I wasn’t sure what to expect from my visit to Eyam (pronounced ‘Eem’). Like many people, I was only familiar with this Derbyshire village because of the plague outbreak of 1665 and 1666, which killed 260 people, a huge proportion of the local population. After infected fleas arrived from London in a consignment of cloth for the local tailor, people began to fall sick with bubonic plague and the local clergymen famously imposed measures to try to prevent its spread, including a cordon around the village with food and supplies being left at the village boundaries.
While I had known about this tragic story (presented in excellent fictional form in the book ‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks), I had no idea how Eyam Hall fit into the narrative and it was with some surprise that I found out that it wasn’t even built until shortly after the plague. It was a present from Thomas Wright – a local lead miner who had friends in Eyam (including some who had died during the plague) – to his second son, John, and daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, as a wedding present, and has since been occupied by 11 generations of Wrights. The current owners have moved into a smaller house in the village and have leased the property to the National Trust for ten years, almost four of which are now up. It seems the future of this arrangement is on slightly shaky ground as it remains to be seen if a similar or adjusted deal will be struck at the end of the designated time.
Overall, the National Trust’s presence in Eyam does appear a little off-kilter: here we have a village with a fascinating plague history and a house that wasn’t even built at the time, so the two don’t appear to hang together very well. In some regards, this is certainly true, but the way my visit panned out, I realised that there is also something fairly neat about the situation in Eyam. Firstly, you can join one of the guided village walks to find out about the ancient history of the settlement at Eyam, working up to the details of the plague, and then you can enter Eyam Hall and rejoin the timeline a few years later, following the lives of one local family through from 1672 to the present day. By the end of my visit, I really felt that I had taken a journey through history, from the very geology of the ancient landscape right through to the 1990s when the current owners of Eyam Hall inherited.
I started my day with the guided walk, which is excellent and takes between 1½ and 1¾ hours. Our guide was entertaining, enthusiastic and informative, walking us through the village with many stops during which she covered a lot of Eyam’s background in addition to the plague information. She also pointed out some other spots you can walk to nearby, including the graves of a whole family on the hillside and the boundary stone where people from the neighbouring villages would leave supplies and deliver messages from the outside world. She said she hadn’t done her job if we didn’t have very sad faces after the talk and I can confirm that she did her job very well!
After the walk – and some sustenance in a local teashop – I headed for the Hall. There was no guidebook (perhaps not surprising considering the newness of the property), but most rooms had a short information board with some relevant facts. All in all, the inside of the Hall could be described as a hotch-potch, with the ancient and the very modern located side by side in what is presented as a family home. There are clearly rooms that are focused on a specific period, e.g. the oak bedroom (right) with information about family members from the 1700s, the more modern bedroom belonging to the house’s latest owners and the library with bibles that belonged to a clerical Wright and books on cattle health that belonged to a farming Wright in the 1800s. But there are a lot of historical periods to cover and things do tend to jump backwards and forwards with alarming regularity; without a guidebook to place the various Wright family members in time, you may have to keep rushing back to the Drawing Room to have a look at the family tree on the wall!
As an example of the somewhat random nature of things, I saw some photos of a Charles Wright who attended Trinity College, Oxford, on the stairs, then found that the Old Kitchen is presented in the way it would have been when he and his wife Irene lived at Eyam Hall after the Second World War. On the kitchen table are copies of the letters they wrote to each other while he was away fighting in the First World War as well as a family photo album, but alongside these is a collection of recipes written by Jane Wright (née Farewell) over 200 years earlier. The kitchen is the obvious place for these, but she doesn’t really fit in with the 1940s fittings!
It is still early days for the National Trust’s tenure at Eyam and I fear that maybe the property is yet to find a unique selling point. Clearly, the plague history is a big draw and the guided walks are an excellent introduction to the village and a lead-in to the Hall’s history, but there is already a separate village museum so there could be issues with the Trust competing too directly with that. The craft centre located in the courtyard alongside the Hall is another valuable addition to the property as is the very good bookshop (quaintly described as ‘preloved’ rather than ‘secondhand’), but the café is not run by the Trust so don’t go there looking for the oak-leaf shortbread. Inside the Hall, there are relatively few furnishings of really significant note or value and none of the family members is famous in their own right, so it is difficult to find anything specific on which to hang a reputation. Perhaps it could benefit from clearer associations between specific house contents, the stories of relevant family members and where they sit in the long timeline. It is clearly a valued family home and deserves to be preserved but it is never going to be a flagship property in the Trust’s portfolio so I hope that it can continue to make the most of its presence in the ‘plague village’ in order to draw in the visitors.
Highlights: The guided ‘plague’ walk, nosing through Charles and Irene’s photo album!
Refreshments: The NT does not run the Buttery Café next to Eyam Hall but I did have a pot of tea and chocolate almond bombe there having already had a cheese and beans jacket potato with hot chocolate at one of the village tearooms at lunchtime
Purchase(s): ‘A Place Called Winter’ by Patrick Gale from the ‘pre-loved’ bookshop
Companion(s): The Silver Girls