10th November HELMICK ANNIVERSARY ADVENTURE, PART 2:
To finish the tale: Fortified by our comfortable night and huge breakfast at Monsal Head Hotel, we returned to the famous ‘Plague Village’ for a longer visit. Eyam stands as a monument to its 17th century residents who lived, (and in many cases died), through an outbreak of bubonic plague, and whose brave decision to quarantine themselves prevented the dread disease from spreading throughout Derbyshire and beyond.
Today, Eyam and its environs form a unique plague history site, boasting an excellent museum, Tourist Information Centre, helpful signage, maps and interpretation boards at key locations, and a village-wide scheme of information plaques on many buildings - including private houses. We greatly appreciated the inhabitants’ generosity in putting up with streams of people like us, loitering outside, reading aloud from boards in their gardens, and taking photos of their homes; it’s very sobering to contemplate all the ghastly deaths which occurred within their picturesque walls. But before that, to get the background for our tour, we took advantage of the nearby free car-park and went to Eyam Museum. Staffed by friendly, helpful volunteers, this is well worth the £3 admission; it also has a lovely shop where I snagged a few early Christmas gifts! The galleries contain high-quality, informative displays on all aspects of local history, and a full exhibition on the plague, featuring the alarming doctor (pictured) with his bird mask, the beak being stuffed with herbs to protect him from contagion.
Duly equipped with much food for thought and a history trail map, we headed, via the parish church, for the home of Alexander and Mary Hadfield, commonly known as ‘Plague Cottage,’ (pictured) nearby on Church Street. Their lodger, journeyman tailor George Viccars, became Eyam’s first plague victim after taking delivery of a batch of musty cloth from pestilential London. When he aired it by the fire, fleas infected with Yersinia pestis emerged and bit him; he died on September 7th 1665, quickly followed by two of his landlady’s sons, six of the nine Thorpes from adjoining Rose Cottage, (the three surviving family members died in spring 1666), and six of their opposite neighbours, the Sydalls of Bagshaw House. The epidemic then spread further afield, and over14 months, some 270 people - around 30% of the population – died, including the apothecary who provided medicine to the afflicted, and the rector’s wife who nursed them. Even the occupants of two relatively isolated farmsteads on the eastern edge of the village didn’t escape: first the entire Talbot family perished, then, over eight days of August 1666, the husband and six children of sole survivor Elizabeth Hancock – who single-handedly dragged out her loved ones’ bodies and buried them at a safe distance from the house. (There are numerous plague graves in fields and gardens around Eyam, since Reverend Mompesson wisely suspended churchyard burials and all services, except in open air, to limit the risk of infection). As the picture shows, these so-called ‘Riley Graves’ – John Hancock’s box-tomb and the headstones of his two sons and four daughters, including three-year-old Oner – now lie within a low drystone wall on their lonely hillside, a heart-rending monument to one family’s unimaginable suffering and loss.
Our last port of call was Mompesson’s Well, a watering hole, safely distant from habitation, where villagers left money which their supporters replaced with food and medicine. Then we hiked back to the car, too weary and footsore to do more than drive home; but Eyam, with its unspoilt beauty and horrifying history, has left such a deep impression that we’ll surely return to see other famous sites like Cucklet Delph ‘Church,’ where Reverend Mompesson preached al fresco, and poor Rowlande Torre caught a last glimpse from afar of his fiancée Emmott Sydall. Altogether, a profound and poignant experience – highly recommended.
In between all our other activities this autumn, we’ve managed to process a considerable quantity of apples from our own trees/given to us by customers and friends. We juiced the first batch using our trusty little Vigo fruit press (pictured left) – a long, slow, sticky operation, because after washing and cutting out the bad bits, all the apples had to go through my food processor to chop them finely enough for pressing. This method has served us well enough in the past; but in preparation for the much larger quantities of fruit we’ll have to deal with in the future as the Beckside orchard grows, we decided to invest in a substantially larger Vigo press. This delightfully Victorian-style machine looks like something you’d find in an agricultural museum – essentially because the method hasn't changed, so this good, simple design has stood the test of time. The Vigo Classic Crusher has its own hopper, macerator and geared flywheel, which chops the fruit directly into a much bigger bag for pressing; the juice yield is somewhat less because it doesn’t chop the fruit so finely, but it’s a much faster operation which can be carried out by one person, whereas using the smaller press typically took both of us all day!
So after I’d helped with the washing/cutting out of bruises and wormy bits, Hubcap got his waterproofs on and set about the job himself one soggy Sunday - the pictures below show him chopping and pressing the fruit. We ended up with a couple of gallons of delicious cloudy juice, half of which we saved for drinking while the rest is slowly turning into cider - and a resolution to buy a canvas canopy for rigging up over the patio to give us shade from the sun or shelter from the rain in autumns to come. We reckon the new press cut the labour involved by at least 50%, so it’s definitely been a worthwhile purchase, and we’re looking forward to developing our skills as craft cider-makers – hopefully this will turn into an annual apple-picking and pressing party at Beckside with family and friends while we drink the previous year’s brew!