The village of Eyam in Derbyshire has hundreds of graveyards, like many settlements its age; but there are three of them, set in a triangle of vastly differing geographies and altitudes, that stick up bright and strident on maps, like the pins of a wall plug.
Most of the others are minuscule, no more than allotments for suddenly-beheaded lineages. If you walk through the sump of blossom in the village square, and out to the cottages made into modern Promethei by broadband wires, you will find the churchless pits sheltered by drystone and ivy. A few are lucky enough to retain their stones, and even fewer have retained the blazonry to tell you who lies crinkled up beneath them.
The legends on the stones no longer matter, really; none of them retain their bodies. They were masoned a long time ago, and everybody knows the way it goes with bodies and soil.
Myself and the Ski Ghost (pictured throughout, shrouded in blue nylon) drove up through the stunning goth-stone of the Derbyshire Dales, into the very coccyx of the Pennines and this village, to conduct research for my project, Black Crown, a fungal digital epic of disease, claustrophobia and broadness of spirit for which Eyam’s history was a major touchstone. It is a history which is not little-known; many books have been written about it, including A Year Of Wonders, a novel which, despite its bizarre, Googlesque globetrotting in the last chapter, captures much of the lonely topology of the place and spreads it out subtly, like healthy amounts of butter.
Eyam is lonely, and subtle, the crinkle-cut of the Dales stunting its growth down the centuries; it is little fatter than it was four hundred years ago, though the larger roads do come near here now. The A623 bounced us there like a tightrope pulled taught, and along its length is an excellent bookshop, apparently the highest in the UK, but with an appallingly anorexic collection of science fiction.
This isolation is the curated tool by which Eyam remains famous, sheltered, unlike its inhabitants, from any degradation. In September 1665, far from the Great Plague in London, an Eyam tailor named George Viccars took in a bolt of new cloth from the city, and within a week was dead. The plague passed between the clustered cottages like festival food, and the tightly-bundled families, their lives spent sharing blankets and cloaks to keep out the northern chill, began to die in that horrific, inconsequential way that seems quite unthinkable to us nowadays with our weighty presences and endless influence. They were buried in narrow plots, beside houses that outlived them like every house, or in pits where the soil is unusually fertile today. In the year and two months that the plague was extant in Eyam, nearly three-quarters of the villagers died.
When we arrived we ate a National Trust lunch, smelling of plastic and grass, in our car. The wind up in those hills is ferocious, even in the prickly April sunshine. We avoided the gift shops and the converted stables, and wandered down towards the Plague Cottages, following the official map designed for the parish council by the Ski Ghost’s uncle. She is more local to the area than I am, and had come up that way many times before. The first time I visited the Dales, she had shown me the old mine shafts, some deeper than a church spire and covered with thin, booming steel that neither of us dared walk across.
Despite its conservational sympathies, the village has drawn the tarmac right up to its history. The main road runs past a five hundred year-old watering trough, a fifty year-old mutton spit, and then a line of stone cottages, where the plague began on the backs of fleas on the backs of cotton on the backs of men; George Viccars’ lodgings are nestled right in the middle of the tenement. People still live here, though I am not sure if I could; the temptation to air the house every spring, and to view every seldom-used coverlet with suspicion, would be too great. The bacteriayersinia pestis has a hardiness like Lazarus, and I have heard grisly stories about Blackheath Pond in London, near where I once lived for a year. The council apparently still test the water, and nobody drinks it or dips their toes; Blackheath was one of London’s largest burial pits during the Plague, which certainly gives me pause when I sit on top of it, drinking mead and eating cheese straws.
In front of those cottages we made those futile kowtows of tourists, and pored over the information boards, themselves weathered antiques now. Eyam has been fascinating people for a long time; I wonder how it must feel, to live there in the present, to look over the place every time you bring home shopping or look away from the Internet and out the window, and think of the story that people are telling about this place.
Whatever the residents may think, it is a good story.
When people began to get ill, the villagers and their rector, a remarkable man named William Mompesson, took several precautions that would stand out in an age of apotropaic superstition and intellectual runtishness as strikingly sensible. Firstly, they relocated their church services to a small valley nearby named Cucklet Delph, to keep everybody and their dribbled psalms out in the open air. The villagers must have known that whatever it was moved amongst them like a ghost, and the more space between them, the further it had to float.
And then came their most astonishing act; the village, almost as one, voted to cut themselves off entirely from the world around them. Nobody would leave and nobody would enter. The people of Eyam would chew down this bitter meal by themselves, and stop the spread of the plague northwards; any supplies that they lacked, and the currency to pay for them, would be exchanged with the nearby villages by means of asynchronous barter. At the top of the village and the bottom, two empty markets were designated for the goods to change hands, though the hands would never meet. On a high hill behind the village is a drinking trough that has now been immortalised as Mompesson’s Well, and its opposite was the Coolstone, a large boulder to the south escarped above the neighbouring village of Stoney Middleton, drilled with holes large enough to fit a pillar of coins. This money would be left in these repositories, and a few days later the coins would be gone and in their place scant provisions provided by sympathetic, but mercantile and distant, neighbours. The Coolstone’s holes were filled with vinegar, it is said, to clean the currency of sickness.
We made our way up to Mompesson’s Well first, through the first graveyard, grown out from the church like an inedible spring of mushrooms. I longed to touch the Saxon Cross behind the railings, but instead we snuck inside (whenever you enter a country church, you cannot help but sneak) to look at the remains of the biblical murals and exchange a pound in the honesty box for a green leather bookmark. Every artefact was underneath the sort of clattering, plastic sheeting that gives the impression that they have been wrapped for a packed lunch.
Out of the kissing gate the hill grew steep, and we puffed past farms of alpacas which, in the time of Eyam’s fall, were still the stuff of bestiaries. Here and now they are bred for jumper-wool.
A true road winds up where the horse-track went once, through a wooded holloway in which the wisdom teeth of this landscape show through. They have grown less keen over the years, and the wind whistles less piercingly through their heights, but we still stood in the leaves and listened, for a while, to absolutely nothing. We wondered if, had we lived in the village during those fourteen months, we would have been selfish, and tried to escape across the Dales. It would have been so very easy to do.
But nobody did.
We ran our hands over moss that curled like pubic hair across the walls as we climbed, and then we were out into the wind again. The crossroads were confusing, and we nearly died under the wheels of hissing, barely-glimpsed sports cars before we found Mompesson’s Well, the second graveyard, though there were never any bodies buried there. It hunkers in a ditch at the edge of a bright moorland, a dodecahedral stone cap hiding the older, more sinuous stream downhill. This is where the horses lapped down peatwater on their trundles from the villages in the north, Hathersage and Padley, where the land is even rougher and more insular. I don’t quite remember, but I think that I tasted the water, for an unspoken dare, and it was very sweet.
We wound down through a conifer ridge holed like Emmental with badger sets, and back into the village, sheltering amongst the dusty jugs and rusty ploughs of the village pub. I remember being terribly depressed about something or other, and we listlessly bumped against the ice-cream shop windows, fingering our change. I lost my new bookmark somewhere, or it was pilfered by the wind.
But the Ski Ghost and I were killing time, really. Eyam is so small, so concentrated, that we had drifted through so much of it already. Its story is not an epic one; it takes place in a square mile or so of dull, stacked stone, not far from Bakewell, another village best-known for a cake of almonds and raspberry.
We had climbed up to the very tip of it, and looked back down, like those in the past who had been tasked with collecting the bread and cheese left by kindly neighbours, the burlap packages suspended in the flow of the stream to kill the daemons that feasted upon them. The only other thing to do was walk out, along a central ridge curved like an hourglass, to the third graveyard free of anybody; the Coolstone.
Black Crown is a narrative that has polarity asone of its concerns, of going and coming back, of two limits and the traversal between them. Some of you will already have blundered down the hillside in the game and found the little hollow where one solitary yew stands beside a tall monolith, carved with a pig’s trotter. My boundary may be a little more grand than Eyam’s, but Eyam’s was here first, and the Coolstone was the foundation that sited every other angle in the game’s setting, the Widsith Institute. Black Crown’s Boundary Stone is more than a marker, it is an anchor, stopping the Institute from sliding into the ocean, and as we walked along the tracks past houses full of electricity and plastic rinse aids and fruits from very far away, I thought about the Coolstone as an anchor for the village of Eyam. About whether any of those long-dead farmers had frenziedly volunteered for the task of walking out here to leave money or collect goods, just to remind themselves that, despite the auto-cannibalism of their loved ones, some things do not change. The stone was still there, and it remains there, and was there long before them.
When myself and the Ski Ghost walked that path it was spring, and we were plunged through a postpartum nebula of sheep, attended by the gas-licks of lambs still knock-kneed and cartoonish on their feet. A rusted engine lay like an organ across the fields, and a steel gate had been molested by a randy bull. The walk is a beautiful one, and we squeezed through several of those traditional northern stiles which rely on sheep being fat and man being nimble. All at once the path opened out into a wide brow, the grass mown by the eternal breeze, homogeneous after millions of years.
The Coolstone is exposed and scoured, about the size of an ottoman and evidently much older than the events that brought me here. I can find no information on how long it has been used as a demarcation for the village’s edge, or even how long those deep drillholes, like the evidence of greedy fingers in dough, have been there. They were there before the Plague, and the villagers evidently saw their provenance as unimportant. The Coolstone is one of those unspoken stagings that nature leaves scattered about the world, a prop around which a ritual can be formed. It was an important ritual, one which kept the people of Eyam alive, as a single mass, and which also, I imagine, grew a mismatched community with whichever Stoney Middletoner was kind enough, and fit enough, to climb past Lover’s Leap (where a thick-accented Romeo and Juliet took their lives, or so they say) and leave their bare trimmings for a village of dead folk.
The Ski Ghost wandered off to drift around the field, putting distance between us, using the webbing in her coat’s armpits as a mizzen. Somebody had left a gesture of pence in some of the Coolstone’s holes, and I was looking out on the green fields when the layers of sunlight came. They filled the valley, like a succession of hands giving comfort at a funeral.
Dark, light, dark, light, dark, dark, dark.
The clouds came back. I called across to the Ski Ghost, twirling on the spot, but she could not hear me, and I allowed myself to be alone a little bit longer, here at the edge of the world, before I chased her back towards the car.