When the first outsiders visited Eyam a year later, they found that fewer than a quarter of the village had survived the plague. Survival appeared random, as many plague survivors had close contact with the bacterium but never caught the disease. For example, Elizabeth Hancock never became ill despite burying six children and her husband in eight days (the graves are known as the Riley graves). The unofficial village gravedigger Marshall Howe also survived, despite handling many infected bodies, as he had earlier survived catching the disease. A manuscript in the church provides a complete list of those who perished. Eyam churchyard contains an Anglo-Saxon cross dated to the 7th or 8th centuries. Initially, it was located at the side of a cart track near Eyam. It is Grade 1 listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument i.e. a 'nationally important' archaeological site or historic building, given protection against unauthorised change). It is believed that the cross originally lay on a moor outside the village and was later moved to the churchyard. It is covered in complex carvings and is almost complete, but is missing a section of the shaft.

A font in the church also dates back to Anglo Saxon times. The wife of  Reverend Mompesson, Catherine, died before the plague claimed its last victim in December 1666. Her grave and those of many other villagers who perished lie in the grounds of the church. On the outskirts of the village lies the Boundary stone, a stone in which money, usually soaked in vinegar, which was believed to kill the infection, was placed in exchange for food and medicine. Up the main street is the Jacobean house Eyam Hall, built just after the plague. The green opposite has an ancient set of village stocks, reputedly used to punish the locals for minor crimes.


Stopover for Bakewell tarts, The Peak District








As midday approached, it was time to consider heading back to London. But I had one or two stops yet in mind. A trip to the Peak District is incomplete without a stop at the The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop, renowned for its Bakewell pudding, not to be confused with Bakewell tart, which does not originate from this area of Derbyshire. I had hoped that the mist would lift as I wished my brother to catch a glimpse of the stunning views of Monsal Dale from Monsal Head, which involved a minor detour en route. Luck was not on our side and nothing could be seen of the valley below. Crossing the valley is Headstone Viaduct, built by Midland Railway, over the River Wye, immediately after the 487m Headstone Tunnel. The viaduct is part of the Monsal Trail, the railway having long since been removed when the line was closed in 1968. Whilst considered elegant today, and indeed a preservation order was placed on it in 1970, when the viaduct was built in 1863 it was seen as destroying the beauty of the dale.

John Ruskin, English art critic and social thinker, considered to be Britain's leading writer on culture, having had many works published on architecture and art, as well as political works, harshly criticized the building of the railway: 

"There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the Vale of Tempe... You Enterprised a Railroad through the valley - you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere."

I have always seen the restaurant and cake shop thriving with people. Having consumed a large breakfast prior to leaving Parsons Farm, it was too early to even consider the possibility of lunch, though we certainly had room for a tea with a choice of cake/scones/pudding, so we made our way upstairs. On the subject of that pudding, which I am clearly quite partial to, the recipe still used in The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop consists of a puff pastry shell with a layer of jam, covered with a filling of eggs (no shell required), sugar, butter and almond flavoured icing, added with a dash of custard.

Afterwards Gordon and I wandered down to the Grade I listed five-arched bridge over the River Wye at Bakewell, which was constructed in the 13th century, and is one of the few surviving remnants of this earlier period. Returning to the car, we made our way through the quaint village of Matlock before heading for the M1 via the picturesque route along the A6 almost down to Derby. Once on the motorway, the appeal of the surrounding landscape diminishes, passing by virtually unnoticed as the journey home becomes one of absolute concentration and necessity, taking on a hypnotic quality.


The town of Bakewell, Peak District, Derbyshire, bears the same name as the renowned tart and pudding. The 13th century bridge spans the River Wye.





Leaving the Peak District via Matlock.


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Christmas Holidays (in the UK)

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Links to other websites:

The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop - webpage

Eyam in the Peak District - webpage