Eyam

Special October Post: Spooky Suggestions for Halloween!

I don’t like to play favourites (actually, I don’t know why I said that, because I totally do), but Halloween is probably my most beloved holiday…at least in terms of atmosphere and decor.  With that in mind, I do write about a lot of weird/creepy places on here, so I thought I’d link you to some of them in one central location, in case you’re looking for places to visit in October.  Like the content of the blog itself, most of the places are in the UK or Ohio, but there are some options for Continental Europeans as well!

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Mansfield Reformatory in Ohio is the subject of one of my most popular posts (right after the Arnold Museum, of course), and it is a really cool place – it’s so dilapidated and dark inside, you feel as though you’re trespassing, even though you’re not.  In the month of October they are open for special ghost events and their haunted house, but I do think it’s also well worth visiting during their summer season, when you’re left on your own to explore.

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On the subject of jails (or gaols), the Cork County Gaol in Ireland is another cool one.  They not only have audio tours on Walkmans (in the colour of your choosing!) but also have wax figures, and re-created cells.  The whole building is damp and cold, as if you can still feel the misery of the prisoners held here.

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Kelvedon Hatch in Essex is creepy in a nuclear apocalypse sense – we were the only visitors on the day we went, and there’s not even an admissions desk, so we were really able to get the experience of being the last survivors of a nuclear holocaust.  Plus, you’re trapped underground, and you’ve no idea what might be waiting at the other end of the tunnel!

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Eyam, in Derbyshire, is a village that was completely decimated by the 1665 plague, carried here from London via fleas in a box of cloth.  Most of the original plague houses remain, and the village is home to a nice little museum all about the epidemic.  It’s also quite near to Bakewell, so you can stop for a seasonally appropriate tea afterwards.

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The Dr. Guislain Museum in Gent, Belgium, is housed in a still working mental institution.  Need I say more?  Well, the extremely excellent museum includes art done by the mentally ill, and horrible torture devices used to “treat” mental patients of yore.  A must-see if you’re in Belgium!

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I also adore the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel.  I’m really interested in Joseph Merrick’s life, and the museum is THE place to see his skeleton and some of his possessions.  Lots of other medical stuff too, and the museum is free!

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If you’re creeped out by dolls, then Pollock’s Toy Museum in London is not the place for you (unless you’re trying to scare yourself, which I guess is pretty much the point of this whole post, so never mind).  Split between a Victorian and a Georgian house, which are side by side, Pollock’s involves a journey up narrow, winding staircases to view cases crammed with sad-eyed Victorian toys.   Just watch out for the doll room!

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Even though almost nothing is in English, the Police Museum of Copenhagen is still incredible (and incredibly gory).  The wall of murder weapons is not to be missed, even if it raises more questions than it answers (what IS the deal with that meat grinder?!).

Finally, here’s some other places I LOVE (some of which can be found in my Favourite Places page), but haven’t got around to blogging about yet:

Mutter Museum, Philadelphia: The best medical museum I’ve seen yet (and I’ve seen a lot, as you’ve probably gathered).  There’s a giant colon, a lady whose fat turned to soap, and the liver from the original Siamese twins.

Thackray Museum, Leeds: Love the Thackray! They are the gold standard in authentic smells, and wax figures, and what I’ve compared every “street of yesteryear” to since (most of the other ones have been found lacking).  Oh yeah, did I mention it’s a medical museum?

Hunterian Museum, London: Yet another medical museum (sorry, I know I have a problem), this one excels at stuff in jars.  And has some cool war medicine stuff.

Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam: This is the last medical museum (for now), I promise!  Museum Vrolik specialises in weird fetuses, including cyclopes, all manner of conjoined twins, and genetic abnormalities you never knew existed.

Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle: I probably shouldn’t be putting this museum in a Halloween roundup, because they aim to distance themselves from old stereotypes of witches, but this place is awesome, and I wanted to give it a mention.  Lots of witchy paraphernalia in a very picturesque village.

Hever Castle, Kent: This was Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, and even though the interior hasn’t been done any favours by the owners since, the exterior is still lovely, as are the gardens,  They have a yew maze, and do some autumnal decorating, but I am pretty much including it here because I spotted ghost cupcakes in their tearoom, and cheesy Halloween touches like that are hard to find in England.

Hampton Court, Surrey: This is meant to be one of the most haunted places in Britain, if not in the world.  I’ve never seen any ghosts, but that hasn’t stopped me from making many return visits to gawk at the rooms Henry VIII (and his many wives) inhabited.

Hellfire Caves, Buckinghamshire: These man-made caves are where members of the Georgian Hellfire club met, and, if the rumours are to be believed, took part in orgies and/or satanic rituals.  Even if the stories aren’t true, the caves are full of mannequins and spooky sound effects, and make an excellent day trip from London.

Lakeview Cemetery, Cleveland: I couldn’t end this list without including a place from my hometown, and Lakeview is probably my favourite cemetery in the world.  Splendid Victorian monuments abound, including Garfield’s tomb (you can see his and his wife’s coffins in the crypt), and the Haserot angel, which is guaranteed to give nightmares to Doctor Who fans. Cleveland’s Little Italy, which is just a street over, grew up around it because so many Italian stonemasons were hired to help build it, which should give you an idea of its size.  And that means you can get cavatelli and strawberry cassata cake after your visit.  What more excuse do you need?

Eyam, Derbyshire: The Eyam Museum and the Little Plague Village that Could

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On a drive back from Leeds last weekend, we made a brief detour into Derbyshire to visit the village of Eyam.  Eyam is a village set deep in the Dales that was hit hard by a 17th century outbreak of plague.  Typically, the 1665 epidemic is thought of as the London plague, but the plague also travelled up to Derbyshire via a box of cloth ordered by a local tailor (or so the story goes).  Upon opening the box, George Viccars, the tailor’s assistant, laid the cloth by the fire to air it out, which led the infected fleas hidden in the cloth to presumably bite Viccars, as he died seven days later.  From Viccars, the plague quickly spread throughout the village, killing 260 people, a third of the population, over a year-long period.  The villagers bravely decided to quarantine themselves so that the plague wouldn’t spread to the surrounding villages, which makes their situation even more poignant, as they voluntarily remained in the village to await their fate.  Modern Eyam is a well-preserved village that feels almost like a shrine to the memory of the plague victims.

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When we arrived, we were welcomed by freezing wind and driving rain, so we hastily began with the Eyam Museum, which is directly across from the main car park. Admission was a modest £2.50.  I was quite excited, because despite my long-standing interest in the plague, I’ve never been to an actual museum devoted to it.  Eyam Museum relies mainly on a series on large, illustrated posters to tell the story of the plague.  It opened with some general background on bubonic plague, and historic epidemics, before moving on to the story of Eyam itself.  Because the village kept careful records during the outbreak, we know the names of everyone who died, as well as the occupations and living arrangements of many of the families, so Eyam was able to focus on the stories of individuals, which is obviously a powerful approach.  For example, I learned about Elizabeth Hancock, who lost her husband and all six of her children in a span of eight days, and buried them all herself.  The experience was enhanced throughout (for me anyway) by the use of slightly bedraggled mannequins arranged in dioramas depicting important events in 1665, including one of George Viccars opening the fateful box, and another of a man covered with buboes in his death throes.  There were also some rather excellent paintings that further illustrated pivotal scenes from the plague year, including a detailed mural at the museum entrance (postcards of the paintings are available in the shop.  On a related note, I’m thinking of doing a giveaway on here of some of the many postcards I’ve collected over the years.  Is that something anyone would be interested in winning?).

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This poster is from the Information Centre, as photography wasn’t allowed inside the museum, more’s the pity.

The story of the plague wound through the ground floor, and continued upstairs.  The stairwell was adorned with descriptions of old plague “cures,” most of which were fairly humorous, albeit completely ineffective.  The museum even offered suggestions on further reading, including In the Wake of the Plague, one of my personal favourites.  However, there’s more to Eyam than just the plague, so there was some other local history in the museum as well.  After the plague, villagers turned to industry like lead mining, so there was a delightful little replica mine, complete with wee candles and mine workers, and sound effects!  There were also silk (presumably flea-less) and shoe manufacturers in Eyam in the Victorian era.  Naturally, like all local museums, Eyam had a small collection of rocks and fossils in the geology section, courtesy of the museum founder. Finally, the museum had a back room which is devoted to temporary exhibitions, and currently houses a small collection of blood-letting implements, and some pictures showing how little the village has changed over the years.  In some of them, the only apparent difference in 150 years was the addition of cars, which is pretty cool.

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Leaving the museum, the weather had cleared up a bit, so we headed down the hill to explore some of the village.  There’s a Jacobean manor house called Eyam Hall, which is a National Trust property with a correspondingly high admission price.  As it wasn’t obviously plague related, we passed it up in favour of free attractions.  There was a small information centre with a large, helpful map on the wall inside, and a set of stocks out front, which was obviously a prime photo opportunity.

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I was keen to see the plague cottages, and the church, so we carried on up the road.  I found out Eyam has an annual tradition known as a sheep roast, and a giant purpose-built spit. It’s not something I’d be partaking in, but I could see it being an amusing fete, aside from the mutton meat.  The plague cottages are still privately owned, so you can’t go inside, but there are plaques out front explaining who lived in each one.

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Just next to the cottages is the church, St. Lawrence.  Although parts of the exterior are Victorian, most of the interior is medieval (and there’s even some Norman pillars), so the villagers would have been familiar with it in 1665 (although they actually switched to outside services after the outbreak of plague, to prevent spreading infection).  A small display is set up in a corner of the church about Rector Mompesson and Rev. Thomas Stanley, who were of vital importance in keeping the plague contained within Eyam.  Mompesson’s wife Catherine was herself a victim, and is buried in the churchyard outside.  The neatest feature of the church is the stained glass window built to commemorate the plague.  It tells the story beginning with the aforementioned box of cloth, and Viccars’s death, the meeting of Mompesson and Stanley, where they agree on a plan of quarantine, and the doomed love affair of Emmott Syddal and Rowland Torre, who continued clandestinely meeting after the outbreak up until her death.

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The churchyard outside is memorable not only because of some plague graves, but because it contains a Celtic Cross dating back to the eighth century.  In a way, the rain and cloudiness helped to enhance the sombre mood of the graveyard.  There are a few other plague-related sites that we didn’t get a chance to see, including Mompersson’s Well, which is where people from nearby villages left food for the residents of Eyam during the quarantine, and the Riley graves, which mark where a family that lived on the outskirts of town were nonetheless struck down by the scourge.

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Eyam was a brilliant experience.  I loved the museum and the village, and the whole experience together is a 4.5./5.  It was just a completely unique place, and it’s simply incredible how they’ve managed to keep the memory of the plague preserved for all these years.  Eyam is quite near to Bakewell, a popular tourist destination for the eponymous tarts and puddings, so there’s no reason you couldn’t stop for a heartening tea after absorbing the full impact of the devastation that bubonic plague left in its wake.