Choosing the future

A few months ago, with what now appears to be an uncanny and uncomfortable prescience, we began a workshop in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. The village is one of those pretty places of old stone and cottage gardens… but it is best known for its response to the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665.

The plague arrived in the village from London in a bale of flea-infested cloth and swiftly infected the tailor who had ordered it and his assistant, killing them both. This was at the time of the Great Plague of London… the last time bubonic plague reached epidemic proportions in England and during what is now known as the Second Pandemic. The pandemic had begun in China in 1331, with devastating global effects in the days before modern medicine, killing hundreds of millions over the centuries of its periodic resurgences. The Great Plague of London killed at least a hundred thousand people in the city during the eighteen months between its onset in 1665 to its end around the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The little village of Eyam, knowing the devastation that the disease would wreak should it spread throughout the north, chose to place itself in strict quarantine, cutting itself off from neighbouring villages completely and holding their socially distanced prayers in a field until the disease had run its course, killing a tragic proportion of the villagers.

Their sacrifice… a true sacrifice that was chosen, not imposed… saved uncountable lives at the cost of their own. Mothers buried their children, whole families were wiped out and plaques around the village today commemorate both their lives and their deaths.

We had called the workshop weekend ‘Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear’ and our aim was to show that fear can be both destructive and positive… and can, when faced, lead us to places and experiences of which we may not have thought ourselves capable. The village of Eyam was a perfect place to start.

Today, the village derives much of its income from tourism based upon its role and sacrifice during that dark time. The tragedy has not been allowed to sink into the memory of the land, but is kept raw and alive in all its shocking detail. It is an unsettling place, especially with its chocolate-box appearance contrasting against its history. Almost all of our companions on that weekend felt the deep and long-held pain and darkness that hangs over the village like a sticky pall.

Helen Jones was with us and shared an account of the weekend on her blog. Of her experience at Eyam she wrote:

“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.”

I know from the numerous emails and phone calls that I have received over the past few weeks that many people are feeling much the same way about the current pandemic and its effects on our daily lives. Unlike the villagers of Eyam, we have few choices, save to obey the measures that have been put in place in an attempt to control the spread of a disease we do not yet fully understand, know how to cure or even prevent. Many feel helpless, the continued and profound uncertainty of ‘what next’ is affecting the majority of us. For many, there is fear for themselves, their loved ones, their incomes and security. For some, it is the sense of isolation and the lack of human contact that is hardest to bear, while for others loneliness weighs heavy on their hearts.

There are so many mixed emotions, from gratitude to those who work tirelessly to help those afflicted…and to those, like shop assistants and refuse collectors, whose jobs pass largely unnoticed. There is anger… both from those who disagree with policies and restrictions and from those whose fear makes them react badly to the proximity or actions of other human beings. As the situation changes daily, the messages we are being given can seem to contradict themselves and on the silent streets, the world seems to be holding its breath. Few things seem to be within our control at the moment…and even the experts in whom we repose our trust seem unsure and conflicted about the best way forward.

Last week, I shared a simple meditation that helps to find balance within the turmoil. Does the tragedy of Eyam have anything that might help? Helen wrote:

“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.“

For those families across the world who have lost those they love, grief is inevitable, especially in this heartbreaking time when many cannot even hold a hand, say goodbye or lay their loved ones to rest with dignity and love.

For the rest of us, though, one thing we can do is decide, right now, whether or not, or how, we choose to be defined by events. There will be no ‘quick fix’ to this pandemic, both families and economies will be affected for a long time to come. We can choose to spend the rest of our lives looking back, mourning better days and maintaining the dark aura of hurt and fear, or we can take a positive stance, seeing the possibilities inherent in any challenge that allows us to move forward.

Do we choose to come out on the other side of this tragic time to find a world that feels as oppressive and fearful as the plague village of Eyam, where old tragedy defines life in spite of beauty? Or do we seek the opportunities for hope, positive change and appreciation of all that is dear to us and beautiful in this world? The future is up to us.

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Helen Jones’ account of her weekend with the Silent Eye in Derbyshire can be found here:

Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine

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The Silent Eye’s account of the weekend, along with the history and stories of the places we visited and a little insight into the lessons they might share can be found here:

One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight,

Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen

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Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 3 – Sorrow ~ Helen Jones

Helen Jones continues the tale of her experiences with the Silent Eye in Derbyshire:

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.

 

Continue reading at Journey to Ambeth

Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 2 – Pestilence ~ Helen Jones

Helen Jones continues her account of the recent weekend in Derbyshire…

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

‘Go and have a look around. We’ve got a bit of time yet before the others get 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.

Continue reading at Journey to Ambeth

Facing Fear with The Silent Eye, Part 1 – Arrival ~ Helen Jones

Helen Jones, author of Journey to Ambeth, begins her account of her weekend with The Silent Eye in Derbyshire…

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 one of my account…

My journey began on Friday 13th, amid the hustle and bustle of St Pancras station, my train waiting beneath the great arcing span of glass. Perhaps it was the day – I’d given myself plenty of time to get there, yet still found myself rushing at the last moment, a wrong turn taken meaning I had to run the length of the station to get to my platform. But I made it on board and settled in for a pleasant journey through London and out into the green, past the dreaming spires of St Albans and further north, buildings of golden brick changing to red, then to grey stone.

This weekend was to be given over to fear, so I reflected on what that could mean as we headed north.

Continue reading at Journey to Ambeth

Fear and Love in the High Peak – (2) “I want a posset!”

The first visit of the Silent Eye ‘Rites of Passage: Seeing Beyond Fear’ weekend was to the Derbyshire village of Eyam (pronounced Eem) – The Plague Village.

Our family has a personal connection with Eyam and the terrible events of 1665-6, when bubonic plague, newly arrived in Derbyshire from London, took the lives of 260 of its occupants: over seven-tenths of its population.

The parish church of St Lawrence, Eyam

No-one began the weekend thinking of heroes or heroines, but they were there in the records–and in the living landscape, though the word may not be entirely appropriate to describe the profound selflessness of its former inhabitants during that fateful year of 1665-6.

The Saxon cross in the church of St Lawrence

The name of the man who is our family connection was Edward Unwin. We do not know his occupation, but it was probably that of lead miner, a common occupation in those parts. This assumption is made on the basis that a close friend of his reported the strange events that follow to Catherine Mompesson, the wife of the new rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, who was a disciplined diarist. Her records are the basis of much of the history of the plague year of 1666.

From Diary of Catherine Mompesson, 5th July 1666:

‘I first encountered John Carter [the neighbour of Edward Unwin] on the morning following his summoning of Marshall Howe to give his ministrations to his near neighbour…’

Catherine Mompesson’s journal goes on to explain how Carter, the neighbour of Unwin, was ‘sharp-spoken’ and unkempt in the way of the local lead miners, but was ‘direct and honest’ in his conversation. In common with the other lead miners, he looked ten years older than his reputed thirty-four years. Catherine Mompesson relates that, in telling the tale, he had ‘a certain jocose air’ about him as he related the story of the previous day.

The grave of Catherine Mompesson, wife of Rector William. She died in 1666 of the plague.

The journal continues: ‘Knowing that Unwin was either dead or on the verge of death, Carter had summoned his fellow miner, Marshall Howe, who was acting as a self-appointed ‘sexton of the plague’; seemingly heedless of the danger to himself, but well aware that, since Unwin’s wife had already died of the plague, choice possessions from Unwin’s house would pass to him as his fee for the ‘sexton’s’ funeral duties…

Bodies had to be buried in the gardens of the deceased’s dwellings to reduce the risk of contagion from communal graveyards. The journal tells that Marshall Howe had already dug Unwin’s grave in the man’s ‘sweet smelling’ orchard at the back of the property and was carrying his body over his shoulder down the stairs when:

‘The still-warm body started to writhe and thrash.. then shouted out, “I want a posset!”

The interior of St Lawrence’s church

Edward Unwin was my wife’s tenth great grandfather. He survived the encounter with the ‘plague sexton’ and got his posset from a sympathetic neighbour. The self-appointed sexton fled but is recorded as subsequently continuing his job and surviving the plague. The incident gave voice to the opinion that Marshall may ‘have been overzealous in the execution of his duties several times…’

We know that Edward Unwin survived the plague. My wife, Bernie, hopes that whatever resistant DNA he may have had was passed down through the generations. The posset in question was a mixture of boiled milk, ale, bread and fats – a miner’s favourite sustenance and inexpensive, too.

Edward could not be described as a hero, regardless of his miraculous recovery… But the plague village and the area around it did have its heroes. Eyam, discovering that it was the new centre of a potential explosion of bubonic plague infection, did something remarkable: with some guidance from the clergy, it chose to cut itself off from the surrounding villages and towns, condemning all those ‘within’ to almost certain death.

The credit for this is normally given to William Mompesson, the young local clergyman. But the truth is more complex… Two rectors were involved in the formidable alignment of wills that gave Eyam its fame and historical status.

1662 was the date of the Act of Uniformity. Charles II was on the throne of England and Scotland, and Cromwell’s age of the Puritans had come to an end. The Act of Uniformity forced the ‘ejection’ of hundreds of puritan clergymen from their ‘living’. One of these was Eyam’s much respected rector, Thomas Stanley.

The old sundial on the walls of the church

Traditionally, these ‘ejected’ clergyman were expected to leave the region in which they had ministered. But Stanley continued to live close to Eyam – something the nearby Duke of Devonshire had the power to correct but didn’t, such was the standing of the former rector.

William Mompesson, Rector of Eyam Church. I could find no surviving pictures of Thomas Stanley.

The plague arrived in Eyam at the end of August, 1665, in the bite of fleas wrapped in a damp bale of tailor’s cloth. The inexperienced rector knew he had to do something radical but struggled to gain support from the people of Eyam – until he met with Thomas Stanley and shared views across the new religious boundary. Together, they framed the stance the people of Eyam would adopt; to imprison themselves, facing almost certain death, in order to protect the surrounding populations.

The Story of the plague. An unlikely stained glass window in St Lawrence’s church…

The Earl of Devonshire deserves mention in this context, too. He and his family resolutely supported Eyam in its self-imposed isolation. They provided food and other vital supplies for the villagers, left at safe boundary points, for the duration of the plague’s effects.

William Cavendish, First Duke of Devonshire and benefactor of Eyam during the plague. Image Wikipedia, public domain

Space precludes more detail of the beautiful village of Eyam, but Sue Vincent’s recent blog describes our exploration of Eyam in considerable detail.

The day in Eyam had generated heavy hearts, even though these events were four hundred years ago. They let us reflect on the nature of fear… and of love. But this was an important counterpoint to the following day, which would begin on a much more sun-filled note.

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©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Rites of Passage: On the Edge…

On Saturday morning, we gathered on the Edge above Baslow. The rocky landscape here is one we know well, capturing and melding the wild essence of the land with the lives of its people, through history, necessity and modern Man’s pursuit of beauty.

You have to wonder if the stark beauty of the high crags with their panoramic views over the valleys played a part in why our ancestors chose this spot to build a settlement. It is logical to assume that the dictates of practicality and safety made them seek a place with water and a defensive position. We know that many of these sites were considered sacred too, given the purposes for which they were used. To a culture already crafting beautiful things and colourful garments, perhaps the land itself spoke to them and asked them to call it home.

It would not have mattered which way we had chosen to walk… there is history beneath every step here, from the cairnfields and stone circles of the Barbrook complex, to the enclosure, rock art and standing stones of Gardom’s Edge, the ancient settlements of Big Moor…or the cairnfields around our destination, the Eagle Stone.

We opened our day with a visualisation, then the party separated. Some chose to walk along the path that runs along the Edge, where the view over Derbyshire is spectacular. Others followed the more direct path, keeping our eyes open for the ‘scrying bowls’ we wanted to share on our return.

First though, we wanted to explore other aspects of fear, both physical and the more tenuous fear of failure and its consequences… or perceived consequences…within a community. As we gathered around the Eagle Stone, we asked if anyone could see a way to climb to the top.

The Eagle Stone is a naturally occurring gritstone boulder, some twenty feet high. Wind and rain have carved the huge boulder into fantastical shapes that give the stone a different face from every angle. While it is possible to see an eagle poised for flight from one position, there are laughing faces from others.

Some stories say that it got its name simply because eagles would perch upon the rock, other tales tell that it was cast there by a pre-Christian god, who could throw stones no mortal man could lift, and that its name should be Aigle’s Stone. It is also said to turn around three times when the cock crows… but we were a little late to verify that.

The Eagle Stone stands close to a Neolithic cairnfield on the Edge above Baslow. Given its proximity to the many prehistoric sites of the area, it is safe to assume that it would have been seen as significant by our ancestors and that what has come down to us in folklore may have its roots in the distant past.

Local tradition states that, before a man may marry, he must scale the Eagle Stone. As there is no easy way to climb the overhanging rock, this test of manhood has, since time beyond memory, been used to determine a youth’s fitness to mate and provide. The custom persists, with groups of young men, adorned with bridal veils, gathering to help their friends to the top. Perhaps ‘manhood’ is not only defined by the ability to face fears and overcome hurdles, but by the ability to cooperate and help each other.

Going back through the mists of time, we might consider that this surviving folk custom had its roots in a deeper mystery. Was it seen as a rite of passage into manhood? Watched over by the ancestors in their cairnfield, was this test of physical courage, strength and ingenuity the test that carried boys into adulthood and gave them a place within the clan? If so, then failure would have had dire consequences, whether from a fall or by the loss of place and face within the community. Is it too much to imagine that those who succeeded became the warriors or hunters, the ‘eagles’ of their tribe?

We still face similar ‘tests’ today and our position within the community is too often ranked by our success or failure at climbing the social, academic or business ladders. We are frequently judged by what we can ‘bring to the table’, instead of who we are as human beings and the higher qualities of humankind that we can teach our children. Individuals value such qualities, societies, it seems, do not. Many who should be honoured for their kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice are simply swept under the societal table because their focus was not on the ephemeral glitter ball of its approval.

As we returned, we stopped to look at the ‘scrying bowls’ that dot the moors and a huge boulder perched upon smaller ones that looks for all the world like a collapsed dolmen. The scrying bowls are usually filled with water, but for once, they were empty. While they may be no more than natural features… and I have found no record of a dolmen here… it is entirely possible that they would have been recognised and used by our ancestors.

Our visit was more light-hearted than serious. There had been merriment as some of our company made an attempt on the Eagle Stone. There were dogs and their owners to greet, people whose barriers came down for a moment to share the laughter and the sunshine… a stark contrast to the sad faces we had seen in Eyam the day before.

To the ancients, the Eagle Stone and the cairnfield where their forefathers were buried may have been a gateway through which they could touch the Unseen. Such ideas are often dismissed as superstition, but we deal with the unseen all the time. We feel the peace in an old village church and the tension in the atmosphere of a room without any obvious cues. The atmosphere of Eyam had been as darkly infectious as the mood was light on this walk across the moors. As we left Baslow Edge behind and headed for lunch in Bakewell, we couldn’t help wondering what our companions would make of what we had planned for later…

Rites of Passage: Beyond well…

Our last ‘official’ site for the day was Mompesson’s Well. The small, stone-capped well-housing sits in an enclosure above the village of Eyam, on the old salt road that once joined Sheffield to Cheshire. The well is fed by a stream and we had hoped that its pure waters would symbolically wash away the taste of grief after plunging ourselves into the dark history of the plague.

Mompesson’s Well, renamed in honour of the clergyman who had convinced the village to quarantine itself in 1665 when the plague had struck, was one of the places where money and goods were exchanged during the village’s self-imposed isolation. Money was left for supplies for the plague-ridden village, and the coins washed in the water in the belief that it would prevent infection. There are still coins left at the well today, though whether that is in homage to its history or part of an older tradition of leaving offerings by sacred springs is debatable.

The plague in Eyam lasted for fourteen months. The quarantine was lifted a little while after the death of the last victim of the pestilence, farm worker Abraham Morten, had died on the first of November 1666. It must have been a time of both hope and terror as the village held its breath, waiting to see if he were indeed the last.

Figures vary from source to source about how many people were living in Eyam when the plague first struck and how many died. The church holds records of two hundred and seventy three deaths, but that may not be the full total. While one source claims there may have been around seven hundred villagers at the start of the plague, many seem to agree on a mere three hundred and eighty. Either way, the loss is a staggering proportion of the population and no-one would have been left untouched by loss.

Yet, without their chosen actions and self-sacrifice, the plague would have undoubtedly spread, not only to the villages immediately surrounding Eyam, but thence to the towns and cities such as Bakewell, Buxton and Sheffield where poverty and the density of the population would have spelled disaster.

The quarantine was no empty gesture. The villagers knew that through their choices, most were condemning themselves and their families to a painful and horrible death. There was no effective treatment for the plague in the seventeenth century, but while tens of thousands were dying every week in London, in Derbyshire, the comparatively low death toll  is due to the sacrifice of this one village.

And yet, there is, in spite of their actions, and in spite of the vibrant internal life of the modern village, still a heavy taste of old fear hanging over Eyam. Even the atmosphere of the well did not feel truly clean… it was not the place to end our day. It is not always enough to heal the body; old pain leaves its scars and its ghosts. Instead, we followed the road up onto Eyam Moor, where older inhabitants had built stone circles thousands of years ago and where the air is clear and clean.

We had begun our afternoon together with a visualisation, placing our work within a circle of Light. High on the moors, amid the last of the heather, we offered what light we shared for the healing of old pain.

All that remained for us to do was to return to base. We had booked a table for dinner at the Queen Anne in Great Hucklow, the inn that has seen us every year during our April ritual workshops. The pub, just three miles from Eyam and built in 1621, is just a few years older than the story of the plague. There was something rather comforting about its familiarity at the end of such an emotional day. And sometimes, warmth and friendship are all it takes to make the world right.

We had been lucky with the warm weather too… a beautiful autumn day. As we watched the sun go down from the pub’s garden, we were hoping for fine weather for the next day too… for we would be spending it high on the moors with the stones…

 

Rites of Passage: A mother’s grief

High above the village of Eyam, overlooking the hills, valleys and rock edges of Derbyshire, is a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful spot and well worth the walk along the leafy lane for the magnificent views of the landscape. But this is Eyam and these are the Riley Graves… and their weathered stones tell the saddest of stories.

It was the summer of 1666 and exceptionally warm. The bubonic plague was at its height in Eyam, the village that had chosen to quarantine itself rather than risk the spread of disease to the neighbouring town and villages. There were no public gatherings, except in Cucklett Delph on the outskirts of the settlement; people stayed away from each other as much as possible in the hope of escaping infection and the churchyard was no longer used for burials, with each family burying their own dead.

The Hancock family had a small farmstead on the edge of the village at Riley Top, close to the home of the Talbot family. Talbot was a blacksmith and had a smithy close to the road, as well as working the land. Having already survived a year of the plague in the village, perhaps the two families had hope that their isolated position and the fruits of their land might keep them and their children safe.

On the fifth of July, 1666, Briget and Mary, daughters of Richard and Catherine Talbot, fell victim to the plague and their father buried them beside their home. In the days that followed, Richard buried two more of his children, Ann and Robert, and his wife, Catherine, before he too succumbed to infection. Only one child remained, and when he too died, on the thirtieth of July, there were none but the Hancock family to bury him.

That final act of charity was to prove fatal. Just days later, on the third of August, two of the Hancock children, John and Elisabeth, sickened and died.  With her husband already ailing, the grieving  mother buried her children, digging shallow graves with her own hands and dragging their bodies to a spot close to their home, with a towel wrapped around their feet to avoid, as much as possible, the risk of carrying infection back to the rest of her family.

I cannot begin to imagine how that felt for the grieving mother. When someone we love passes over, regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we want to see their bodies treated with care and respect… it is a final act of love. In my mind, I see a woman not only grieving for her lost child, but the horror and despair she must have felt, seeing and feeling the small body bounce and scrape over the earth. Necessity may give us the strength to act in a manner far beyond that of which we would normally be capable, but it does not take away the horror or the pain.

Elizabeth’s son, Oner, died during the night of the sixth of August, followed a few minutes later by his father, John, and, before dawn, young William also died. Once more, Elizabeth faced the appalling task of digging their graves and dragging the bodies of her loved ones across the rough field to bury them.

Only two daughters now remained with Elizabeth. Alice died on the ninth of August and Ann on the tenth. For the last time, Elizabeth dug graves for her children, laying them beneath the earth of home with her own hands, watched, from a neighbouring hilltop by the villagers of Stoney Middleton.

It is almost impossible to imagine what she must have felt. The grief for the loss of her husband and, almost certainly, the loss of her home and livelihood on land she could not farm alone. The searing grief that any mother feels when a life begun within her own body, nurtured beneath and within her heart, is extinguished, must have been multiplied not by six, but a thousand times.

When a child is ill or in pain, all a parent wants to do take that pain away. To watch one child suffer, knowing there is nothing you can do to ease that suffering, and no way to prevent them dying a horrible and painful death… to watch their fear and pain as the disease progresses… will  feel like a knife twisting in a parent’s heart. To have to watch as first your friends, then all of your children, and your partner too, fall victim to such a dreadful predator as the plague, is unimaginable.

With no-one to whom she could turn to for comfort, no shoulder upon which she could weep…and the inevitable guilt and dreadful questions that must have plagued her about why she alone had survived, Elizabeth had to find a way to live. Eventually, she left her home to spend the rest of her days with her surviving son, who had been away from the village serving an apprenticeship. It was this son who later erected the memorial stones to his father, brothers and sisters. Around his father’s tomb are carved the words Orate Vigilate Nescitis Horam, which roughly means, ‘watch and pray, you know not the hour’. Upon the top of the tomb, is inscribed:

Remember man

As thou goest by,

As thou art now,

Even once was I;

As I doe now

So must thou lie,

Remember man

That thou must die.

It is a good reminder that the stories we tell and see played out upon the pages of history are our own. It is all too easy to look at events from which we are separated by time, culture or distance as if we were looking at a television screen. We can look and yet maintain our personal space, deflect the emotional impact, almost pretend that those involved are not ‘real’ people. We do not do so deliberately, it is probably a defence mechanism, especially in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by so many images of violence and tragedy that, were we to take each one to heart as if it were our own, we would founder beneath the weight of grief and despair.

Sometimes, our protective barriers are torn down and we are as one with the victims of tragedy. How many, for example, who watched the Twin Towers fall, will ever forget or be unmoved?  Even those of us who were half a world away. Sometimes a story touches us and we open ourselves to it. It becomes personal. The separations wrought by time and distance mean nothing as we share, for a moment, the life of another human soul.

Not one of us would wish to face such a nightmare scenario and none can know how we would cope or how we would act in such circumstances. But we can recognise a parent’s love for their children and hope that even while fear might drive us to reaction, love would call up a deeper strength that would allow us to act from the heart.

As we outlined the story of the Riley Graves for our companions, both empathy and sympathy blossomed as Elizabeth’s story touched our hearts. We could stand in her shoes, just for a moment, protected by the passage of time, and feel an echo of her fear, loss and grief. Her home is now gone, its stones long-since removed and absorbed into the walls that criss-cross the landscape. But, although the graves of her family, within their enclosure, still seem an open wound upon the green of the field, for most of us, the overwhelming impression with which we were left was one of love.

Rites of Passage: Light and shade

We walked through the village, watching the changing expressions of visitors as the full horror of the plague story hit home. From the mildly curious to the stark shock of those who aligned themselves with the  story for a moment, it was interesting to observe those who merely skimmed the history from an emotional distance and those for whom empathy made it personal. It is difficult to keep the story at bay if you open yourself to what people experienced, rather than seeing them just as characters on the page of history.

Central to the story of the villagers’ response to the plague in 1665 was the church, even though all services were soon moved to a nearby field to try and prevent the spread of the disease, and it was there that we were heading.

There has been a church in Eyam since before the records of its incumbents began. Its first recorded rector served here in 1250, though its story goes back much further.  In the churchyard stands an intricately carved ‘Celtic’ cross of Mercian design, dating back to the eighth century, preserving that mix of Pagan and Christian symbolism that typifies the style. The top part of the shaft is missing, broken long ago for use in domestic building, and we cannot help wondering what artwork and symbolism was lost.

Within the churchyard is the tomb of Catherine Mompesson, the Rector’s wife, who had stayed in the village when others left, to support her husband and his congregation. Her husband had wanted her to leave when they sent their children to Yorkshire for safety during the early days of the plague, but she had refused to go. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak, having contracted the disease whilst nursing those infected. You can only imagine how she and her husband must have felt as they faced these decisions. Catherine is buried close to her husband’s church. She was just twenty seven years old.

The current church of St Lawrence is a mainly fourteenth century building, yet traces of its earlier history are easy to find.

In this small church there is a feeling of living history, the continuity is caught and held here somewhere between the ancient burial urn, interred on the moor three and a half thousand years ago and the Saxon font that has seen the baptism of villagers for over a thousand years.

The font stands in St Helen’s chapel and close by a medieval grave slab bearing St Helen’s Cross is set into the wall.

All in all, it is one of those old churches that seems, on the face of it, to have everything we get excited about. It is obviously loved by its parishioners, is well cared-for and, from the children’s corner to the village notices around the church, still very much part of the community today. And yet, there is an oppressive atmosphere, felt by most of us, as if the ghost of sickness still clings to the place, not helped by the story of the plague displayed in the side chapel and the book listing the names of those who died; a place designed for spiritual inspiration given over to the memory of old death.

Wall paintings show the twelve tribes of Israel and a Memento Mori of grinning skeletons. But there are a number of beautiful stained glass windows, one of which commemorates Mompesson and his congregation, with vignettes telling their story, from the outbreak of the plague to the tragedy of Emmot Sydall and Rowland Torre, lovers who lived either side of the quarantine boundary.

Emmot, a young woman in her early twenties, lived in Eyam. Rowland lived in Stoney Middleton, a neighbouring village just a short walk away. They would meet every day, as young lovers do, and when the quarantine was imposed, their meetings continued, though they could only shout to each other from a distance.

John Sydall, Emmot’s father, lived with his family opposite the cottage where the plague had broken out. He and four of his children were amongst the first to die. In the spring of 1666, Emmot failed to come to the rendezvous with Rowland. He returned every day to the appointed spot, until the quarantine ended some months later. At the first opportunity, he walked into Eyam to seek for his love, only to be told that she had fallen ill and died in April. One sad story amongst so many…

The Mompesson window also contains a ring of roses, in reference to the nursery rhyme, long thought to be associated with the story of the plague. In some ways, it is ironic that the beauty and fragrance of roses should be forever joined in the folk record with such a horrific episode in human history. In others, regardless of the historicity of the attribution, it is a good reminder that apparent beauty may hide its thorns and its petals strew a path to despair, and yet, when we face the horror of our darkest fears, our choices may lift us to the Light.

In spite of its beauty, no-one felt like lingering in the church. There were still two more places we wanted to take our companions that afternoon… and, as we walked out into the sunshine, we were acutely aware that the next story we had to share could be harrowing…