In 1660, the village of Eyam made a brave decision go into isolation when it was struck by the Bubonic plague. Over a couple of years the plague burnt itself out in the village, taking over two thirds of Eyam’s population with it. Thanks to their sacrifice the surrounding villages and towns of the Peak District were never exposed to this final sweep of the Black Death and survived unscathed into a plague free future.
You can sense the tragic history of the village when you visit. Many of the cottages and streets remain from the time of the plague. The stone built cottages are labelled with the names of the families that lived there and the ages and dates of the deaths that occurred within them. You can wander around the village from one plague cottage to another tracing how the plague spread via family connection, as cousins and aunts from other households went in to nurse the last victims once their family had died around them.
Eyam Youth Hostel, on the hill at the top of the village would not have been built in the time of the plague, this Victorian rectory was a much later addition to the village. However Bretton Youth Hostel, on the fringes of the parish, was the site of a farmstead. The farmhouse was demolished in the late 1960’s by the YHA and replaced by the current purpose built hostel. However in its grounds not far from the new studio, are four stones marking the graves of plague victims.
When the plague was at its height, in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, villagers were instructed to bury their dead in the gardens of their cottages. Standing in the garden of Bretton hostel surrounded by the meadows and moors of the dark peak, one can imagine the desolation as bodies were buried here by desperate close family members.
Eyam village is a gentle hour’s walk from Bretton Hostel. You have a choice of two routes, one takes you over wild Eyam moor with its ancient stones, while the other, basked in stunning views, leads you along Bretton Edge. The village has a little museum, fascinating for all ages, where the plague and the story of the sacrifice the village made is told for £2.50. Here I found out that it was the parson of the village (William Mompesson) who declared that a quarantine should be established, what a leader he must have been to so inspire his flock. There were open air services, to prevent the spread of the plague in church, and the spot where these were held can be visited if you follow a trail just beside the village green. Surrounded by natural rock formations it does indeed have the feel of a natural open air church. Again that sense of the past can be felt just by standing in this location.
To feed the village Mompesson organised supplies to be left at boundary stones on the edge of the parish. These Plague Stones were drilled with holes so that coins could be left by the plague villagers, in a pool of vinegar to cleanse them of the plague. The other contrasting story I came across in the museum, which jarred with all this self sacrifice, were the deeds of the noble family from Eyam Hall. They quickly departed the village on the arrival of the plague, despite the quarantine. Luckily it appears they did not take the plague with them. Contrast this with the fate of a villager who tried to steal away on foot, but was recognised as a resident of Eyam at a local market, and hounded back to the quarantine. One law for the poor and another for the rich !
Eyam has such a wealth of sites to be seen, all marked with interesting details ideal for old and young alike. The museum and church for indoor time and for air and exercise, the Plague Stones, plague cottages and outdoor church. The Plague Stones are on the parish boundaries, so they make goals for a walk and some of the plague cottages are in more outlying areas. For example the Riley graves are by a group of outlying cottages on the path to Stony Middleton and the graves at Bretton Hostel are on the opposite side of the parish.
Bretton Hostel is no longer run by the YHA, it was sold in 2014, and has been lovingly renovated to provide warm eco-friendly accommodation in an outstanding location. Ideal for groups of families or outdoor groups to hire at weekends, it maintains the hostelling commitment to provide accommodation for individuals and families midweek. You can hire a bed or a room, make use of kitchen or eat at the nearby Barrel Inn and enjoy the hostel’s log burner of an evening. However you relax I can guarantee you will not be able to walk past a window at this hostel without being drawn into the view spread before you. For larger groups and special interest gatherings, the studio is a clutter free space which feels like a huge window out onto the view. Built in the grounds close to the hostel, near by those tragic graves, the studio is a good place to meditate.
Bretton Hostel and the plague village of Eyam are a ready made holiday for any family, couple of group. With a world of interest and education in the very fabric of the village below you, gorgeous countryside to explore and comfortable friendly self-catering accommodation at the hostel. A holiday at Bretton Hostel would remain with you for many years and must be the best value short break available in the Peak District.
Look here for a map showing the location of Bretton Hostel and other hostels and bunkhouses in the Peak District.