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?

Museums ain’t what they used to be

Museums ain’t what they used to be.  When I was a lad, back in the days when the UK had only had two television channels (both black-and-white) and England were good at soccer, museums were vehicles of the establishment.  They celebrated the political, military, architectural and cultural achievements of the great and the good. The lives of ordinary folk like me and my family never got a look in, but that was OK because we knew our place.

Trams and buses trundle Beamish’s cobbled streets

All that’s changed now.  Society recognises that, regardless of our backgrounds, every one of us has been on a journey and has a story to tell.  Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham reflects this more inclusive approach. It is a “living, working museum that uses its collections to connect with people from all walks of life and tells the story of everyday life in the North East of England.”

Beamish offers snapshots of North-East life in the 1820, 1900s and 1940s, scattered across a 350 acres site.  Its latest project, underway at the time of our visit on our way back from Shetland in late June, is to reconstruct a 1950s town. 

Traditional apothecary / chemist / pharmacy

This is clearly a good thing.  Everything that surrounds us in our lives in 2019 will be history to future generations, and it’s great to see that Beamish Museum is continuing to add to and update its exhibits.  In creating its 1950s exhibit it will reflect a period that, for today’s oldest visitors – including the venerable Platypus Man – is still just within living memory.

Beamish is heavy with the atmosphere of another age.  Electric trams trundle along the cobbled streets of the 1900s exhibit, past historic buildings with period fittings.  Visitors can ride the trams, go into the shops, the dentist’s surgery and the solicitor’s office, and interact with friendly volunteers and staff in period costume. 

You can ride the trams around the Beamish site

There were lots of school groups on site at the time, and Beamish gave them a glimpse of an everyday life they have never experienced.  The sweet shop proved to be particularly popular, with youngsters able to watch confectionery being made the traditional way, and then to buy the resulting produce. 

At the bank they could learn about pounds, shilling and pence, which are part of my DNA but totally alien to today’s young people.  At the Co-Op store they were able to see what shopping was like in the old days of ‘closed access’, when all the goods were kept behind the counter under the custodianship of the eagle-eyed shopkeeper.

Traditional grocery shop

Beamish offers a brilliant, immersive exploration of living history.  Even though some of the youngsters were more interested in their mobile phones than the museum, many more were clearly fascinated by this brief insight into the lost world of their grandparents.

As for me, I had a grand day out and loved every minute of it.  In the immortal words of Arnie ‘Terminator’ Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.” 

The tram shed

Reminiscence is good therapy for old fogeys, so long as we keep a sense of proportion and remember that life back then was, in most ways, much tougher than ours today. 

Bring back the shilling, the sixpence and the threepenny bit, that’s what I say!

Bempton Cliffs: a tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts

An earlier post described how the bird cliffs at Sumburgh Head were the highlight of an otherwise miserable trip to Shetland.  Getting to Shetland from our home at Platypus Towers was a bit of a pain. The journey involved a drive of over 400 miles, followed by an overnight ferry crossing of around 12 hours. 

When we finally got to Shetland the puffins were great to see, but I do wonder why we bothered given that we have some excellent bird cliffs much closer to home.

Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Bempton Cliffs are little more than 80 miles away from us, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  This area of the Yorkshire coast hosts England’s largest seabird colony, and the Bempton RSPB reserve lies at its heart.  It’s always worth a visit, as we confirmed on our way back from Shetland in June. It was, to say the least, an eventful end to our long summer break.

So, for the record, here is our tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts:

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We’ve left Scotland and its miserable weather far behind us, and as we walk out from the RSPB visitor centre on a gloriously sunny day our ears are assaulted by the calls of a thousand birds, and our noses detect the unmistakable aroma of a bustling seabird city.  We watch, transfixed, as squadrons of gannets patrol the towering cliffs, swooping and soaring along the sheer rock face, escorted from time to time by their loyal wing-men, the fulmars.

Squadron leader?

The Bempton area boasts one of the best wildlife spectacles in the UK.  Around half a million seabirds gather here between March and October to lay their eggs and raise their young on towering chalk cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

Gannets bang their beaks together and point them skywards to reaffirm their pair-bond

Within minutes we spot some puffins going about their business.  There are not nearly as many as at Sumburgh Head, nor are the views as intimate.  This is, however, our most successful puffin encounter ever at Bempton, and bodes well for the rest of our visit. 

Solitary puffin watching as the gannets swoop and soar

Bempton boasts sizeable colonies of razorbills and guillemots.  Most cling to the cliff face and are best appreciated through binoculars, but a few come close enough to enjoy with the naked eye.  Some of the razorbills are still sitting on eggs, but others proudly show off their chicks.

Razorbill adult and chick, with kittiwake behind

However, Bempton’s main claim to fame is its gannets.  The cliffs have the largest mainland gannet colony in the UK, boasting some 28,000 birds.  Each gannet jealously guards its own patch of rock, which it has carefully selected so it can just avoid the angry pecks of its neighbours.  Squabbles break out when a bird oversteps the mark and trespasses on a neighbour’s territory.

Gannets on the nest, and a solitary puffin

Meanwhile, other gannets swoop and dive beside the cliffs, and ride the updrafts to hang in the air just feet away from the cliff-top paths.  These are big birds, with a wingspan of over 6 feet, and when seen in large numbers flying along the cliffs or wheeling over the ocean they’re a magnificent sight.  We watch them for a couple of hours, mesmerised by their grace and elegance, and Mrs P is in danger of wearing out the shutter on her camera.

Gannets fills the sky at Bempton Cliffs

A visit to Bempton’s bird cliffs during the breeding season is a life-affirming and restorative experience.  It’s been a great day, and we round it off with dinner at a modest hostelry close to where we are staying for the night. I wrap myself around a gammon steak, and Mrs P gets up close and personal with lasagne.

The following morning, however, I awake to a gurgling from Mrs P’s guts loud enough to suggest Cuadrilla has opened a new campaign in its fracking business.  Within minutes a vile dose of food poisoning has set in.

Mrs P turns a whiter shade of pale, and spends an anxious hour locked in the bathroom. Finally she announces she’s fit enough to travel, but she has her fingers crossed as she speaks so we both fear she’s not going to make it back home with her dignity intact.  However, checkout’s at 9:30am, so we have little choice.

The 80 miles drive back to Platypus Towers is, inevitably, a nightmare, and the patient takes about three days to recover from her ordeal.

Mrs P swears she will never eat lasagne again

An unlikely place for birdwatching

Washington, on the outskirts of Sunderland in the north-east of England, seems an unlikely place for a day’s birdwatching. Although Washington Old Hall, the greatly remodelled home of George Washington’s distant ancestor William de Wessyngton, is nearby, the area is best known for its heavy industry. The coal and chemical industries were both big business hereabouts, and although these are long-gone a variety of other industries have taken their place.

Goldfinch

Who on earth would choose to put a bird reserve here, in such an unnatural and unpromising landscape?

The answer is, of course, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), and good for them. It must have been a brave move at the time (the 1970s), but it was a stroke of genius.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Like other WWT sites, Washington Wetland Centre combines managed habitats for wild birds and displays of captive birds, most of which are part of conservation-driven breeding programmes. There is a strong emphasis on learning and education, with the Centre giving many local children their first close contact with the natural world.

There’s also a Field of Dreams element to this bird reserve: build it and they will come. However improbable it may seem that wildlife could thrive here amongst the industry and urban sprawl, the WWT took the risk and have been richly rewarded. Birds galore and other wildlife – including otters – now call this place home, or drop in for a while during their annual migrations.

Jay

The WWT is a massively important part of our conservation infrastructure. It was instrumental in saving the nene (Hawaiian Goose) from the brink of extinction, and remains at the heart of wetland-focussed conservation projects both in the UK and overseas. Its stated vision is:

We conserve, restore and create wetlands, save wetland wildlife, and inspire everyone to value the amazing things healthy wetlands achieve for people and nature.

Source: WWT website, retrieved 7 October 2019

Mrs P and I are passionate supporters, and life members, of the WWT, so it was a pleasure to drop in at the Washington Wetland Centre on our way back from Scotland earlier this year.

For once the wetland birds were unremarkable as the autumn migration had not yet begun. However there were plenty of other treats to savour, including common terns bringing back beaks full of fish for their youngsters.

Common Tern

We were also thrilled to see a family of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, and a very confiding jay which jumped manicly between branch and feeder, then back again. Not at all what we’d expected would be the highlights of a visit to a wetland reserve, but great just the same.

Washington Wetland Centre may be an unlikely place for birdwatching, but it definitely delivers the goods. It’s a place we’ll happily continue to visit whenever we’re in the area.

Cambridge: my old stamping ground

Last month we were in Cambridge, my old stamping ground, for my godson’s wedding.  In the mid-70s I spent three years studying there at one of the University’s many colleges.  It was such an intense period, life lived at one hundred miles an hour. But they seem like another lifetime, my Cambridge days.  I rarely think about them now. 

Jesus College

Trudging the streets again, over 30 years since my last visit to the city, the memories come flooding back.  Here’s the room in which I lived in my freshman year, anxious, ill at ease, a stranger in a strange land. And there’s the stinking drainage ditch into which I fell one drunken night, establishing a reputation with my peer group that I could never quite shake off. 

This here is the spot where Phil streaked one Rag Week, pedalling his bicycle furiously along King’s Parade, wearing only a big grin and a policeman’s helmet, cheered on by dozens of adoring college cronies.  And over there is the library where I spent most of my days, studying feverishly in a desperate attempt to prove to myself that, despite my humble origins, I was as good as the rest of them.

Gonville and Caius College chapel

You see, I never felt I truly belonged.  Cambridge University was – and is – one of the world’s outstanding places of higher education.  The standards are so high, the demands so rigorous.

At the time it seemed impossible that I, just an ordinary working-class lad from west London, deserved my place.  Meanwhile the privately educated students from rich families who made up the bulk of my peer group seemed to sail through it, their boisterous belief in themselves undermining my own, oh-so-fragile, self-confidence.

Gargoyles, Gonville and Caius College

I know now that I got it all wrong. 

For the most part, the self-confidence of my fellow students was bluff.  Underneath it all most of them were unsure of themselves too, making it up as they went along, hoping they wouldn’t get found out, wouldn’t be revealed as frauds unworthy of their places at this great cathedral of learning. 

St John’s College

And my doubts were, in any case, unfounded.  By the time I graduated it was plain that I was clever enough.  While not quite the sharpest spine on the Cambridge University hedgehog, neither was I a dullard.  Without doubt I deserved to be there. I just wish I’d known it when I first arrived, instead of beating myself up every day.

My three years at Cambridge University were an extraordinary period in an otherwise ordinary life.  Visiting the place again has awakened painful memories, stirred some unwelcome thoughts of what was and what might have been. 

Bridge of Sighs, St John’s College

But time has moved on and so, thankfully, have I.

Once, when dreams floated like butterflies on the breeze and stardust lay thick upon the ground, a sweet, sensitive and naïve lad who shared my name and birthday went to Cambridge University to study.  He stayed three years, got educated a bit, got drunk a lot, got lost for a while, then found himself again. 

That lad’s dead now, and I should let him rest in peace.

I’m pleased I went back to visit Cambridge, my old stamping ground.  I won’t ever go back again.

Cambridge through Chinese eyes

My last post bemoaned the hordes of tourists who clogged the narrow streets of Cambridge’s historic centre during our visit a few weeks ago.  Most of them appeared to hail from China, and as they came in groups of up to 50 they were impossible to miss or ignore. The days of Japanese mass tourism may be over, but in China the tour companies have found a worthy Far-Eastern successor.

Kings College Chapel: look carefully and you will see at least three tour groups

The new-found wealth of the People’s Republic of China has changed the face of international tourism.  We witnessed this first-hand during our trips to Tasmania (2016) and the USA’s Yellowstone National Park (2018)

In both places the bus-loads of phone-wielding, selfie-snapping Chinese tour groups were the dominant feature in the tourist landscape.  It was therefore no surprise to see so many Chinese folk in Cambridge, which is, of course, one of the UK’s major tourist destinations.

Punting on the River Cam

What was a surprise was to learn that there is another reason why the Chinese flock there in such large numbers.  In November 1928 a Chinese poet who had previously studied at Kings College, Xú Zhìmó, made a return visit to Cambridge and was moved to capture the moment in verse.  Xú is considered one of the most important modern Chinese poets, and Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again is his most popular poem.

Xú died in controversial circumstances in a plane crash in 1931.  In 2018 he was commemorated through the creation, in the grounds of Kings College, Cambridge, of the China-UK Friendship Garden, also known as the Xú Zhìmó Garden.  Four lines of his poem are inscribed on a rock in the Friendship Garden, close to the banks of the River Cam. 

File:Kings College Xu Zhimo memorial.jpg

Photo credit: Cmglee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Xú’s poem, and the Garden commemorating the poet and his most famous work, appear to be a contributory factor in attracting Chinese tourists to Cambridge.

The translation (below) is sourced from the East Asia Student website.

Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again
by
Xú Zhìmó

 
Lightly I leave,
as lightly I came;
I lightly wave goodbye,
to the sunlit clouds in the western sky.
 
The golden willows of that riverside,
are brides in the setting sun;
their glimmering reflections in the water,
ripple in the depth of my heart.
 
The waterlilies in the soft mud,
sway splendidly under the water.
In the gentle waves of the Cam,
I would be a water plant!
 
That pool in the shade of elm trees,
is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow;
crumbling amongst the floating grasses,
the settling rainbow seems like a dream.
 
Looking for dreams? Push a punt
to where the grass is greener still upstream;
a boat laden with starlight,

singing freely in the glorious light of stars.
 
But I cannot sing freely,
silence is the music of my departure,
even the summer insects are quiet for me,
tonight's Cambridge is silent!
 
Quietly I leave,
as quietly I came;
I cast my sleeves a little
not taking even a strand of cloud away
.

What a beautiful, evocative poem.  But the tranquillity it conveys is a million miles away from the febrile tourist trap we visited recently. 

I wonder what Xú Zhìmó would make of Cambridge, August 2019?

Cambridge creaking at the seams

Last month we spent a few days in Cambridge.  So, it seems, did everyone else. Back in the day I was a student at Cambridge University for three years but I was never there in August, the height of the tourist season.  And, of course, tourism – both home-grown and international – has expanded massively in the 42 years since I graduated. I was, therefore, totally unprepared for the crowds we encountered during our visit.

Gonville and Caius College

Cambridge has a lot to offer the tourist.  Here’s what Lonely Planet has to say about its attractions:

Abounding with exquisite architecture, exuding history and tradition, and renowned for its quirky rituals, Cambridge is a university town extraordinaire.  The tightly packed core of ancient colleges, the picturesque riverside ‘Backs’ (college gardens) and the leafy green meadows surrounding the city give it a more tranquil appeal than its historic rival Oxford … The buildings here seem unchanged for centuries, and it’s possible to wander around the college buildings and experience them as countless prime ministers, poets, writers and scientists have done.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

I’ve got a lot of time for Lonely Planet.  Their guidebooks are invariably well-written, and often encourage the more intrepid visitor to get off the beaten track and walk roads less travelled, which is the best way to get under the skin of a country or a city.  But, based on what we experienced a few weeks ago, the words “tranquil appeal” seem sadly out of place in any description of Cambridge in August 2019.

Peterhouse College

We had a lot to pack into our visit, and so were out and about by 9am.  At first all seemed well, the streets lively but not uncomfortably busy.  Then, around 10am, the coach parties began to arrive. 

Long crocodiles of visitors, up to 50 in a single group, descended on the historic city centre from all directions, following obediently behind their flag-waving guides.  Soon the narrow medieval streets were crazily crowded, visitors jostling one another to get a view of – or even better, a selfie in front of – one of the city’s architectural gems. 

St John’s College, and bicycles galore

“Tranquil appeal?”  I don’t think so!

Lonely Planet is also unrealistic in suggesting that the average tourist can “wander around the college buildings.”  Many of the colleges are doing whatever they can to keep the hordes at bay, barring their doors and placing stern messages outside warning the masses that THIS COLLEGE IS CLOSED TO VISITORS. 

Others, Kings for example, take a different view and charge a pretty penny for admission.  Of course, everyone wants to see Kings College Chapel up close and personal, so the college bursar must be raking it in.

Interior of Kings College Chapel

I will confess that these attempts to deny or charge for admission don’t worry me personally.  As a graduate of the university I can get in pretty much anywhere, and without spending a dime, so long as I flash my alumni card and behave myself. 

But I’ve a lot of sympathy for the serious tourist, who maybe has travelled a long way and spent a small fortune to visit Cambridge, only to find that lots of the places he wants to see won’t let him in or will only do so in return for a fistful of dollars.

Kings College Chapel, viewed from “the Backs”

Tourism is hugely controversial in Cambridge.  In 2017 over eight million tourist visits were recorded, in a city of just 146,000 people.  The city is creaking at the seams. Tourists keep some shopkeepers afloat with their purchases, but other business owners complain that these are the “wrong tourists,” visitors who just don’t spend enough or buy the right stuff. 

For Cambridge residents going about their normal daily business the crowded streets must be distressing.  But tourism reportedly accounts for 22% of jobs in the local economy, and only the most hard-line critics would seriously consider killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

The Mathematical Bridge, Queen’s College

Mass tourism is a mind-bending conundrum, but not one that is unique to Cambridge.

In another blog I wrote at length about the impact of tourist numbers on the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park in the USA.  There, as in Cambridge, the scale of tourism is in danger of destroying the very thing that tourists want to see.

As an habitual tourist I was, and am, part of the problem.  I cherish the prospect of being a tourist again, in Cambridge, in Yellowstone, or elsewhere, but what will be the cost to the places I want to visit and those who live in them? 

I don’t have the answer, but it seems plain to me that things can’t go on as they are.

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In case you’re wondering why, despite my protestations about the Cambridge crowds, there are so few people in the photos that illustrate this post the answer is simple: Mrs P hates anyone getting between her camera lens and the focus of her interest. She’s been known to wait a long, long time for a clear shot, and when she can’t get one she gets very cross indeed. You have been warned!