Haweswater reservoir nestles, jewel-like, in the valley of Mardale, Northern England. It is just one of the many bodies of water which cover the Lake District national park, and is a popular destination for today’s ramblers, owing to the beautiful scenery and hiking routes that weave across the region. It is also home to evidence of a curious phenomenon, which has left its mark upon the British physical and folkloric landscape: the corpse road.
‘Corpse roads’ or ‘coffin paths’ are routes which were traditionally used to transport the bodies of the deceased to their final place of internment. Other names for these tracks include bier roads, lych ways and church-ways. In the pre-modern period, larger ‘mother’ churches often reserved the right to conduct burials for themselves, as this privilege was accompanied by considerable financial benefits. As a result, it was not uncommon to bury a person some distance from their home, or place of death, especially in rural areas such as the North-West of England. However, there are discernible corpse roads across the entirety of Britain, from Dartmoor in Devon, to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides.
Stuart Dunn, a senior lecturer in Digital Humanities at King’s College London, has described corpse roads as ‘vernacular routeways’. By this he means that otherwise mundane paths, which we know from historical and cultural evidence, took on a more significant meaning through the manner of their use i.e., for the transportation of the dead. Perhaps this is why they are not as easy to identify, have not made the same mark upon the historical sources, as ‘official’ routes constructed with a clear purpose in mind, such as the great Roman roads or modern railways. In total, Dunn has identified only forty-two references to corpse roads throughout a body of material including two nineteenth century Ordnance Survey maps, memoirs, and literary references. Using these, alongside topographical data from a US geological survey and Open Street Map, an open-source mapping project, Dunn has spent the last few years attempting to identify the original location of certain corpse roads –searching for shadows on the landscape.
If they have failed to make their mark upon modern cartography, corpse roads have still left traces in the physical terrain which hint at their past: on the Yorkshire ‘Swaledale Corpse Way’ which winds the sixteen miles from Keld to Grinton, you can observe huge flat stones, stamped across the earth at regular intervals. These are coffin stones and would have been used as a resting point for the pall bearers to place their heavy load upon. Similar phenomena can be observed in the ‘corpse cross’ at Lamplugh or the ‘lych-gates’ (from the Old-English lic: body) of various churches, which would also have provided useful resting ledges. For those interested in landscape history, these markers demonstrate the ways in which seemingly unremarkable features gain significance depending on our knowledge of their use: a thin path, or a collection of wide rocks, suddenly takes on new meaning when experienced as a corpse road and coffin stones.
Indeed, for authors Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park, it is not the scientific identification of corpse roads that draws them to the subject, but the embodied and conscious experience of such paths, in the spirit of Husserl’s ‘phenomenology’. When they set out to write what would become ‘The Corpse Roads of Cumbria: Featured Walks along the County’s Ancient Paths’, their primary objective had been to pen a hiking guide. However, they quickly found themselves drawn into the history and folklore surrounding these routes. The completed book is clearly the result of a great amount of archival research, as well as personal accounts of walking these ancient ways. Linked as they are with death and the spiritual journey onwards, it is unsurprising that folklore swirls around corpse-roads like a fog, with tales of ghosts, talking coffin-stones, and creepy corpse-candles all making an appearance. The first known literary mention of these routes also alludes to the spiritual plane they inhabit, through the words of Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘now it is the time of night/ that the graves all gaping wide/ every one lets forth his sprite/ in the church-way paths to glide.’
The cultural power of corpse road folklore can be further observed in the widespread superstition that any route a coffin was carried along automatically became a public right of way. Although there is no legal evidence to support this, nineteenth century landowners still erected signs forbidding funeral processions across their property.
For Dunn, the methodological tension which arises due to the ‘unofficial’ nature of corpse roads and the relationship they signal between ‘location, site, and folklore’ puts their study at risk of falling into pseudo-history or pseudo-archaeology. Although he acknowledges the importance of the memories and stories perpetuated by local communities as a source, he is careful to point out that he only makes use of those he can corroborate with his archival or scientific research. I would argue, however, that there is merit in taking even the most unlikely of these ‘remembrances’ into account, as they still provide an insight into the cultural landscape of the corpse roads. Indeed, as Dunn himself argues, this cultural landscape is where corpse roads are now most prevalent. As their physical presence has become increasingly obscured, they have come to occupy a more dream-like, artistic space, in songs such as Show of Hands’s ‘The Old Lych Way’ or the publications of the Folk Horror Revival organisation.
To investigate corpse roads and coffin paths is in itself to enter a liminal place, somewhere between memory and myth. This is the nature of the landscape: it shifts and changes, threads new narratives across itself with every (mis)remembered folktale, every walker that ventures through its folds. But it is valuable, too. The history of these vernacular, unofficial pathways, is also the history of the non-elite, of the ordinary people whose lives and deaths tend to slip so easily from view. They offer us an opportunity to practice a very different kind of history from that of major battles or court politics, one that also has the potential to be experiential. We cannot possibly hope to enter the actual psyche of those who trudged these paths before us, but by examining their folklore and walking in their footsteps – an essentially liminal activity in itself, constantly in motion between two destinations – we can perhaps come a little closer, broadening our understanding of what it means to ‘do history’.
Written by Hazel Atkinson
Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park, The Corpse Roads of Cumbria: Featured Walks along the County’s Ancient Paths, (Whitehaven, 2018)
Stuart Dunn, ‘Folklore in the Landscape’, Time and Mind, 13.3 (2020), pp. 245-265
https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/corpse-roads [last accessed 11/02/21]
https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2011/jul/04/historic-walk-old-corpse-road-lake-district [last accessed 12/02/21]