Jilly: Finding Inspiration in Eyam

Derbyshire Well Dressing  (copyright Dennis Thorley via Wikimedia Commons)

Derbyshire Well Dressing
(copyright Dennis Thorley via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Boundary Stone, Eyam  (via Wikimedia Commons)

Boundary Stone, Eyam
(via Wikimedia Commons)

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?

18 thoughts on “Jilly: Finding Inspiration in Eyam

  1. What an incredible story. I can’t imagine this happening in the United States—people here have an overdeveloped (imo) notion of individuality, which results in “nobody tells me what to do.” And to remember and celebrate events of 500 years ago—well, we just don’t remember history, even from last week.

    I’d never heard of well dressing before, but what a great idea. We should all do that. Sorry about the family stuff, but difficulties can often unleash creative thoughts. I bet you write a lot this week!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Kay. I’m sure there must be lots of other traditions giving thanks for clean water, but I think well dressing is unique to the Peak District and nearby. They’re works of art and an annual labor of love for local people. There are some great photos on Wikimedia Commons – I was spoiled for choice!

    • Thank you, ashbournevoice. I love reading about the other Ladies’ very different homes and heritage, and I felt sure people would enjoy a taste of Derbyshire 🙂

  2. I’m finding inspiration right now from a Navajo woman I met during my trip to Arizona. We’ve stayed in touch (I had a phone conversation with her yesterday) and she’s helping me with background information on the Navajo way for my book.

    She recently lost her husband and longs to return to a life she left behind years ago. She’s really struggling with many things, financial issues, the choices she’s made in her life, grief over losing her husband, longing for the past, but despite the fact that her life is in tatters right now, she remains philosophical and upbeat about the future. Her whole life has been about survival, and she’s still not giving up. She’s looking forward to what’s next, wants to help the people she left behind, and I find that very inspiring.

  3. Fifteen years ago, twenty acres of land with a ramshackle farmhouse and some old barns were the last remnant of old farm lands here in the north Chicago suburbs. The land was put up for sale and everyone expected it to become more tract housing. However, one woman looked at that land and thought, “This is the last thing like this in an environment where kids think milk comes from jugs and eggs come from cartons. We need to save this and turn it into a historical, educational open-air museum.” She gathered a number of like-minded citizens and petitioned the Park District to purchase it for the city. She succeeded, and with an optimism and determination that brings tears to my eyes, turned that old land into an amazing educational center called Wagner Farm in Glenview IL. My city-born-and-bred Girl Scouts have all milked a real cow there, and gathered fresh, warm eggs from live chickens (which we then got to take home and eat!). This amazing woman succeeded in taking her vision and bringing it to life.

    I met Dee, this inspiring woman who prefers to remain largely anonymous, this week out at the Historical Methodist Campgrounds of Des Plaines. There are more than a hundred old houses on those 30 acres, many dating from the 1860’s, still standing there seemingly untouched by time. Most of it is decrepit and falling to pieces, and despite having been in use for 150 years looked to soon be completely defunct. Last year, Dee saw it. 🙂 She has decided it needs to be saved. She’s right. It’s beautiful land by the river with amazing details, some that date back to the Civil War, plus a beautiful 1920’s swimming pool. She envisions a huge museum, with each home restored and containing a different demonstration- cooking, candle making, chicken coops, etc. There is not a doubt in her mind that she will succeed, and despite being a grandmother she has energy that takes my breath away. Of course, she needs workers, so she is mobilizing every group she can, including Eagle Scouts and 4H. My daughter is soooo excited about braiding rag rugs and hand stitching curtains and tatting lace for the cottages with the 4H program. I am excited just being in Dee’s energy field.

    It has been a long, long time since I met someone so truly inspirational. Your blog post was well-timed for me.

    • I love this story, Jennifer, and it’s inspirational to think there are people with this kind of vision and drive, making special things happen. I really hope she succeeds.

      And to borrow from Kat, above, Dee would make one heck of a protagonist 🙂

  4. I’ve turned my attention, at least for a while, back to a novel I drafted 12 years ago. It’s a historical, set in a Minnesota lumber town that was destroyed by a fire in 1894. I’d forgotten how much I loved walking around in that little town till I dug out all my notes.

    • What kind of a story is it, Jeanne? Funny, I thought quite a lot about your character Dara last week when I was trying to imagine what Elizabeth Hancock must have gone through.

  5. Great posts, and it inspires so many different thoughts! I’m so glad you shared.

    First . . . Derbyshire? This sounds very Pride and Prejudice-y (-:! Is Rose, your heroine, from Derbyshire, too?

    Second: Water. One of the cornerstones of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. How to ration water is at the base of a lot of conflicts, I think. This is a fascinating story! So many people had no where to go, and sacrificed themselves for the benefit of their neighbors. It really is an inspiring story.

    I think perhaps you could get away with a story like this in SF, and possibly in fantasy. In fact, I’m sure it’s been done. (Alien? I haven’t seen Alien, so I can’t say for sure if they self-quarantined, or if there was simply no place for the survivors to go, so they had to deal with the plague themselves.)

    (-: And, when I was in Tokyo, I visited a well that’s supposed to be a power spot in the area. I didn’t dig too far into the story — I think perhaps there’s not a lot of info in English about Kiyomasa’s well. But I was very interested in how that whole dynamic plays out in the present. Who goes there? What do they do? The sign there is very funny — it praises the “quality of the water” and then warns that nobody should drink from it. Oh, what weak and frightened times we live in! (But people do stand on the stones in the well, so who knows what microbes from around the world are now in that well.)

    A well is a huge mythological symbol, too. The well of the world, a person who has a deep soul like a well . . . .

    I loved hearing about this corner of the world!

  6. Derbyshire – yes, absolutely it’s Pride and Prejudice-y, Michaeline. Sometimes I have lunch with my mum in a hotel where Jane Austen stayed while she was writing P&P, and if the weather’s nice we often go for a walk around Chatsworth (Pemberley!). My heroine, Rose, is a country girl, but she’s from Hampshire (a softie Southerner rather than a gritty Northern lass).

    Derbyshire’s not all stately homes, though. It was also at the heart of the Industrial Revolution and that world fascinates me. I’d love to write about it one day – I’m not sure I could write a straight historical but I keep hankering to have a go at Derbyshire steampunk – corsets and fantastic inventions; tough, smart, wisecracking people and breathtakingly beautiful scenery. Hmmm.

    There are lots of plague stories, but mostly they’re about a handful of survivors battling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world (I Am Legend, or my personal fave Warm Bodies). I can’t think of any off-hand where the zombies or aliens are the ones to destroy themselves and save the humans.

    • (-: Oh, yes! I know you’ve mentioned Chatsworth/Pemberley!

      I often wonder what it would be like to live in a place full of (hi)story — just soaked into the stones. I love visiting places like that, but most of the places I’ve actually lived have a very short remembered history, and all the rest is lost. Sometimes, we find obsidian spearpoints in the dirt my FIL digs up for my MIL’s potted plantings, hinting that there *was* a strong history here before. But it’s all lost . . . .

  7. I read a book somewhat similar to that several years ago (the name/author totally escapes me). I found it fascinating and a good read. This is definitely a storyline someone could get behind.

    I wonder how the squire/wealthier residents fared after leaving town?

  8. Pingback: Jilly: What Kind of Story Would Suit Your Home Town? | Eight Ladies Writing

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