Listening to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock this morning on news outlets, asking that “people will have to be patient”, in the face of their demands of when they can book their summer holidays, I was left a little bewildered. In the light of new information on how the behaviour of the corona virus is mutating and adapting, one fails to see the logic in rushing to take our chances in risking infection for the sake of a holiday.
I’m not saying I am a particular fan of the minister, or indeed, his party, but I did feel like I was listening to an adult trying to becalm unruly children on the way to the seaside. I don’t suppose the government has made all the right calls at exactly the right time, but bearing in mind what potentially we are in the face of here, I wonder who could have? I’m not sure I would want to be the one making those calls, short of locking down the country entirely for the next ten years. There are always going to be trade-offs somewhere in social logistics until the virus has run its course.
Also, the media are constantly asking politicians on a daily basis, ‘When…will it be over…can we go on holiday…will things be back to normal?’. Newspaper headlines in December were railing at “Big mouth scientists urge lockdown … Don’t sing carols! … Christmas is Cancelled!” Then celebrations – “Boris battles experts to save Christmas!”. There was no reference to this pressure applied by those same media outlets when the post-Christmas spike of deaths came following the movement of people around the country and family get-togethers at Christmas.
Initially it is understandable, that as we have been enduring the effects of the virus for almost a year, most widely felt being the lockdown, people may wish to escape on holiday and maybe lie on a sunny beach, but to what cost?
It may be that there is very little we can do to halt the exponential growth of the virus at all, but would there not be a little wisdom in trying our best until we know more?
There is still plenty of chatter from the conspiracy theorists about the source of the virus. A lot of people have had a year at home with too much time to browse the web following the rabbits down the rabbit holes. Yet, those questions being asked about correlations between the virus and meat packing plants and livestock processing seem not to provide enough drama to warrant equivalent airtime. The virus will keep thriving until we understand its source and behaviour.
I have three sisters in Manchester and I had a visit there a couple of years ago. The four of us, and my father, went on a day out driving around the beautiful peaks of Derbyshire. Nestling into one of those peaks, above Buxton and Bakewell is the village of Eyam.
I may not have heard of this village otherwise, but it is famous to those who know their history of the plague times of England. The story of Eyam had quite a profound effect on me when I visited, and has revealed its relevance to us even more in the last year. Please allow me to sketch the story out for you.
The ‘Black Death’ had accounted for approximately 60% of Europe’s population between 1346-53. In the spring of 1665 the plague re-emerged with strength in the south of England and the packed streets of London were soon alive with infection once again. Many with means fled the city to country houses and estates or smaller towns in the surrounding counties. Unfortunately, not knowing the route of transmission; many blaming miasma (bad air) they carried the plague with them by way of fleas in clothing and luggage and facilitated the spread across the counties.
In late August, a bale of cloth transported from London to tailor Alexander Hadfield in Eyam was opened by his assistant George Viccars. Finding the cloth to be damp and infested with fleas he shook the cloth out and hung it in front of the fire to dry. He died a few days later with his burial being recorded in the parish register on 7th September 1665. More villagers began to die in the following weeks and months.
The people of Eyam reacted to this in an extraordinarily unselfish and almost unique way. At the time, Eyam had two Reverends; Thomas Stanley who was outgoing due to political reasons within the church, and his replacement, 28 year old Reverend William Mompesson, who had been in the village for just a year and was mistrusted for taking the place of the old favoured reverend. However, the two men came together, and deeply felt the responsibility to contain the plague from affecting the surrounding peoples of the North West. They drew up a plan and offered it to the villagers who agreed its implementation.
To stop the plague spreading to nearby Sheffield and beyond, they drew a “cordon sanitaire” around the village; nobody could come in and no villager could leave. A few of the wealthier land owning families did leave but most of the villagers listened to the two Reverends pleas to stay put, as they did themselves. They would have known there was a good chance it could be a death sentence, but for their own reasons, they stuck by their decision to protect the wider populous. We are free to ask ourselves what we would have done in their shoes.
Reverend Mompesson buried his own wife after she succumbed to the plague while tending to the dying in the village. August saw a Mrs Elizabeth Hancock bury her husband and her six children in the space of eight days; by hand, on her own, as burials had to be done by the families to try and restrain contagion.
Food and provisions were brought to the southern boundary stone of the village by, no doubt grateful people of surrounding villages, and money was left in troughs of vinegar that they thought might disinfect the coins.
There are many more stories of note in this episode, many heartbreaking letters written between those involved. One last one I will tell you here is of Emmott Sydall. A young women in Eyam who was betrothed to her sweetheart Rowland Torre, who lived in the neighbouring village of Stoney Middleton. When it became too dangerous for Rowland to visit Emmot, the lovers arranged to meet, probably at Cucklett Delf, a picturesque dale between the villages. To exchange precious moments together and to make sure all was still well; but at a distance. ‘Socially distanced’ across a meadow, and in silence, lest their plan be discovered. When in April 1666, Emmott stopped appearing, Rowland continued daily to go their meeting place, with hope against all odds, that his beloved Emmott might yet appear. He was one of the first outsiders to re-enter the village late in 1666 when it was pronounced safe; to discover his fear materialised, that Emmott had died in April.
A touching but raw human story, as often human stories are, and applicable in many ways to our time.
When I consider the story of Eyam and the good people there; I am deeply moved to think of their self-sacrificial mindset to protect others, their stoicism and their acceptance of what will be.
Overall 260 Eyam villagers died out of, and reports vary, between 350 and 800 inhabitants in the 14 months of the plague; but helping to resist its spread they most certainly did.
So when holidays are back with us proper, and aren’t a factor in risking human health, how about a jaunt to the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire and a stop in the pretty stone built village of Eyam and reflect on the story of the people there.
Sometimes when people endure the worst of times, what also endures, is the lesson they leave behind for those that follow after.