We set off from Stoney Middleton, the small Derbyshire village where Lover’s Leap stands tall and perilous, tales of rejected lovers jumping from the edge wafting in the air like the petticoats that saved them.
We see the grassy hill, edged by sheep, rise in front of us and we set off, only a mile to Eyam.
The boundary Stone sits atop the hill, halfway between the two villages. This is the stone that was chosen in the 1660s when the plague took hold of the village of Eyam. Six holes were drilled into this boulder and the villagers of Eyam would walk to its bulk and insert money wrapped in cloth soaked in vinegar, which they believed stopped the infection in its tracks. Villagers from Stoney Middleton would later collect the money and replace it with food and medical supplies. All was well, the infection stayed in Eyam, bound by the people who refused to move, the boundary stone their hippopotamus marker.
We walk a narrow path between private fields, we squeeze through narrow stiles and thin gates, until we reach the first house in Eyam. Here there is a cluster of homes, all gathered around two solemn graves, George and Mary Darby, father and daughter. Plague victims were buried by their family and were not allowed in the churchyard during the infection. George’s wife survived the plague and it must have been she who chose this spot and took a spade to lay her small family to rest, wiping sweat from her face, under the same sun that burns us now.
The village opens from here, dogs lay panting in the heat, comfortable families take afternoon tea on picknick benches at the tearooms, cyclists swoop in and pause for breath.
We walk on to the churchyard where the plague scattered stories that make us smile today, so long detached from the horror. There is a celtic cross that leans and wanes like an old body struggling to stand, a sundial from 1775, the tomb of Catherine Mompesson, and a trough of herbs that spill from the stone they are rooted in and tell their own long story. Rosemary was used to disinfect and freshen the sick room. Balm soothed the nerves and healed wounds. Rue was concealed in nosegays and carried about to ward off the evil infection. Thyme was a sedative and an antiseptic, said to ease coughs and aid digestion.
These four herbs were grown here and used by the villagers of Eyam to ease their suffering during the infection. Less than a hundred people survived, and the herbs grew on, tumbling from the stone planter, aromatic and as pretty as fireflies. The dead sleep here, a selfless sleep, an end to the suffering the village took on. Nobody came in or out of Eyam until the plague had run its course and death had moved along. And the herbs they had used for comfort and relief flower and spread, scent the air and grow and grow.
Samantha Priestley is the author of the Folded Word short-fiction chapbooks Dreamers (2014) and Orange Balloon (2016). She’s a novelist, playwright, and essayist who spins words into gold from her home in Sheffield, UK.
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