The History and Antiquities of Eyam

By William Wood (1903)

Transcriptions by Andrew McCann, © Copyright 1999


A very ancient custom was observed at Eyam until within a century back. The principal road into Eyam once was the Lyd-gate, now called Ligget. Lyd or Lid is a Saxon word which means “to cover or protect”. At this entrance into Eyam there was a strong gate at which “watch and ward” were kept every night. Every effective man who was a householder in the village, was bound to stand in succession at this gate, from nine o'clock at night to six in the morning, to question who might appear at the gate wishing for entrance into the village, and to give alarm if danger were apprehended. The watchman had a large wooden halbert, or “watch-bill”, for protection, and when he came off watch in the morning, he took the “watch-bill” and reared it against the door of that person whose turn to watch succeeded his; and so on in succession. No village in England has retained and practised a custom so ancient to so recent a period. In the Scriptures there are numberless allusions to this very antique custom: “And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, &c”. Joshua ii.5.

One of the incantations practised at the festival of the Druids was to annoint the forehead of a sick person with May-dew, which was carefully gathered at day break, and the cure, of course, immediately followed. Now at Eyam and its vicinity it was once a general, and in some measure is still a prevailing custom, to annoint weak and diseased children with May-dew. Another part of the ceremony of the great festival of the Druids consisted in carrying long poles of mountain ash festooned with flowers. Hanging out bunches of flowers from cottage windows, once so very prevalent at Eyam on May-day, has its origin in this Druidical ceremony; passing the bottle or glass (deas soil) according to the course of the sun, and numerous other observances, have an equally ancient origin.

Gebelin and Brand have both noticed a peculiar custom practised in Cornwall, and particularly at Penzance, the origin of which they say is lost in antiquity. The same custom is known and practised at Eyam, in the very common play - Loosing-tines or Long duck. In reading an account of the antiquities of Cornwall, one is particularly struck with the identity of the custom.

The Golf, or Golfing, is said to be an amusement peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland, where it has been practised from time immemorial. The same diversion is known at Eyam by the uncouth name - Seg.

Goose-riding, about half a century ago, was at Eyam a very common but barbarous amusement. It is lamentable, however, that one custom, clay-daubin - once so particularly observed at Eyam and its vicinity, should have fallen into desuetude. This custom consisted in the neighbours and friends of a newly married couple assembling together, and not separating until they had erected them a cottage. From the number of hands employed, the habitation was generally completed in one day The clay-daubin, as the practice was termed, concluded in rejoicing and merrymaking.

Another pleasing custom, now only traditionally remembered, was once observed throughout the locality of Eyam: it consisted of putting the coffin, with the deceased in it, on the bed; and of placing the bed clothes in such a manner over them as to make it appear as if the deceased were only asleep. The real charm consists in that lovely appearance of death in a young person of a virtuous and maiden race, which whispers to the bereaved spirit, that though the “vital spark of heavenly flame” be fled, yet the most innocent and beautiful will be awakened, as from sleep, to immortality and light.

These, and many other customs and observances, Druidical or otherwise, prove, to some degree, the great antiquity of the place where they are and have been so rigidly kept.

Durand, who flourished in the twelfth century, speaks of a custom rigidly adhered to at Eyam and the Peak in general, thus: “When any one is dying, or as soon as possible after, a bell must be tolled twice for a woman and thrice for a man; further, a bell is tolled, and sometimes chimes are rung a little before the burial, and while they are conducting the corpse to the church”.

Peshell's ‘History of Oxford’ thus mentions a circumstance in connection with the ringing to the Curfew Bell, practised at Eyam to the present day, although alluded to as a very antique custom: “After the ringing of this bell (Curfew), to let the inhabitants know the day of the month by so many tolls”.

Hutchinson, in his ‘History of Northumberland’, thus tells of a custom (of common occurrence in Eyam) which he deems of some antiquity: “On the decease of any person leaving valuable effects, the friends and neighbours are invited to dinner on the day of interment, which is called the Arthel or Arvel dinner”.

Next Chapter => THE MANOR OF EYAM

This information was transcribed by Andrew McCann in May 1999.

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