Living In A Plague Village In The Early 21st Century - Tom Cox

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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Living In A Plague Village In The Early 21st Century



All my life I have been prone, in a mild way, to headstrong, impulsive behaviour. I stand by this strand of my personality, since it has often worked out pretty well for me, and also because I’m a big fan of mistakes and view a life without them as being terrifyingly dull. One of the problems of getting older, though, is that Experience happens and, no matter how much of a headstrong, impulsive person you remain, it will insidiously begin to fuck that side of you over: in the back of your head where resides the chorus of voices that disapprove of your headstrong impulsive behaviour - individual and real, or nebulous and societal - this choir of sensibleness will be joined by a new voice, which you might recognise with some dismay as your own. I was feeling a bit frustrated about this towards the end of last year and felt it was far too long since I’d made a major impulsive and headstrong decision that could be widely criticised by others, so in the second week of December, in bitterly cold weather, I packed up my life, left my beloved house in a relatively gentle part of Devon, and moved to half of a remote haunted farmhouse on top of an almost mountain in a plague village in the north of England.

The reasons for my move were intricate and complex, but the driving factor behind it was work-related: a certain “method” approach that I felt would benefit what I was working on in some nuanced way that would almost certainly not make one shred of difference to my life financially and might not even be noticed by many, but would, I believed, make an important difference to what I was about to write. In autumn 2017 I’d found out that there was a possibility that the house I rented in south Devon might be used in a different way by its landlords at some point in the near future (ie: I might well get thrown out of it), which happened to coincide with an itch I was feeling to explore new places, to be closer to people I missed. I decided I would move back to Norfolk, where my most concentrated social circle - and what I sometimes think is the largest and fastest-beating part of my heart - still lives. But then I began work on a new book, a collection of ghost stories. I abruptly changed my mind: I would drive to the Peak District and back in a day and locate a house to rent, to live in for a few months, and find atmospheric and historical and topographical inspiration for what I was working on. I drove to the Peak District. I found a house. I drove back. Three weeks later, I was inside the house, with a pruned version of my possessions, and three slightly spooked cats.


In the frantic prelude to my move, during which I filmed the pledge campaign for the book of ghost stories - which goes under the title Help The Witch - launched and toured my previous book, and had a major life sort out, I got into a lot of conversations about fear. City-dwelling friends expressed confusion at the ease I felt at walking - often at night - through ominous rural places, and at my enthusiasm for ancient and malevolent buildings. I explained that if I felt terror in those places, it was a pleasing MR James kind, and that the true kind of terror that kept me awake at night was reserved for more mundane parts of everyday life: the prospect of completing my tax return, the idea of committing a social faux pas that might hurt the feelings of someone I cared about. Looking back at this still very recent period, and comparing it to my first few nights in my house in the Peak District, I see something else that's distinctly Jamesian, though: me as the classic blasé protagonist with his enthusiasm for books and hiking, scoffing in the face of the supernatural only a short period of time before being served his comeuppance. For my first two nights in the remote late Victorian farmhouse where I now live, a blizzard raged. Exhausted from weeks of journeys to the charity shop and the recycling centre, my hands covered in burns from a three day fire I’d had in my garden before leaving (burns - in the chore cyclone I’d been living inside - that I’d barely noticed before then), I fell asleep at 8pm on my first night in the house. I woke again not long before eleven, to the sound of my new kitten, Clifton, making a mournful wibbling sound. I got up to check Clifton was ok. I found her, and my other two cats, in the kitchen, looking a little alarmed. All of them were silent. The mournful wibbling noise, however, continued. I sat awake, for two hours, on the staircase, tracking the noise as it moved around the house, occasionally harmonising with the other chilling noises in and around the rooms: the whump-whump of the wind passing through the cooker extractor hood and the snow driving against the thick walls. So, so much snow. I pictured the bumpy, half mile track leading up to the main road, getting more and more covered with it. Would I ever make it up it again? I made mental calculations about how long the small amount of food in my freezer and cupboards - some of it quite old - would last. Did a whole can of kidney beans from 2013 count as a meal?

I’m old enough to remember a time when house hunting was a dark art: to find what you were looking for involved talking to real living strangers, calling on indefinable earth magic, making manual trips into the unknown. These days, the Internet has changed all that, and you can tailor a house search to your precise specifications at the push of a couple of buttons. By using the Plague Filter function on the popular RightMove site, for example, I was able to find a house to rent on the edge of Derbyshire’s premier plague village, Eyam, in order to drench my ghost stories in extra sombre ambience. 

Being cut off in my first days in Eyam, while recovering from a cold, was entirely appropriate, as illness and being cut off are the two things Eyam has historically specialised in above all others. In 1665, a box of infected clothes arrived in Eyam from London. Within a year, five sixths of the village’s population were dead. Famously, the village’s pastor, William Mompesson, gathered Eyam’s residents together and kept them contained and isolated from the rest of the world, so not to spread the disease to the surrounding north Derbyshire and south Yorkshire villages and towns. The villages and towns were not always grateful for this. Even in the late 1600s long after the plague had passed, when people suspected of being from Eyam visited Sheffield, they were often pelted with stones and rough sticks until they retreated beyond the city's borders.

The village is a tourist trap in the summer months, and a little chocolate boxy, in a no-nonsense Derbyshire gritstone way, but in December it’s harsh and full of death, harassed by fuck off snow flurries, zigzagged by treacherous frost-slick roads, the only sounds as you walk through the streets of an afternoon often that of a lone slamming van door, the broken fanged whistle of the Pennine wind, and - just to put the icing on the folk horror cake - the shouts of schoolchildren from the primary school next to the haunted church, where the plague-riddled skeleton of Mompesson’s wife is interred. There are monuments to 17th Century suffering all over town, but on a midwinter’s day none speaks more powerfully of Eyam’s hardship than the Riley Graves, beyond a landslip on a hillside on the edge of town, near the road to Grindleford: the resting place of seven members of the Hancock family. It was here, in the space of eight days in August 1666, that, without assistance, an Eyam resident named Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and her six children. Any even slightly thorough book on Derbyshire’s history will speak of the overwhelming desolation and loneliness of the spot: the total lack of visible buildings, the solitary nearby ash tree, the huge and fierce view south beyond it, including the claustrophobic limestone wall of Middleton Dale and - on most days at this time of year - a ghost fog hanging over Curbar Edge, fog that could never be mistaken for mist, fog that seems to have teeth. To offer some perspective at this point: I live about five hundred feet above that, in the less bustling bit of town. To the average visitor, the Riley Graves look like the corner of the hill at the End Of The Universe. To me, they’re where suburbia begins.

On those first few nights, as the mournful wibbling ghost cat in my new house moved inside and through the cavities in the walls, snow tried to invade my bedroom, two pictures fell off the wall, and my salt shaker moved four inches across my work surface of its own volition, I made a decision, in my sleep-deprived state: I decided that all the historical sorrow of this area, all its terrible suffering, had coalesced and settled within the walls of my house. It invaded my sleep, every night, giving me vivid nightmares, often involving violent acts being done to me. On the plus side, after two days, it also had given me an equally vivid story for my book: one which as good as wrote itself and, which I soon realised, was a perfect fit for the book’s title, which until then had just been a title, not relating to anything specific, simply a phrase and a sentiment I liked. The following day I walked a couple of miles to The Boundary Stone, an indented boulder marking the midpoint between Eyam and the neighbouring village of Stoney Middleton where coins - soaked in vinegar, as a rudimentary attempt at disinfection - were left by plague victims as payment for food from outsiders. Legendarily, two lovers - Emmott Sydall from Eyam and Rowland Torre from Stoney - would meet here, just to stand at a safe distance and stare longingly at one another, until April 1666, when Emmott stopped arriving, forever. Two ruins are visible on the hill on either side of the footpath behind the boundary marker: buildings hundreds of yards from any road, long unoccupied, stuffed with colourless weeds and misery.




I came here for the topographic desolation, of course, to an extent - I like a challenge and have a slight addiction to putting myself outside of my comfort zone - but what I don't think I realised is this: in winter, the hills high above what has been called "Derbyshire's mountain village" are a genuinely frightening place to be. Since I got here, I have been struck by the sense that I have moved permanently to winter. Spring isn't even a rumour up here; nobody even mentions it. I made a miscalculation on the day I decided to rent my house, which might not have turned out to be the day I decided to rent my house, had it not been the last kind day of autumn. Prior to my viewing I walked nine miles on the opposite side of the Derwent, stripping down to my t-shirt and skipping up to the top of Curbar Edge, observing the wind agitating the pools in the rocks up there, until, in the words of JB Firth in 1906’s Highways And Byways in Derbyshire, “the water lapped and fretted like a fairy sea”. I believed, erroneously, that I was still in Devon. Actually, that’s not quite true: I knew this place wasn’t Devon, especially as somebody who spent so much time here between the ages of zero and fifteen. It was more vast and vertiginous and there was no sea and it had a different smell: woodsmoky, like Devon, but tinged with manure and mournful old stone and a hint of Victorian industry. But, perhaps lulled by the cragginess and the similarities of the Derwent to the Dart and those Dartmooresque fairie pools, I was still operating on Devon Rules, and one of the most important Devon Rules is Always Live Up A Hill So Your House Doesn’t Get Flooded. But in The Peak District, in winter, Up A Hill is the difficult place to live. Up A Hill is where it snows. I am so high up that there have been many days when, in the valley, well over a thousand feet below me, the weather is so different, you wouldn’t even know it was white up here, let alone white enough to make it impossible to leave your house in a car. For fifty percent of the seven and a half weeks I have spent here so far, there has at least been a severe question mark hanging over the day of whether or not I can get out. You move out here, picturing long winter days of creative hibernation, but you don’t allow for how much time your contingency plans use up: the stocking up on firewood and food… the checking of the forecast… the realisation that that forecast is just for the village, which is much closer to sea level, and often feels like another planet… the three hour round trip to post fifteen books and stock up on Space Raiders. You end up spending quite a lot of time doing the things that humans have done to fend off a northern winter since time immemorial: going to one of your local pubs to watch friends play folk music, spending as much time as possible in good company drinking ale, counteracting the weather’s natural lows with the natural high that comes from eating seven packets of Space Raiders in under ten minutes, trekking through frosted heather and peat bogs to find your local stone circle, walking up to the Saxon Cross on the hill to check your messages because it’s the only place you can get reception. You trek to the bins and you slip over on the ice, every time. I have, it has to be confessed, not done as much writing as I’d hoped. But inspiration? I have received it in spades. 

Richard, who farms the land where I live, calls this place part of a “Shit Weather Corridor”. Richard is boyish and prone to good-natured grinning, but after over twenty years doing this, you can also see the weather in his face, in a good way. The shit weather corridor is an extremely specific one: it comes down from Bamford and Edale in the north, but tends to totally miss Grindleford, which is only just over a mile away. It’s not been a good winter, but I am aware, in a troubling way, that it’s far from the worst, and far from over. A few years ago, in the most devastating February in recent memory, Richard walked out one morning into the field behind my house and found his sheep huddled against the wall, and every one of their lambs frozen to death. According to Richard’s friend Martin, when Richard talks to you for the first time, he likes to check out your hands, in case they are small and you might come in useful at lambing time. Richard has now seen my hands several times but has not asked me to assist him with lambing, which is now imminent. On more days than not, one or two of Richard’s sheep - which are Swaledales, and look like the kind of sheep Vikings would keep as dogs, if Vikings still existed and kept sheep as dogs - will wander into my garden. When I moved in, the landlord told me vaguely that the “grass sort of got cut” and I now wonder if I have found the answer to what he was insinuating. Yesterday morning a calf was born in the barn in front of my house, the determined weightlifter moos of its mother creating a more frantic vibe to my house’s spooky early hours chorus, like an overdub on top of the hump-whump of the wind in the cooker extractor hood, the wind charging down the Shit Weather Corridor and the mournful wibbling of my ghost cat, which I have now discovered is not a ghost cat, but nextdoor’s 17 year-old dog, which is blind and deaf and which, though I have never seen it and do not know its breed, lives vividly in my mind. Later, I walked into my study and noticed that the wooden fish I own, carved by my uncle Paul, was mysteriously on the opposite window ledge to the one I’d left it on.

“IF RICHARD COMES OVER WITH A RAM’S SKULL, THAT’S FOR ME,” said my dad the other day. North Derbyshire is his favourite place in the whole country, possibly in the entire galaxy, and he is utterly at home at my new house. A couple of weeks ago when it was snowing and I had to go to Norfolk he stayed over and looked after the cats. He purchased a sledge especially for the occasion and my mum reported that he sledged right from the top of the track, all the way down to the front door. In August, he will turn 69. “I’VE MET EVERYONE AND I’VE GOT LOADS TO TELL YOU,” he announced, after disappearing for an hour on his first visit, this excitable person who has got more excitable for every year I have known him, this walking contradiction who desires to live as far away as possible from people but seems to befriend every single one he meets and interrogate them about everything that has happened to them since they were born before offering his own parallel experiences in exchange.

I arrived up here a day later from Devon than I’d intended, since the snow was too bad to get down the track, and I took a diversion to my mum and dad’s house, leaving the cats there for a few hours the next morning while I got the bulk of my stuff into the new place. When my dad, who was reading a biography of Napoleon at the time, kindly drove me back across the width of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire - where the motorists are worse than those in Devon, but not as bad as my dad thinks they are - to get the cats, he rhapsodised about long gone weekends he had spent in the area. 

“YOUR MUM AND I WENT TO THAT CO-OP JUST AROUND THAT CORNER IN 1974 AND AN OLD MAN WET HIMSELF. IT’S NOT A CO-OP NOW. PUT YOUR FUCKING LIGHTS ON, YOU TWAT. THAT WAS THE OTHER THING ABOUT NAPOLEON. HIS SOLDIERS USED TO CUT OPEN THEIR HORSES WHEN IT WAS COLD AND SLEEP INSIDE THEM. THINK YOURSELF LUCKY.”

It was on all those old childhood weekends, when I walked in this part of the UK with my parents, that my obsession with the supernatural was at its height. Derbyshire intensified it. I could not look at its gritstone ruins without wondering what kind of ghost horse-faced creature lurked inside them, could not see the walls of Wingfield Manor illuminated below the headlights of my parents’ Morris Minor at dusk and in any way imagine that it was not crammed full of dead people. Now, I told my dad that I thought my new house might be haunted. “DON’T BE FOOKING RIDICULOUS,” he replied. “GHOSTS DON’T EXIST. YOU’RE JUST LIKE YOU WERE WHEN YOU WERE EIGHT. GROW UP.” But that’s what this is all about: I am still eight, in some ways, and I still want to write the book I wanted to write when I was eight, so that is what I am doing, albeit from a slightly more sceptical, less hysterical standpoint: the standpoint of somebody who questions the supernatural - history has lasted an awful long time and has featured an extremely large amount of humans, so if ghosts exist why aren’t we tripping over the bloody things all the time? - but also, like a lot of sceptics, has experienced incidents in his life that defy logical scientific explanation. 



I am a bit calmer now, having got slightly more sleep in recent weeks, and last weekend I wrote a list providing a logical explanation for the eerie occurrences in my house so far:

Ghost Cat = Not Quite A Ghost Dog Yet

Knocking Pictures Off The Walls Ghost = Didn’t Buy Strong Enough Picture Hooks Ghost

Ghost Who My Cats Can See But I Can’t = Cats Just Generally Being Dickheads And Wangs Ghost

Falling Book Case Ghost = Bought Too Many Books Then Balanced Them Too Precariously Ghost

Moving Salt Shaker Ghost = Hallucinatory Extreme Tiredness Ghost

Moving Wooden Fish Ghost = Mum Who Will Sometimes Rearrange Ornaments Without Telling Me Ghost

"Weather is ghosts," says a note in my journal, made on one blizzard night. I think that can be true, and a good ghost story doesn't even necessarily have to feature a ghost. It can just feature some of the elements we make ghosts out of, in our minds. That said, I’m not totally convinced about the explanation for that salt shaker, and some deep fragment of dread has prevented me from asking my mum for confirmation regarding the movement of the fish. 

But if my house is not haunted, it has still already proved to be a more inspiring place to write ghost stories than I could have possibly hoped. Then there’s the village, with its fields of bubonic resting places, marked and unmarked, and even beyond that, you have to go several miles before a general sense of combined hostility and beauty - a strong sense of dark history living under rocks - in the land peters out. Nearly all the places around here sound like session guitarists in progressive blues bands. There’s the snake-hipped Stoney Middleton, who was in high demand everywhere from Hastings to Aberdeen from 1969 to 1973 but suffered from cocaine bloat during the latter part of the decade. There’s Froggatt Edge, who sat in with Fleetwood Mac on occasion just after Peter Green left the band, and remains best mates with Hathersage Booths, despite stealing his wife in 1978. And who could forget Wardlow Mires, whose guitar genius was suffocated by 80s show-off slickness and who still appears on the occasional documentary, speaking in a baffling transatlantic accent? This is the funniest thing about these places, which radiate unexpurgated natural threat when you’re navigating your way across them by headtorch in winter fog. I suppose I could have moved to a much milder place - made winter easier on myself as a person rather than an author - and merely read about them, or popped up for a visit, but I have a conviction that it wouldn’t be quite the same. I have no concrete evidence of this yet: the book’s still being written, still unfolding, still being faffed out of me. But I do think that a uniting factor in many of my favourite books and films and acting performances - the very thing, perhaps, that’s made them last - is that infinitesimal something extra that someone or a collection of people has added to the mix: a flavour or seasoning or base, subtle, not always vocally observed, but palpable and transformative. The months an actor spent researching their role by going undercover and working in a different job. The building where a band decided to record an album whose very rooms you can hear in every song. This is why I am here, doing something that is on a short term basis almost certainly kinder to myself as a writer than it is to myself as a human. We’ll see, in spring, but it will probably be temporary. And after that I might do something else that’s headstrong and impulsive and unexpected, or I might not, and I might regret it and I might not, and that will all probably be ok, because decisions - good and bad, sometimes good and bad at the same time, nearly always imperfect in some way - are what the fabric of a life is made out of, whether you like it or not.


You can pre-order - and help fund - the special first edition of Help The Witch here.

My latest book 21st Century Yokel can be ordered from a variety of places here.

I don't work for any national media publications any more so all my writing now appears on this site or in my book. The site is free, but if you enjoy the writing on here you can take out a small voluntary monthly subscription. All help is very much appreciated. 




Living In A Plague Village In The Early 21st Century Reviewed by Tom Cox on 05:55:00 Rating: 5
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12 comments:

Joan Childs said...

Wonderful. I love vicariously experiencing your adventures without having to be cold or tired myself.But then,I guess that's actually what good writing is all about. And always happy for a cat update.

Mice said...

Brrrr i feel cold just reading that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tom. Your writing just keeps getting better and richer! Good on you for feeding it so well!

Su O'Brien said...

Stunning piece - bravo!

Silly Language said...

Love living vicariously through your adventures. Your father sounds great and your mother must be very patient. But, the pictures in your blog are amazing. If they are yours then a photo only blog (with brief descriptions) would be a delight.
Thanks for all the adventures and cat stuff.

Lynda Yilmaz said...

I just this minute discovered you. A random 'share' on my Facebook page from a friend who usually 'shares' good stuff caused me to open the link. Once here I couldn't stop reading until the end. I was there in the house, although my imaginative picture of the furnishings were somewhat spoiled by the existence of the cooker hood. Thank you for the short journey into your life up the snowy mountain. I hope you might check on the lambs occasionally and take them into the warm if necessary.

Layla Morgan Wilde ( Cat Wisdom 101) said...

Ghost cat phenomena is real and the wild full moon eclipse is a game changer for those unafraid of transformation. Good on you! Before I moved to the U.S. I lived in an idyllic haunted house in a historic town in Canada called Port Hope. There were so many ghosts, I began research for book but never completed it. I'm in my third antique haunted house and my last. The energies require regular clearing or the cats go nuts. Happy to be a source. Dm on Fb or IG. The bravest thing you've done is adopting a kitten with a 20 year commitment ;-)

Julie said...

Just wonderful- as always, Tom

Helen Smart said...

Wonderful writing. I have never got around to reading Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, about Eyam, and I now feel I really must fix that. "a general sense of combined hostility and beauty - a strong sense of dark history living under rocks" - you'd be right at home in some Australian landscapes!

catbeard said...

Wow. not only does your writing just get better and better ( I just finished reading 21st Century Yokel) your photography accompanying your writing is too. I am glad you still have sheep handy. Best wishes to the cats with settling in to their new house.

Anonymous said...

Thermal undies; you need thermal undies. I've had to don mine just reading this!

~kahana~ said...

This is magical, absolutely magical. your writing is so inspiring!!! i thoroughly am enjoying “21st Century Yokel” in between being a wanna-be actress, unread poetess-trainee, and a guitarist-in-her-head-only. oh, and cat chef, maid, pillow, and all-around servant. it is fascinating and inspiring to watch your journey as a writer and as a person. Thank you for allowing us to travel with you!