I’ve recently returned from spending Christmas in the Peak District and although there are many parts of England that tug at my heartstrings, this is definitely one of my favourites. We had a happy pre-Christmas weekend at home with the grown-up children and as they set off to spend the holiday with partners’ families, we packed the car and headed north with walking boots, waterproofs, a pile of books, and a box of festive provisions from Waitrose.
Our accommodation was a small stone cottage. We were opposite the village pub and yards from the duck pond and as the country teetered on the edge of new restrictions we found that we were just a few miles from Eyam, otherwise known as ‘the plague village.’ It was here in the summer of 1665 while the Black Death was rampaging across the south of England, that a local tailor took delivery of a pile of cloth samples from London. His assistant and other household members soon got sick and died and it became clear that the dreaded plague had come north—it had been carried by fleas in the cloth although it would take centuries for this mechanism to be understood. The initial outbreak died down quite quickly but it created fear and when it resurfaced in the Spring, the rector William Mompesson took decisive action. He persuaded the community to quarantine itself in order to protect nearby settlements and under the new restrictions no-one was allowed in or out of the village. Outsiders left food and other essential supplies by the boundary stones which had holes bored into them where villagers left their payment of coins disinfected with vinegar. There was nowhere for the residents to go to escape the disease and by the end of the year 267 out of 344 people had died.
We walked to Eyam across the fields. It’s a pretty village and although its history is tragic, it is undeniably fascinating especially given our contemporary challenges. There are sober information boards outside some of the houses listing the people who died there during the quarantine. At Rose Cottage an entire household of nine died, and similar stories are repeated at adjoining houses. We learned that church services were held out of doors and people had to bury their dead in the garden or in the fields. I would like to have visited Eyam Museum but it was closed for the Winter.
This visit took place on the last day of our holiday and while I’m normally quite ready to come home at the end of a trip, this time I felt reluctant. And it wasn’t just because of the cosy cottage and the atmospheric, misty walks with ghostly sheep and ancient drystone walls…there was something else. The unusual thing about this holiday was that we were unchained from time. Apart from a candlelit midnight mass at the ‘Cathedral of the Peaks’ in a nearby village, and a couple of family calls on Christmas Day, our time was unstructured. I’d given up wearing a watch earlier in the pandemic and the cottage’s lone clock was stuck unhelpfully at 9.37. My elderly phone spent most of its holiday on charge under the bed upstairs, and as a result I generally had no idea what the time was. This was quite a shift from life at home where we have a clock in every room and I’m constantly aware of time’s presence.
There was once a time when Christmas was all about the deadlines. I would carefully follow Delia’s advice on turkey timings, roast potatoes and bread sauce in order to make sure that we could have our lunch and still have a walk before the light faded. But this year the day unfolded at its own pace. We packed a flask of tea and some hunks of panettone and set off late morning to walk a section of the Monsal Trail, a disused railway line that runs between Bakewell and Buxton. It was bitter and the cold gnawed at the base of my fingernails. We stood near the Monsal viaduct looking down at its five graceful arches and later perched on a damp bench gazing at a sweeping valley and a former cotton mill as we polished off our tea and cake. When we got home we cooked a festive meal. I no longer eat meat so there were no turkey timings to worry about. I’m not sure what time we ate—the preparations took as long as they took and although it wasn’t the normal shape of Christmas Day, I enjoyed it very much.
In the days leading up to Christmas Eve we’d explored the ravishing spa town of Buxton and charming, pudding-obsessed Bakewell but since then everything had closed so there was no temptation to cram in as much as we could which is our usual holiday style. And with day-to-day appointments and obligations on temporary hold, we lived cyclically, getting up when we’d had enough sleep, going to bed when we were tired, and eating when we were hungry. Cyclical. That’s closer to how people lived before clocks began to rule our lives. The majority of people worked on the land, living according to the seasons, starting work when it got light and stopping when it was dark. But with the Industrial Revolution came factories and fixed working hours. This continued with the introduction of the railways when for the first time it became necessary to standardise time across the country. Clocks had originally shown the hours but gradually they became more accurate, slicing time into ever smaller sections with quarter hours then minutes and seconds, creating a tyranny and transforming our habits from cyclical to linear. I’ve spent a lot of my life rushing so as not to fall foul of immutable appointments or bus, train and plane departure times, and wonder whether the seventeenth-century inhabitants of Eyam ever hurried and felt stressed by time.
According to a study by the Oxford English Dictionary, the word time is used more often than any other noun in English—a clear indication that we are obsessed with it. I’ve certainly found it profoundly relaxing to take a break from its stranglehold. This particular situation was related to being on holiday but it has implications for everyday life too, not least because when you remove the pressure of time you’re more likely to experience flow. This term refers to the mental state you enter when you’re so absorbed by an activity that you lose track of time and are completely in the moment. It was named in 1975 by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi who died a couple of months ago, and it’s one reason why it’s so pleasurable to immerse yourself in activities like writing, painting, making music, or playing sport.
During lockdown I frequently noticed that I felt more relaxed than usual and I heard many other people say the same. I might have felt differently if I’d had health issues, employment worries or young children to home-school but for me it was a truth and it made me reassess the time pressures that shape my normal life. Some are commitments that cannot be removed or pared back, and there are of course some that are irresistible pleasures. When it’s our turn to host a family Christmas, for example, we will do so with great pleasure but aside from these exceptions I want to keep in mind that some time pressures are unnecessary and can be challenged. Sometimes it’s good to let things unfold at their own pace. It makes me think of a conversation I had with a friend recently. She is planning to walk some of the Camino in the New Year and I asked, “How far will you go each day?” “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll just take it as it comes and see how I feel.” I like that attitude very much.
Wishing you a healthy and happy New Year
Photos: Mike Poppleton