Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 3 – Sorrow

I recently attended a workshop, with The Silent Eye, about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part three of my account, parts one and two can be found here…

We travelled through Eyam, the road taking us higher and higher, the valley opening away to our right. And as we did so the air began to clear, the strange weight that had burdened me lifting. We continued along a narrow track edged with tangled brambles and tall nettle, a fairy-tale barrier between us and the view. Taking a fork in the road among tall trees, Sue pulled the car onto the narrow verge to park.

And all was still.

The day remained bright, the sky a curving dome of blue, the air fresh and clear. We stood on a curving path bounded by a moss-covered wall, a rolling green hillside to our left. And, upon the green, a small enclosure waited. It was what we had come to see. The Riley graves.

Once again, Sue has written an excellent detailed account of what happened on the ridge, but the short version is this: As plague raged through the village in the valley below, two families, living separately on the ridge, hoped, perhaps, that distance would keep them and their children safe. However, it was not to be, with first one family, then the other, succumbing. But the cruellest blow was to Elisabeth Hancock, who, between August 3rd and 10th, lost her six children and her husband to the terrible virus. Isolated as she was on the high ridge, the neighbouring family having already succumbed to plague, it was left to her to bury her babies and spouse, one by one, carrying their bodies across to the shallow graves she’d dug, wondering, perhaps, when the disease would take her as well. I cannot imagine her pain, and, after what I’d experienced in the village, it was with some trepidation that I initially approached the small group of graves.

Elisabeth chose her spot well, with beautiful views across the valley and opposing hillsides. It broke the heart to imagine her doing so, that those she loved most might rest in a place where the air was fresh, the land they loved holding them like a precious jewel in a perfect setting. And, surprisingly, there was no heaviness here, no miasma of sorrow to weigh me down, no troubling visions. Instead, the overwhelming sense at these poignant graves was one of love.

That said, I did not enter the enclosure, preferring instead to pay my respects outside the curving stone wall. I stood there for a little while, listening to the wind through the trees and grass, watching birds circle above, and tried to imagine how it must have been during those desperate days when Elisabeth lost everyone and everything she loved, including her home.

She must have been quite an extraordinary person for, when plague didn’t take her, rather than falling into darkness and despair, she instead went down to the village to help others who suffered. And when it was all done she was reunited with her remaining son, who was working in a nearby village and so had been separated from her for the duration of the quarantine. It was he who erected the memorial stones for his father and siblings, and perhaps, also, as tribute to his mother and all she had gone through those terrible nights alone.

The only sorrow I felt in this place was as we were leaving, when it hit me like a wave. We walked along the track, back to the cars, and it struck me how it must have been for her when she had to leave this place for the last time, leave the views and clear air and circling birds, the land she had worked and which now held the remains of all she held dear. For, while she was there, she was still with them.

A short drive later and we were at our second-last stop for the day: Mompesson’s well. This was one of several wells marking the boundary of the village, where food and money were left for and by the villagers during their quarantine. It was a gloomy place, despite the brightness of the day, and the heavy fencing around it didn’t do much to lift the atmosphere. I think we were all still somewhat weighed down by the events of the afternoon.

Luckily, our final stop was on the open moors, a patch of green grass the perfect spot to sit and go over the events of the day. I wandered off alone for a little while, opening my arms and heart to the sky and heather, letting the wind wash through me. It was the perfect antidote to a very strange afternoon and, by the time I got back to the hotel, I was feeling almost myself again. We were due to have dinner at a nearby pub, and I was looking forward to it. Tomorrow was going to be a very busy day, and I needed to recharge…


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Highgate Cemetery, London – A Few More Photos

My Wednesday Wander this week was a very popular one, something about the wonderful funerary architecture and creeping ivy at Highgate Cemetery striking a chord with many of you.

So, as I wasn’t able to share all my photos in the post, I thought I’d post a few more for those who might be interested.

This lovely Art Deco style stone belongs to a movie producer with the fabulous name of Hercules Bellville.

While this lion stands guard over the grave of a man who made his living exhibiting ‘exotic’ animals during the 19th century.

This is the grave of Malcolm MacLaren, which features his death mask for that extra little je-ne-sais-quoi.

And here is a rather interesting literary gravestone.

There are so many more interesting gravestones – I could have taken hundreds of photos, I think! If you’d like to go there and see for yourself, here is the link: https://highgatecemetery.org/


If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

 

Wednesday Wander – Highgate Cemetery, London

It’s Wednesday, and it’s time to wander once more. This week I’m heading to a rather unusual attraction in London, a place one could describe as the ‘dead centre’ of town. This is Highgate Cemetery.

Up until the 1830’s, burial in London was a somewhat haphazard affair, with burial grounds crammed into small spaces, highly unsanitary in a large city with a growing population. In 1836, in response to the growing health crisis, Parliament passed an act creating the London Cemetery Company. Land was set aside to create seven new cemeteries, one of which was Highgate.

Opened in 1839, Highgate Cemetery was created after the acquisition of seventeen acres of private land, set on a steep hillside overlooking the city. Its elevated position encouraged the wealthy to invest, as did the effort expended on exotic formal planting and Gothic architecture. Burial rights were granted for either a limited period or in perpetuity, and the first burial there was of Elizabeth Jackson, aged 36.

The cemetery became so popular that a second site across the road from the original, known as the East Cemetery, was opened in 1860. Many famous people chose to spend their eternity among the trees, including writers, musicians and political figures.

However, after the Second World War the cemetery’s fortunes began to wane and in 1960 the London Cemetery Company was declared bankrupt. The cemetery closed and its future was uncertain, with vandalism and desecration damaging some of the graves. In 1975 The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed, work began on repairing and restoring the cemetery, and it was opened to the public once more.

Nowadays you can take tours of the West Cemetery, wandering among the Victorian graves. I went this summer past, and could have spend literally hours there just reading the inscriptions, stories told of lives lived and families intertwined.

However, the West Cemetery can only be viewed by taking a tour, so we booked in and were taken around by an affable and entertaining volunteer, who clearly loved his job. The tour took just over an hour and included the Egyptian Avenue, a passageway containing sixteen vaults accessed by an imposing Egyptian style entrance.

We also visited the Circle of Lebanon, a circular structure of thirty-two vaults created by excavating earth around an ancient Cedar of Lebanon, which had been planted when the grounds belonged to a private house.

The tree towers above the vaults and is a fantastic sight to see, testament to the imagination of the cemetery designers.

Once the tour was finished we went across to the East Cemetery, where you can, for a small entrance fee, wander freely among the graves. (If you take the tour of the West Cemetery, entrance to the East Cemetery is included). There are many famous names there, including George Eliot, Malcolm Maclaren and Douglas Adams. One of the fascinating things about the cemetery is the sheer creative range of funerary architecture, said to be some of the finest in the country. There are graves with faithful hounds, lions, movie reels and even a grand piano, all final statements of those they memorialise, set forever in stone. And each grave holds a story, a life lived.

The cemetery now faces a new threat. Its romantic overgrown look is wonderful for photographs and meandering walks, but the trees and ivy that have sprung up on and around the tombstones are threatening to clog the cemetery entirely, blocking the once fantastic views of the city skyline and damaging some of the graves. There are discussions underway of how best to manage this without losing the atmosphere of the place. For Highgate is still a working cemetery, and burials still take place there. One of the more recent high profile ones is that of the late, wonderful George Michael, who lived only a short walk away. After our tour we ventured up into Highgate village and stood in front of his house, marvelling at the makeshift memorial that had sprung up to the much-loved singer after his untimely death. The photo below is only a fraction of what’s there – as his grave is in a private part of the cemetery, it was to his house that fans came to pay their last respects.

I realise we are only a day out from Halloween, and so perhaps this was an appropriate wander for this week. However, Highgate is not a spooky place – at least, not during the daytime. It is atmospheric, a little melancholy, and certainly peaceful – I enjoyed my visit there immensely.

Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next time!


If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.