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 two of my account, part one can be found here…
I can’t move.
We were standing in a courtyard, once the stable yard of the nearby manor house. The buildings had been converted into shops and restaurants, jewellery, homewares, tea and scones all set out for visitors. It was a gorgeous place, sun shining on golden-grey stone, pretty tables, green trees.
I can’t move.
Waves were battering her from all sides, sorrow overwhelming. But they were toxic, polluted, like water disturbed in a stagnant pond. It was difficult to breathe.
I should have known when my body started to tingle as we crossed the boundary into the village. But this was… intense. I took a couple of photos but, even though Sue suggested once more that I have a look around, I still couldn’t move, feeling assailed on all sides. The air seemed filled with floating flecks of gold. It was a very, very strange place.
The rest of the group arrived, greetings and introductions breaking me out of my strange immobility. It was lovely to see familiar faces, and to meet a new face, too. Thus assembled, our group of six left the old stable yard and headed out into the village. We took a moment on the nearby green to talk about the history of the village, Sue and Stu filling the rest of the party in on the dark history of the place. Sue has written an excellent post about it – however, the short version is this:
In 1665, plague came to Eyam. It was already raging down south, and, when a local tailor ordered a bolt of cloth from London, it arrived teeming with harbingers of death. Infected fleas on the cloth were released when it was unfolded, with the tailor and his assistant the first victims. But, as plague moved through the village, the inhabitants made an extraordinary decision. Encouraged by their reverend, the charismatic Mompesson, they decided to quarantine themselves from the surrounding area – nothing, and no one, were to leave the village until the plague had burned itself out. Eventually it did so, but took as much as two thirds of the population with it, a horrifying toll in a place with a population of only a few hundred souls. Many people lost their entire extended family, and had to bury their own dead. Parents, children, siblings, spouses. Small wonder, then, that this was a place bound in sorrow and the fear of loss.
After the introduction we headed along a road that was chocolate-box perfect in its prettiness, past ancient stone cottages garlanded in roses, gleaming golden in the afternoon sun. Yet dark history hid behind the stone walls, as plaques in the gardens attested, telling us the names of those who lived there during the plague, and those who died. Eyam is a place that makes its living from death, the sad history of the place drawing tourism from far and wide. But is it healthy to constantly relive such an episode? Places hold the energy of events that happen there – such as the warmth experienced in a happy home, or the sombre cold at sites of torture and death. Despite all the doubtless peaceful years that Eyam experienced, both before and after the plague, it has allowed itself to be defined by the events of that awful time and, while of course it’s important to remember and honour the deeds of the villagers who sacrificed everything for the sake of the larger community, the relentless focus on that time makes it difficult for the energy surrounding it to dissipate. I took few photos, and none of the plaques in the gardens with their grisly records of death.
As we neared the old church I was finding it difficult to breathe, a weight on my chest. Another member of the group felt the same way – there seemed to be no explanation for it. I was struggling against surging emotion, like being at the centre of a storm, despite the bright sunshine.
‘Did you say you’ve never been here before?’
‘You sure about that?’
We entered the churchyard, sun gilding the deep green yew trees, the ancient stones. There is a Saxon cross in the churchyard, relic of an even older time, one side carved with angels, the other with serpents, coiled around themselves.
Churchyards are home to memory, to loved ones lost, a community of spirit. We wandered among the gravestones for a little while before heading inside the church. It was still difficult to breathe, but I felt less inundated than before.
…give me space…
Inside, the church was charming. Very old, and similar to several I’d visited before with the group. Usually such places are filled with years of calm, that concentrated energy of a place given over to love and prayer. In this church, however, death danced overhead, the spectre of that terrible time seeming to permeate the place. It did not feel peaceful at all.
Embedded in one of the walls was a stone cross, a cross of St Helen, and there was a beautiful window dedicated to her as well, but even the presence of my namesake saint didn’t do much to ease my discomfort. There was also an illustrated history of the church and the village, and another stained-glass window telling the story of the plague.
When we left the church even the sky felt spiked and heavy, vapour trails intersecting it like the slashes of a knife. And then, a rainbow, faintly coloured, a reminder that, even after the darkest storms, there is light and colour to be found again. It was fitting that it showed up as we prepared to leave the village, heading back past the cottages with their dark histories, past the manor and green.
As we reached the car park, I knew where we were going next. And I was concerned as to whether I’d be able to deal with it, after what I’d already experienced in Eyam. This weekend, however, was about facing our fears. And there was no turning back now…
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