IN sunnier more summery times, the scouts of Hurworth hold a Strawberry Fair on the village’s beautiful village green with its ancient, and expensive, houses looking on.

As the evening wears on, people begin to stumble a little as they walk across the gently undulating green. They laugh that it is the effects of the fizzy stuff taking hold, but really they are stumbling upon evidence of a time when a terrible epidemic had the villages around Hurworth in its grip.

Because it is said the grassy green is in fact a plague pit, holding the remains of up to 1,500 people, and the undulations are caused by the bodies’ gentle decay and the soil settling around them.

The parish register, probably written by the rector, the Reverend Thomas Thompson, explains: “1645. Dominus percussit hie tres et quadraginta populos in hac mense Julii, omnes fere in hoc oppido, viz. Hurworth.”

For those who don’t speak Latin, that is: “1645. The Lord struck three-and-forty people here in this month of July, near all in this town, viz Hurworth."

This was the bubonic plague, or Black Death, which stalked the country for centuries, passed on by rat fleas. The first symptoms were flu-like, but then the lymph glands in the groin, armpits and neck boiled up into painful buboes until the whole body was one big black bruise – if you were still alive.

The plague circulated on a worryingly regular basis, although the mid 1640s were particularly bad. In 1644, 120 people died in Egglescliffe, while the Darlington registers record that in normal times there were an average of 12 deaths a month in the town but in December 1644 there were 24; January 1645, 27; February, 49; March, 35, and April, 18, as the telltale hump of the epidemic rose and then passed.

Death then moved north to Bishop Middleham and south to Hurworth.

Rector Thompson, who had taken over his position in 1617, records the names of his parishioners in the register as they succumb. His handwriting begins strong and firm, but with each successive name, it became weaker and more spidery until it just tailed away.

Then a new firm hand takes the pen. He is believed to be the vicar of Eryholme, on the south of the Tees. He writes legibly the name of the last Hurworth victim: Thomas Thompson. The rector had held on until the plague had burned itself out before dying himself.

In all, only 75 of Hurworth’s population of 750 survived.

But it wasn’t just Hurworth that was stricken. Neighbouring villages like Neasham, Eryholme, Dalton, the Cowtons and Birkby were also contaminated.

It is said that the bodies from these places were ferried to Hurworth by boat on the Tees for burial in the plague pit on the green.

It is said that they were rowed there by a lone boatman to a jetty which was at the foot of a steep and dank lane called Knellgate that led up onto the green between the Old Hall and another large riverside property called Dovercourt – you can still see the lane, but its entrance is now blocked.

The boatman would haul the dead body up onto the green and leave it beside the plague pit. He would then ring a bell – which is believed to be the derivation of Knellgate – to warn the living to stay inside and to alert the gravedigger to the new arrival.

The bell was always believed to be that of the nearby All Saints Church, but in 2001, Dovercourt was renovated. A layer of render was removed from its exterior to reveal an old bellcote in the brickwork overlooking Knellgate – could this have been the remains of the old tolled by the boatman?

Thus alerted, the gravedigger would begin his work.

Some sources say that near the Bay Horse Inn, there was a limeyard. Other people point to Lime Cottage which is a couple of hundred yards in Coach Lane.

The gravedigger would fill his barrow with quicklime and trundle over to the plague pit. He would enlarge the pit, line it with a layer of shavings onto which he would tip the body from the coffin – a single-use coffin is an expensive luxury, especially as some poor person would probably need it the following day.

He would cover the body with a sprinkling of lime, to speed its decomposition, and then he would complete the job with a layer of topsoil.

And so the bodies – perhaps as many as 1,500 of them – beneath Hurworth’s gruesome green lie ten deep in three mass graves. As they decay, the grass gently settles into picturesque undulations, occasionally the green gives up a part of a human skeleton to remind the living of the fate of the dead.

Indeed, the western end of the green towards Blind Lane has fairly regularly yielded bits of old bone – this green, outside the Old Parsonage, which has the date 1450 over its ancient, studded door, is properly called Chapel Green because somewhere here there once was a lost chapel.

And in Victorian times, outside Dovercourt, the remains of two armed men were discovered – perhaps soldier victims of the plague.

Or so the story goes.