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15th Dec 2012 9:32am | By Anita Isalska
Gangrene, fits and apple-sized swellings are a far cry from rural village of Eyam today, but the history of “plague village” lives on
Gruesome tales of the Black Death and perfect British cream teas don’t come together often.
And yet here I am, licking whipped cream off a spoon, just minutes after perusing a collection of rusty medieval scalpels.
This might not be a typical day out, but, as I’m quickly discovering, there’s nothing ordinary about Eyam.
Driving into this peaceful village, the cheerful house fronts give me no clues about its grim past – Eyam is surrounded by arguably the most stunning scenery in northern England.
Mountain bikers pedal their way around Hope Valley, climbers challenge themselves on the craggy Windgather Rocks and walkers happily wear out their hiking boots on the Whinstone Lee Tor in between stops for ale and giant scones.
The region is a magnet for energetic travellers, but these wholesome pursuits aren’t the reason I’m in Eyam today.
The village is best known for quarantining itself during the early days of the Great Plague, the last of England’s major outbreaks of bubonic plague.
This notorious illness gave its victims agonising, apple-sized swellings all over their bodies, fever, fits and even gangrene, before killing them off in their thousands.
It was spread by fleas hitching a ride on black rats.
And while most of northern England avoided the Black Death that ravaged London, a tragic twist of fate brought the sickness right into the heart of Eyam.
The village tailor had ordered rolls of cloth from London and disease carrying fleas were lurking in the material.
As soon as it was unpacked, bubonic plague was unleashed on the small town.
The first stop on my dark history tour is Eyam Museum (eyammuseum.demon.co.uk), which holds grisly insights galore.
I find it hard not to flinch at some of the unsettling displays: leech-carrying boxes, glinting scalpels, and the pièce de résistance, a 17th-century plague protection outfit with a long beak.
Even if it didn’t keep you plague-free,this elaborate cloak would certainly have given your fellow villagers a scare.
No pustule is left unexamined in this historic building, and every gruesome cure is relayed in detail.
One remedy urges plague victims to drink herb-infused water while a dog lies on their chest; another cure recommends doing unspeakable things to a pigeon.
The villagers were no better off for these efforts, and I suspect the pigeons didn’t fare well either.
Digging deeper into Eyam’s ghastly past, I tour the plague graves and historic buildings.