I’ve just got back from a very welcome break in Derbyshire. We stayed in a secluded cottage near Ireton Wood. The nearest town was Belper, a market town where it’s definitely worth looking in the charity shops for clothes, books and strange bargains. Ashbourne was just up the road and the highlight was the Oxfam bookshop. I found a draft copy of the Claire Tomalin biography of Thomas Hardy. Somebody had annotated it in their own, ornate handwriting (eg the typescript ‘dedication’ had a handwritten arrow stating “there was none”. There were also strange little comments in the margins, such as “shame” and “pity there wasn’t”. I was pleased to get it. I also found a copy of The Assassin’s Cloak, which is little pieces from famous diarists, beginning with entries on January 1st and filling a whole year (with multiple years of diary entries from Pepys, Boswell, Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon to Kenneth Williams and Brian Eno amongst many others). I love the idea of looking up the day’s date and seeing what was going on for others in other times.
Back to the cottage. It had a family of buzzards flying over several fields around it. I didn’t realise before how piercing their cry is, how high and distinct, more insistent than an alarm. They were stunning –flapping once or twice then gliding for a long time over the wood. There were so many animals making noises unseen in the bushes, we thought mealworms might draw them out. I was up and down all night with a torch trying to catch what was depleting the pile of worms. Around 2am, the wood mice, field mice and shrews started to emerge more boldly. I so wanted to see a fox or a hedgehog. It felt like they were hidden just on the peripheries, too smart to be seen.
Other highlights were driving to Eyam, the ‘plague village’ as it’s still known, although I’m sure the inhabitants are pretty fed up with that label. It wasn’t what I expected at all. It was further out, in terms of the National Park. I was surprised by the steepness of the limestone cliffs and the harsh physical geography which reminded me of West Yorkshire. I’d read a lot about it so the museum wasn’t too revealing. What shocked me was that the majority of the cottages the families lived in were still there. There were plaques on most of them. The cottage where the infection broke out, probably from infected materials containing fleas bought by a tailor in Eyam and delivered from London (in the heat of its plague year), was almost next to the church with its Saxon cross in the graveyard. I was moved by the bravery of the villagers, their self-isolation to contain the disease, the courage it took to bury loved ones, to tend to the sick. I was struck by the boundary stone where the villagers left coins soaked in vinegar in exchange for food and supplies. Then there was a huge storm with real thunder and lightening, almost cartoon-like, and most of the tourists ran to their tour buses. It was a spectacular Derbyshire storm and I loved it.
Bakewell was half sun, half rain but the bridge with its ‘love locks’ was beautiful. Half a ploughman’s lunch was fed to the ducks. I was lucky enough to meet up with my uncle and his partner in Buxton. We talked about the family tree – Northern Irish all the way back as can be traced with lots of characters. It made me feel closer to my dad. There was time for reading and laughing at lots of daft things and I realise more and more that is what’s important.
The journey back today was bad – the M6 totally closed. There was an incident witnessed in a lay-by on a back-road the satnav guided us onto which I can only refer to as ‘an unfortunate event and intimate revelations witnessed unwanted while trying to eat tomato soup’. It was much worse than you can imagine.
I’ve just finished Perfect by Rachel Joyce, which turned into an outstanding novel, and Nocturnal Animals (genuinely disturbing) and have lots to look forward to in terms of reading. I wrote 3 poems on holiday. They seemed great at 3am in Derbyshire but will need a lot of work. I’ll just have to think of the buzzards and write dawn ‘till dusk.