I didn’t write a word this week, but I did top up my creative well with a powerful mixture of present beauty and past heroism.
I spent an exhausting but productive few days in darkest Derbyshire, sorting out family stuff with my brother and mother. In a fit of optimism I took my laptop and all my notebooks, but brought them back with me unopened. I had plenty of time to think about story, though, as I sat in traffic jam after traffic jam, because late June is Well Dressing time in the Peak District, and people were out in their droves to visit and take photographs.
In rural Derbyshire, the tradition of decorating wells, springs and other water sources using designs created from flower petals and plant material dates back to the 1300s. It began as a pagan practice to give thanks for clean water during the period of the Black Death. Now the wells are a beautiful tourist-friendly photo-opportunity, but five hundred years ago, one of them played a critical part in ensuring the survival of the region.
The story starts in August 1665, in the picturesque village of Eyam, when a tailor, George Viccars, took delivery of a bundle of cloth from London. The cloth was infested with fleas, and within a week, George Viccars was dead.
As the plague took hold, the squire and the wealthier residents fled, and the villagers were left leaderless. The vacuum was filled by a real-life hero, the rector, Reverend William Mompesson. Together with his wife, Katherine, and the previous Rector, a Puritan Minister called Thomas Stanley, they united the village. To slow the spread of disease, they decided that the dead would not be given funerals, but would be buried by family members in their own gardens. The church was closed, and services were held in the open air, where people could congregate at a safe distance from one another.
The deaths continued, so in June 1666, Mompesson persuaded the entire community to make a terrible choice: they decided to isolate themselves from the outside world, knowing that this meant almost certain death. They established a system with friends and relatives outside the village whereby food and supplies were left at agreed points and the villagers would collect these later and leave money in return. Two of the places they used can still be visited today – Mompesson’s Well, where money was left in the water, and the Boundary Stone, a boulder with holes where coins could be covered in water or vinegar.
William Mompesson worked tirelessly to bolster the resolve of his parishioners. He made wills, gave out medicines, and nursed his wife when she fell sick, although she asked him to stay away from her for his own safety. Katherine was the 200th person to die, and she was buried in the church yard. Her tomb can still be seen today.
Eyam’s self-imposed quarantine lasted for fourteen months. When there had been no deaths for a period of several weeks, William Mompesson burned everything he had – clothing, bedding, furniture, the lot – and encouraged the rest of the village to do the same.
In a letter to his uncle, Mompesson described the village as “… a Golgotha, a place of skulls.” More than 260 villagers died out of a total population of 350. Entire families died – a woman called Elizabeth Hancock buried six children and her husband in a period of eight days – but not one person broke the agreement, which saved untold lives in the North of England.
If you fictionalized this, nobody would believe it. I can’t imagine a community today having the strength of will to make this kind of decision and holding to it without exception. It’s inspiring to think of the tenacity and strength of character of William and Katherine Mompesson, Thomas Stanley, Elizabeth Hancock, and the brave villagers of Eyam.
Where did you find inspiration this week?