Pathways > The Pathways book > The corpse road
The corpse road
Corpse roads can be found in many remote parts of Britain. They may be marked on the map using a variety of names - corpse way, coffin road, bier way, lyke or lych way being just a few. They often pass through bleak and desolate places, partly because landowners feared the routes might become standard passages for trade and travel. The difficulties encountered by the funeral procession as it waded through the mire were often therefore deliberate - no-one would take the route unless they had to.
Corpse roads reflected the desire of the church to keep the people of their parish within the fold, even within death. Not surprisingly the paths became steeped in folklore; tales of ghostly happenings are commonplace and rituals were often performed, particularly at river crossings and crossroads, to help prevent the spirits of the dead returning.
The Mardale corpse road walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
You can come across a corpse road in any remote corner of Britain. On the map it might appear under any number of names: bier road, burial road, coffin road, coffin lane, lyke or lych way, funeral road, procession way or corpse way. As funeral procession routes, the tracks date from late medieval times. As new chapels and churches were built to cope with an expanding population, the original mother churches strove to ensure that the dead from outlying settlements were still brought for burial, despite the hardship and risk involved in carrying a corpse for many miles. It shows a keeness to own the souls of the dead as much as those of the living. The burial fees no doubt played a part.
Of course there will have been plenty of routes to the churchyard that are not specifically named. The named roads may have been those for which there was no other major purpose. To some extent this was caused by a widespread belief that the carrying of corpses along a route made it a right of way. The belief probably had litle justification in law, but even so, landowners were keen that ‘church ways’ did not become tracks for standard traffic and trade. So the paths ended up being routed through boggy and marshy patches and over other difficult terrain, to put off anyone thinking of taking a horse and cart along them in the course of their normal daily business.
This, of course, made the conveyance of a coffin in harsh winter or wet seasons extremely difficult. There are stories of coffin bearers mired in mud and mourners wading through bogs. It must have made the loss of a family member even more painful, unless it helped to take your mind off things. It certainly means that coffin roads go through some of the most desolate and remote parts of our fells, giving them an atmosphere appropriate to their role.
Corpse roads are, naturally enough, associated with spirits. Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream talks of spirits following particular paths to and from their last resting places: ‘Now it is that time of night, That the graves all gaping wide, Every one lets forth his sprite, In the church-way paths to glide.’ No doubt the corpse road would be particularly appealing to a wandering ghost.
A ghostly tale from the Lake District highlights the risk of using horses rather than human bearers for carrying the dead. A young man had died and his body was being taken from Wasdale Head to Eskdale on the remote corpse road over Burnmoor. It was a misty winter’s day and some way into the journey the horse took fright and bolted. The party of mourners searched for hours but the horse and its grisly cargo had vanished.
Returning home, the young man’s mother, in despair at losing first her only son and then his body, collapsed and died. During her own funeral procession, on the same path and at the same place, her horse too took fright and ran off into a snowstorm. In the desperate search that ensued the son’s horse and corpse were discovered but the mother’s had disappeared for good. The ghostly horse and coffin that appear from time to time on the lonely fell is assumed to be hers.
There seems to have been a particular risk, if you failed to deal with the body correctly on its way to the grave, that the deceased’s spirit would make its way back home to haunt you. ‘Corpse candles’ – balls of light or flame – were said to travel from the burial ground to the person’s home and back again. Some traditions, such as always keeping the feet of the corpse facing away from his or her old home, were supposed to help keep spirits firmly in the ground where they belonged. It was considered very bad luck to follow a route other than the designated corpse road to the cemetery.
There were often special rituals when the corpse was carried over water, such as a river or stream. On the corpse road leading through Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales at Ivelet there is a stone by the bridge for resting the coffin, where the mourners could pause for a while before continuing the hard slog along the valley. A headless black dog is seen on occasions at the bridge, leaping into the water below. The phantom is considered a bad omen, even a portent of death.
The specialness of the river crossing seems to reflect a long-held belief that the spirits could not cross water and provides an interesting throwback to the obvious importance of water as a liminal place in Neolithic and Bronze Age times. Whether the Catholic church tacitly approved of all these pagan beliefs, knew nothing of them or quietly tolerated them is difficult to know.
The Old Corpse Road from Mardale
David Stewart retraces a route he has walked many times, along an ancient corpse road on the outlying hills of the Lake District.
The Old Corpse Road on the eastern edges of the Lake District links the isolated hamlet of Swindale Head in Mosedale with Mardale. It’s a bleak but beautiful crossing of a piece of sometimes boggy moorland, with views to High Street and Harter Fell.
Although there was a church in Mardale, it was only allowed its own cemetery in the 1700s. Until that time the bodies were carried all the way from Mardale, over the hill to Swindale Head and then a further trek of several miles over slightly less difficult ground to the church at Shap. Shap had its own abbey and so the church in the village no doubt assumed rightful dominance over all the surrounding valleys. Mardale was allowed to build a small oratory by the monks at Shap, later replaced by a tiny church with a steeple just 28ft high. Finally permission was granted for the church in Mardale to bury its own dead. The last body to be carried to Shap by the corpse road was that of John Holme on June 17, 1736.
The minuscule Mardale church has now disappeared under the waters of Haweswater. The whole valley was flooded in the mid-1930s after the building of a dam at the northern end. The existing lake grew over threefold in surface area, swallowing up the tiny church, several farms and the Dun Bull Hotel. Nowadays such a development in the national park would be met with an outcry; in the 1930s there was simply sadness and resignation. At the last service in the church on August 18, 1935 the Bishop of Carlisle spoke to the 72 people who could fit inside. Outside over 1,000 stood in the fields and listened as the service was relayed over loudspeakers.
The church was dismantled before the flooding, with some of its stones and window lintels used to build the outflow tower that juts out into the reservoir. The bodies in the cemetery were disinterred and moved to Shap church, where they have their own corner near the railway line. So Shap church claimed them in the end.
If you are lucky you will see the one remaining golden eagle of the valley circling above. There used to be a breeding pair but the female was found dead several years ago. The failure of the male to attract a new partner may be down to lack of carrion. In the past the carcasses of sheep and deer were left to rot on the hillsides, providing a source of food capable of supporting two adults and their young. Now, mindful of the look of the environment and contamination of the drinking supplies in the reservoir, the landowners clear them away. It is difficult to imagine that the occasional dead animal could have much effect on the water or that tourists would care more about an unsightly carcass than about the glorious sight of a family of golden eagles soaring on the updrafts, scanning the ground below for a meal.
We discovered this nine-mile walk more or less by accident while looking for a decent circular route from Haweswater that did not reach right up to the higher fells. It was mid-winter, we had four young children and the weather forecast did not look too promising. It’s a fabulous walk and we have done it many times since, in all weathers.
On that first walk three of our children opted out before we even started – a sensible choice, as it turned out. It was left to the three blokes – old colleague Warren Baxter, our teenage son Greg and me – to complete the route we had traced out on the map. We took the more obvious path out of the head of the valley, a track leading over Gatescarth Pass towards Longsleddale. This would have been a standard packhorse trail heading south from Mardale towards the market town of Kendal, a route for the living rather than the dead. From the southern tip of Haweswater it climbs steadily towards the pass, the dark crags of Harter Fell dominating on the right and a tumbling stream on your left.
The track down from Gatescarth Pass is easy going. Then we turn left to navigate through a wide valley, heading slightly upwards to an indistinct shoulder leading into Mosedale. Walking through here, our prospects began to darken, literally. It starts to rain. The valley is deserted at the best of times and on a poor day you are unlikely to meet another traveller. The path is easily lost in the grass and reeds; it needs more feet to keep it well marked.
Eventually an unlikely-looking property comes into sight, the single-storied Mosedale Cottage. No doubt at one time a shooting lodge – it is difficult to imagine any other purpose for it – it is now a bothy under the protection of the Mountain Bothies Association. As such it can be used by anyone passing by who needs shelter or a place to stop for the night, free of charge. We stay in one on our walk tracing stalking tracks in Scotland (chapter 14).
We clamber down a steep escarpment into Swindale. Mosedale Beck transforms into Swindale Beck as it enters the valley and meanders towards the few buildings of Swindale Head. Over the centuries the river has thrown up high banks of sediment, providing a welcome dry parapet along which to walk above the wetter ground. Fifteen years ago the three of us managed to find an open barn in which to shelter from the downpour. We were cold and wet, with just a few biscuits to cheer us up, and the day was fast fading. All that lay between us and the car and the rest of the family was the Old Corpse Road.
Swindale Head remains delightfully remote. With no parking for walkers – cars have to be left more than a mile further up the valley – the farmhouse is as isolated as it has been for centuries. The path to Mardale is signed directly opposite the house. It climbs directly up the hillside for a couple of hundred yards and then, crossing a stream, does a single long zigzag to cross the same stream again 50 yards or so higher up. Until the descent into Mardale this is the last time the path looks constructed, cut into the slope of the hill.
After the stream it is simply a faint line trodden into the grass. Behind, on a good day, the valley is a patchwork of colours, from the green fields by the river, to the greys of Outhlaw and Gouther Crags on the opposite flank and the darker hues of heather between.
On that day with Warren and Greg, the skies darkened here and it began to snow, but not in a picturesque, delicate way. The wind picked up as we clambered onto the open moor and battered the sleet directly into our faces. It was hard to tell if the stuff was solid or if it just felt that way as it stung our eyes and faces. Dropping our heads, we stumbled forward, stopping now and then to check the compass and make sure our direction was more or less right. We were following a boggy track; but beyond it there was very little to see. Every now and then I looked back to young Greg with his arm across his face, lurching forward as best he could. I am sure it was a formative experience for him.
After a mile or so on a fairly featureless felltop, the path begins its steep descent back to Haweswater, in a series of hairpin bends. A spectacular waterfall crashes down the hillside on the left. For years we had wrongly assumed that corpses were taken from the tiny settlement of Swindale Head to the church in Mardale, which seemed logical enough. But we were mistaken: the corpse route went the other way, out of the Mardale valley, through Swindale Head and on to Shap. Climbing these bends complete with corpse must have been hard work at the best of times. This maybe explains why the practice here was to strap the body onto a pony, encased in a simple shroud rather than a coffin.
Sometimes, in periods of drought, it’s possible to look down to Haweswater and see lines of walling just below the surface. Very occasionally the reservoir drains to such an extent that the walls and the remains of a few houses, including the old inn, resurface and it’s possible to walk the field paths again. It is, of course, a stony experience as there is never time for any vegetation to grow. It is almost like walking through the skeleton of the place.
Coming down the zigzag path we reach the road, newly constructed in the 1930s along with the dam. To our right is the Haweswater Hotel, built to replace the drowned Dun Bull Inn. Voices at the time pointed out that, as a hotel, it was misplaced; that it should have been built on the other side of the reservoir so visitors could walk straight out onto the Lakeland fells. There’s no doubt that the hotel has a magnificent view but there are no footpaths directly from its door. Instead there is the road, which some also complained was too wide for its setting. Aesthetically they were absolutely right: it should by rights be no more than a country lane or track, as it leads to no settlement, just the head of the valley. But at least it means you can walk along it with plenty of room for the cars to pass on their way to and from the crowded car park.
Below is a list of other corpse and coffin roads:
There is free parking at start and beautiful views of Aylesbury Vale and the Bedfordshire countryside. Part of the walk takes you down Coffin Lane - a corpse road - which is said to be haunted by a headless woman and a black dog with one eye. After... More info
A somewhat neglected circuit from Haweswater which, rather than climbing to the tops, explores a very remote valley and returns via the Old Corpse Road. Walk featured in the 'Pathways' book.... More info
The walk is in the lovely area of Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is fairly level walking and takes a step back to medieval England. Along the way you'll find a corpse road, a mill, an 'erratic', some fairy steps, a... More info
The summits of Selside, Branstree, Tarn Crag and Grey Crag are traversed before returning to Swindale via the remote Mosedale. The walk uses the Old Corpse Road from Mardale to Shap before we turn off to walk the little-used footpaths and open access... More info
Beginning ten miles south-west of Inverness at the Clansman Hotel, on the west shore of Loch Ness, this circular walk on good paths takes you up through hazel and birch woods to several viewpoints overlooking the loch. It's a good stop to have... More info
The joy of this walk is in its contrasts. Starting among the rocky moonscape rocks on the east coast of Harris, the route of the Bealach Eorabhat – The Coffin or Corpse Road – leads you gently upwards, through a dark and peaty wilderness, to be... More info