A 17th century experiment in social distancing

My last post lamented that a minority of my fellow citizens have refused to comply with the social distancing rules brought in to help control the spread of COVID-19, preferring instead to party. Regrettably one of the examples of such behaviour that made the national headlines was in my local area, just a few miles from Platypus Towers.

However it’s not all bad news around here, and I’m pleased to report that one of the most remarkable, selfless acts of social distancing also took place right here in my home county of Derbyshire. Not yesterday, not last week or even last month. No, this extraordinary act of self-sacrifice took place in the picturesque village of Eyam in 1666, an incredible 354 years ago!

Eyam

PHOTO CREDIT: “Eyam” by jodastephen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The story began in London, in 1665, when the city was ravaged by bubonic plague. The epidemic lasted for 18 months, during which time it’s estimated that 100,000 people – one quarter of London’s population – lost their lives.

Bubonic plague was transmitted via the bite of infected Black Rat fleas, and in summer 1665 a consignment of cloth infested with those fleas brought the disease some 160 miles north of London, to the remote village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Peak District. The cloth was ordered by tailor Alexander Hadfield, but it was his assistant George Viccars who was the first to succumb to the disease it brought with it, on 7 September 1665.

The plague had gained a foothold in Eyam, and as time passed more villagers took ill and died. By the end of 1665 over forty plague deaths had been recorded and the following year, as winter turned to spring, many villagers considered fleeing to somewhere – anywhere – else where they might be safe from the disease.

One of the “Plague Cottages” in use at the time of the epidemic

At this point local clergyman William Mompesson intervened. Recognising that if the villagers fled they could spread the contagion to the nearby towns of Manchester, Sheffield and Bakewell, he determined that the village should isolate itself from the rest of the country. And with that, social distancing – 1666 style – came to Eyam.

The rules of (dis)engagement that Mompesson persuaded villagers to accept were deceptively simple:

  • nobody was to enter or leave the village, for any reason
  • food supplies would be delivered to drop-off points at the village boundary. Here villagers would leave coins soaked in vinegar to pay for the food delivered by the Earl of Devonshire’s men and others.
  • church services would be held outdoors
  • the churchyard was to be closed, and the dead buried in fields at the edge of the village
  • families would bury their own dead

In effect, the people of Eyam locked themselves away from the rest of the world, and let the disease run its natural course. By the time the restrictions were lifted, some 260 villagers had died. The size of the village population before the plague arrived is unclear, but it’s likely that at least a third of its inhabitants – and perhaps a much bigger proportion – died during the lockdown. Sadly, rector Mompesson’s wife was one of the victims.

At the height of the outbreak – in August 1666 – a total of 78 people died. That month Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of her seven children over a period of eight days. The spot where she interred them – in an unremarkable field on a hill some way out of the village – remains a poignant reminder of a time of unimaginable hardship for the people of Eyam.

The historical record is such that we can go beyond mere numbers, and understand the human cost of Eyam’s decision to isolate itself. The death of Mompesson’s wife and the tragedy of Elizabeth Hancock’s family are two examples. A third is the story 22-year-old Emmott Sydall, who was engaged to marry a lad from the next village.

A “Plague Grave,” dating from just before the closure of the churchyard

When the restrictions were imposed Emmot was no longer permitted to get up close and personal with her fiancé. Instead the two star-crossed lovers had to content themselves with rendezvousing at an agreed spot at the edge of the village, to stare lovingly into one another’s eyes from a safe distance. But one day the ritual ceased abruptly, and Emmott never went there again. The plague had taken her.

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Mompesson lost his wife, but achieved his goal. Although Eyam was ravaged and achieved notoriety – even today it is known as the Plague Village – the outbreak did not spread beyond its boundaries to surrounding settlements. From the broader perspectives of history and epidemiology, Mompesson’s 17th experiment in social distancing can therefore be regarded as a success.

I doubt, however, that Elizabeth Hancock or Emmott Sydall’s fiancé saw it that way. There are losers, as well as winners, in any experiment with social distancing.

Every August, on the last Sunday of the month, Eyam holds a memorial service to recognise the sacrifices of those who died in 1666 so that others might continue living. They call it Plague Sunday.

I wonder how we, as a society, will remember those who have lost their lives in the fight against COVID-19?

Anarchy in the UK – the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football

November 1976 saw the Sex Pistols – the dark princes of English punk rock – release their debut single, Anarchy in the UK. The Pistols were wild and wayward, and maybe just a little bit bonkers, but even in their maddest dreams they cannot possibly have imagined the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football. Like the Pistols themselves, Shrovetide football isn’t for the faint-hearted. Anarchy rules, OK.

Unless you’re English you’ve probably never heard of Ashbourne. To be fair, even if you are, the chances are that this quaint little market town of around 8,000 souls nestling in the Derbyshire Peak District has passed you by. It oozes bucolic charm, and is therefore memorably forgettable.

A few years ago a former Ashbourne resident, writing on the student website The Tab, described it as “the most backwards town in the country“. Seems a bit harsh to me, but it has to be said that unless you’re very easily excited, the place won’t set your pulse racing. Except, that is, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, when football comes to town.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “10-P2183459” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shrovetide football bears scant resemblance to any other form of football. The Ashbourne game comprises two teams – the Up’Ards, born north of the local River Henmore, and the Down’Ards, born to its south. The number of players is unlimited, and can exceed a thousand on each side. The goals, where the ball must be touched down to register a score, are three miles (five kilometres) apart.

The game begins in the Shawcroft car park in the centre of Ashbourne, where an eager crowd of thousands gathers. They belt out the national anthem as if their lives depend on it. Then silence falls and the excitement builds, everyone waiting impatiently for the fun to begin.

At last, with the tension close to unbearable, an invited dignitary or celebrity standing on a brick-built podium “turns up” the ball – lavishly painted, filled with cork for added buoyancy and about the size of a Halloween pumpkin – into the expectant horde of pumped-up masculinity. Testosterone hangs heavy in the air, so thick you could butter toast with it. No rules prevent women from participating, but good sense persuades most to take a back-seat and let their menfolk do the hard graft and risk the consequences.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “05-P2183439” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The objective of the game is straightforward. The Up’Ards must carry the ball to Sturston Mill, south of Ashbourne, and “goal” by tapping it three times against a millstone. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The only problem they face is the thousand or so Down’Ards who are blocking the way and baying for blood.

Meanwhile, the aim of the Down’Ards is to carry the ball to Clifton Mill, north of the town, where they also must “goal it”. Inevitably, they find their passage blocked by at least a thousand incensed Up’Ards, whose ambition is to prevent this happening by means both cunning and brutal.

As you will have worked out by now, Shrovetide football has no designated pitch or playing field. The game is played through the streets of the town, and the sprawling farmland beyond, occasionally spilling into the freezing river. It is the original “game without borders.”

Proceedings are boisterous, chaotic and occasionally violent. Shopkeepers close their businesses and protect their premises with wooden boards and shutters, car owners move their vehicles out of harm’s way and paramedics are on standby. Schools close for the day, lest students get caught up in the mayhem. Injuries are common, although fatalities are mercifully very rare.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “21-P2183512” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Play begins at 2pm on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and finishes eight hours later. Battered, bruised and bloodied, the players limp off home to lick their wounds, only to assemble the following day at 2pm to do it all again. Despite 16 hours of play, it is rare for more than two goals to be scored in any year. Sometimes, the result is a nil-nil draw, and every year the broken limbs, bruises, sprains and strains outnumber the goals scored.

You can count the rules on the fingers of one hand. Players must not enter churchyards or cemeteries, and must refrain from hiding the ball or attempting to carry it on a motor vehicle. In addition, murder is frowned upon. But with these few exceptions, pretty much anything goes.

“Mob football”, as the Ashbourne game is classified, has a long history – dating back at least to the 13th century – and was once widespread in rural England. Inevitably the mayhem it caused was resented by the wealthier and more refined types, those who had the most to lose from mass outbreaks of anarchic behaviour.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “02-P2183425” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Eventually these elite groups got their way, and mob football went into serious decline in the nineteenth century after the 1835 Highway Act banned the playing of football on public highways. But it clung on in Ashbourne, and a few other places including Workington and Sedgefield in northern England, and Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

Shrovetide football remains a much-loved tradition amongst Ashbourne people, a demanding endurance test for all the participants, and also a rite of passage for lads wishing to follow in the hallowed footsteps of previous generations of men in their families. Many former residents return to the town every year to take part or watch from the side-lines, and tourists visit in droves to see what all the fuss is about. For two days every year, Shrovetide football ensures that Ashbourne has a national – and even international – profile.

And now to the question that’s been on your mind as you’ve read this post – has the Platypus Man ever played Shrovetide football? The answer is an emphatic ‘no,’ and although Ashbourne lies just a few miles from Platypus Towers I’ve never attended as a spectator either. Frankly, life’s too short and my body is way too fragile to risk the frenzy of the mob. Have a look at this short video, on the Guardian’s website, and you’ll understand everything!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that this relic from our country’s medieval past hangs on in deepest, darkest Derbyshire. But I’m glad too that, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can read about it and watch YouTube videos of the highlights in own home, secure in the knowledge that there are several miles and a very sturdy brick wall between me and the madness.

A little bit of Anarchy in the UK isn’t without its appeal, but only when viewed from a safe distance.

Getting stuffed: the King of Rome and superfluous penguins

He spends his days, and nights too, with all the other dead things in the natural history gallery. In a desperate attempt to fashion a silk purse from a sow’s ear Derby Museum’s curators call it the “Notice Nature Feel Joy Gallery”, but there’s precious little joy for me in display cabinets full of sad, stuffed things. It’s a bizarre collection, an unholy mixture of long dead creatures that certainly lived here or hereabouts – foxes, badgers and the like – and others that most definitely did not.

Hands up anyone who knows why Derby Museum finds it desirable or expedient to display a pair of stuffed penguins.

But don’t mock and be sure to behave yourselves, after all we’re in the presence of royalty. Over there, in that unassuming showcase on the back wall, sits the King of Rome. And here’s the thing, he really does belong in the heart of the English East Midlands: the King of Rome lived out his days in Derby.

Before you think I’ve completely lost my marbles, or conclude that Derby folk make a habit of inflicting taxidermy upon exiled European monarchs, let me reassure you that the King of Rome is a racing pigeon. Deceased, obviously, otherwise the RSPCA would have something to say regarding his incarceration in a museum showcase.

And not just any racing pigeon. I mean, this guy’s a record breaker who found his most famous exploit celebrated in song.

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Even setting aside matters of gastronomy, man and pigeon have been in a longstanding relationship. A record exists from around 1200BC of messenger pigeons being used in ancient Egypt to enable cities to communicate with one another about Nile River floodwaters. More than a millennium later they were passing messages through the Greek and Roman worlds, and pigeon racing is known to have taken place as long ago as the third century AD.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Derby Museum and Art Gallery [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D Picture by & © Andy Mabbett, CC by-sa 3.0

Modern European pigeon racing began in Belgium in the 1850s, from where it spread to Britain. The first formal pigeon race in the UK took place in 1881, and five years later King Leopold II of the Belgians presented racing pigeons to Queen Victoria as a gift. To this day the monarch retains a royal pigeon loft at her Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

In the early 20th century poor working men in some areas of the UK took up pigeon racing. For them the sport became a means of escape, personal exploration and self-expression at a time when working class lives were hard. Selectively breeding pigeons to increase their chances, then rearing and caring for them to ensure they were in top condition on race days, became an all-consuming passion for the sport’s devotees.

It’s now that our hero, and his owner – one Charlie Hudson – steps on to the stage. Charlie lived on Brook Street, in a poor area of Derby known as the West End. His interest in pigeon racing is said to have begun in 1904, and in 1913 he showed the world that he’d produced a champion.

In 1913 Charlie entered his best bird into a race from Rome to Derby, a colossal distance of 1,611km (1,001 miles). It won, and in so doing set a new long-distance record for an English racing pigeon, while over one thousand other birds competing in the race perished on the journey home.

The winning bird became famous in pigeon racing circles. When it died in 1946 after a long and celebrated life, Charlie presented the corpse to Derby Museum to be stuffed for posterity and the common good.

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Charlie Hudson died in 1958. Three decades later the story of this simple working class hero and his indomitable bird caught the imagination of Derbyshire folk singer-songwriter Dave Sudbury. “The King of Rome” tells the story of the race, and, more importantly perhaps, shows how pigeon racing allowed Charlie to escape the confines of his birth and upbringing. Through the medium of Dave Sudbury’s song, Charlie says:

… “I can’t fly but my pigeons can.
And when I set them free,
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings.”

Excerpt from The King of Rome, © Dave Sudbury

The song, which has since become a classic in the folk world, was initially made famous by the brilliant June Tabor on her 1988 album Aqaba. You can hear her version on YouTube by clicking here. The complete lyrics are here.

Countless others have recorded the King of Rome. Dave Sudbury’s original version of the song is also available on YouTube: raw, authentic and very moving.

However my favourite of them all is sung by the incomparable Lucy Ward. Lucy’s a Derby girl, so it seems only appropriate that she should sing about another great character from that city. Click here to listen and watch her singing the song live and unaccompanied at Jurassic Folk, Seaton, East Devon, England in 2012.

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In 2013 the 100th anniversary of the great race was celebrated in a 45 minutes-long radio drama, demonstrating that the story continues to capture imaginations. Dreams really can come true.

What a pity, therefore, that Derby Museum makes so little out of this heart-warming tale. True, it displays the stuffed King in a neat little showcase, while a small adjacent card describes the bird’s achievement and mentions the folk song in a few meagre sentences.

But the story, as Dave Sudbury so ably captures, is much bigger than that. It offers a way into the social history of Derby, in particular the inadequately told history of working class leisure pursuits in the 20th century. Surely these are the stories that English regional museums should be telling, rather than cluttering up their galleries with superfluous penguins?

The Knife Angel comes to Derby

A few days before setting off on our epic journey around New Zealand, Mrs P and I took a trip to the nearby city of Derby to take a look at the Knife Angel. Also known as the National Monument Against Violence and Aggression, the Knife Angel is a public art installation that is currently touring the country to draw attention to the issue of knife crime. The sculpture, which stands 8.2 metres (27 feet) high, has been created from around 100,000 blades surrendered to police during knife amnesties.

The Knife Angel is the brainchild of the British Ironwork Centre, working with sculptor Alfie Bradley. The Centre provided police forces with 200 secure knife banks, free of charge, to support and encourage them to run more knife amnesties.

The knives and other weapons that were surrendered during the amnesties prompted by the knife banks were sent to the Centre’s workshops, where they were disinfected and blunted. Bradley created a basic angel shape from steel, and then proceeded to weld knives to it. The wings were made from knife blades only, to produce a feathery appearance.

The Centre invited families who had lost loved ones due to knife crime and violence to engrave an everlasting message on a blade, which would then be integrated within the monument. Its website explains that “messages of love and remembrance feature on the angel’s wings, messages not only from families but also perpetrators who have seen the error of their ways and now fight knife crime and violence in a bid to stop it happening on our streets.”

We were surprised and pleased that so many people had turned out on a wet morning to view the Knife Angel. According to the Derby Telegraph, by the time the sculpture moved on to the next city on its itinerary more than 90,000 people had been to see it, from within and beyond the city’s boundaries.

It would be fanciful to expect that pieces of public art like this can have a material impact on the current high levels of knife crime in the UK. However, as a vehicle for community solidarity and a catalyst for reflection on what we have become as a society, the Knife Angel is very powerful indeed. It’s also a damned fine piece of public art, and deserves to be appreciated on those terms as well as for the positive messages it promotes.

Chatsworth House at Christmas

It’s become the fashion in recent years for stately homes – whether in private hands or run by a charitable trust – to open their doors to the public in the run up to Christmas and show off their festive decorations. Some seem to regard it simply as another money-making ploy: just whack up a few trees and glittery baubles, scatter artificial snow liberally in the library, hang a sock or two from a suitable fireplace and watch the money roll in.

Chatsworth House, featuring the “Emperor Fountain”, August 2018

Others – like Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – take it far more seriously, and clearly invest heavily to develop an annual Christmas offer that will delight their visitors. They still watch the money roll in, of course – that’s the name of the game, after all – but at least the punters go away with a smile on their faces, and maybe a few goodies from the seasonally stocked gift shop.

In the magnificent Great Hall the national theme is Russia

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

The Chatsworth House website explains the role of the Trust as follows;

Every penny of visitor admission goes directly to the Chatsworth House Trust, which is dedicated to the long-term preservation of Chatsworth House, the art collection, garden, woodlands and park for the long-term benefit of the public

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts. In this context the Christmas opening isn’t a deal-breaker, but every little helps, not least in building Chatsworth’s reputation and encouraging return visits in the main, summer season.

In the splendid chapel the national theme is Spain

And as we pull into the car park around ten days before Christmas, the place is buzzing. A host of eager attendants, resplendent in their dayglo yellow tabards, direct us to its further reaches where they can just squeeze us in.

National theme: Russia

The theme of this year’s decorations is ” a land far, far away.” Here’s what the website tells us to expect:

Discover lands afar at Chatsworth this Christmas, following in the footsteps of explorers Phileas Fogg and Amelia Earhart. Our guides will lead you on a festive adventure around the globe as you travel from a Nordic winter wonderland, through blossom trees in Japan, to a baroque Spanish church on the journey of a lifetime.

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

National theme: Canada

It’s a clever choice, a chance to give each room or space a theme relating to a specific country, such as the arched branches of russet maple leaves in the Canadian room (actually, more of a corridor than a room, albeit the grandest corridor most of us will ever see.)

Visiting Chatsworth at Christmas is meant to be educational as well as enjoyable, so signposts in each room advise us of the capital of each nation featured, how far it is from Chatsworth, the average December temperature and how much snow falls there that month.

To give the exhibition a more human touch there are also panels bearing snippets of personal information. For example, the 9th Duke was Governor-General of Canada from 1916 to 1921. Not a lot of people know that.

National Theme: Japan

Generally speaking it’s highly creative and although some of the national themes work better than others, overall it’s very well done. There’s certainly no shortage of Christmas trees, no surprise really considering that there are whole plantations of the things on the Chatsworth estate. But I hate to think what Chatsworth’s electricity bill will be this month, lighting up so many trees across no fewer than 22 separate rooms.

Most of the punters seem content that their £25 entrance fee has been well spent, although a gentleman from the other side of the pond – Texan, judging by his drawl – is overheard complaining bitterly that the American room should have been bigger.

National theme: China

In the interests of transatlantic harmony, and mindful of the fact that we Brits need all the friends we can get these days, I refrain from pointing out that if a larger space really is necessary he could always offer to donate his mouth to the cause. But I keep quiet, and am momentarily dismayed by the sense of an opportunity for innocent merriment that is forever lost.

Meanwhile a couple of visitors have no time to worry about national pride. We watch a young lady – in her early 20s probably – move from room to room having her photo taken in front of every tree. Not once, not twice, but dozens of times in front of every bloody tree in Chatsworth House.

National theme: Switzerland

She poses and postures, pouts and preens, tossing her hair and placing a quizzical finger to her chin, but never looks directly at the guy with the camera. Does she think it makes her look more alluring, more seductive? If she does she’s sadly mistaken, she just appears evasive.

And who is this guy anyway, what is he to the Queen of Preen? Boyfriend? Brother? Agent? Pimp? Who knows, but he’s clearly on a mission, clicking away like crazy on his Pentax. The pair of them are in a little world of their own, obsessed with the photoshoot, indifferent to the magic of Chatsworth House.

National theme: Morocco

But the Queen of Preen and Pentax Man are in the minority: most visitors have simply come here for an hour or two of harmless fun. The organisers have done an excellent job in managing the hordes, and there’s a surprising air of serenity.

Chatsworth at Christmas harks back to a gentler age, an age that is a world away from the madness that assails us in the shops and across the media at this time of year. OK, the vision of Christmas portrayed at Chatsworth is a chocolate box fantasy, a bit of feel-good escapist nonsense. But it’s good to escape sometimes.

And god knows, there’s loads of stuff in December 2019, in the UK, that I want to escape from.