Rediscover our ancient coffin paths

Former Bucks newspaper editor Alan Cleaver explains the fascination of ‘corpse roads’ – and the facts and myths surrounding the ancient footpaths which criss-cross the country

CORPSE roads – the very name conjures up images of ghosts marching over misty fells. But what are the facts behind these ancient paths?

They were used in medieval times to carry the dead from a remote parish to the ‘mother’ church for burial and could be just a couple of miles long or anything up to 20 miles. They are also known as coffin paths, bier roads, lyke or lych ways and by other names.

LOST VILLAGE: the Shap Corpse Road runs from Mardale to Shap, but the village of Mardale was ‘drowned’ in 1935 to build a reservoir PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

The first question has to be: why not just dig a hole in the ground and bury them locally? The answer – as with most questions – is down to money and politics. Mother churches received good money for burials (and baptisms and weddings) and were not giving up that revenue stream easily. 

However by the late 17th and early 18th centuries many rural parishes successfully petitioned the bishop for burial rites at their own chapel.

Many of the petitions still survive in church archives and follow a typical ‘winning’ formula: “…by reason of their distance from the parish church and by reason of inundations and of storms frequently raging in those parts in the winter season, they cannot carry their dead to be buried without great trouble and inconvenience…”

LABOUR OF LOVE: husband and wife writing team Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park

So corpse roads ceased to carry the dead but their route and former sacred purpose survived, not least because of a firmly held belief that once a corpse was carried over a field or path that route was for ever a public right of way.

This belief survives even today but there is no basis in law for it. However, it seems to have ensured that in Cumbria and elsewhere corpse roads survive as public footpaths.

In Cumbria there are seven or eight famous corpse roads that can be found quickly on Google including Shap, Loweswater, Grasmere, Wasdale and Beetham.

Research by my wife and I over the last three years has uncovered around 30 others, some only known by oral tradition (you can view our map of them online. We’ve only studied those in Cumbria but they exist all over the country. For example, fellow corpse road enthusiast Stuart Dunn details one in Oxfordshire in his blog.

TOURIST TRAIL: the Grasmere corpse road runs from Rydal to St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere and has become popular with visitors PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

Perhaps the most famous is the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road which is always very busy with tourists. It is signposted from Rydal and skirts past Wordsworth’s former homes of Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage.

There are even a couple of coffin rests along the way. One of these is very dubious (it was almost certainly erected as a seat in the 1930s) but the other, near Dove Cottage, has a better pedigree.

Many coffin rests survive and are proudly pointed out by villagers but I know of none that were recorded in medieval times, most only being noted in the late 19th century. There is a modern misunderstanding of a coffin rest with many people saying they were large stones on which a coffin was rested by tired pall-bearers travelling the corpse road.

COFFIN REST: the ‘genuine’ stopping point on the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road close to Dove Cottage, former home of poet William Wordsworth PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

But this makes little sense not least because bodies were usually carried on a cart or on back of a horse, the body only being put in a coffin when they reached the lych-gate of the church.

Rather, the coffin rests appear to have marked a spot where the party rested (ie paused) to say a prayer or sing a hymn. The corpse road was as much part of the funeral and any service by the graveside.

WEEPING CROSS: the cross which once stood on the Whitehaven to St Bees corpse road has been moved to St Bees Abbey to ensure its safety PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

You may also see roadside crosses or even holy wells marking the route – or even a ghost. There are a couple of famous ghost stories associated with Cumbria’s corpse roads but for the most part the paths are simply a good excuse to go on a walk with a bit more history than most.

The popularity of the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road with tourists is undoubtedly down to signposts the local council has erected (it’s one of only two in the county to be signposted). I usually point friends in the direction of the Chapel Stile to Grasmere corpse road which is a much nicer walk and has fewer tourists on it!

WALK THIS WAY: the humble wooden signpost at Rydal has succeeded in attracting thousands of walkers every year PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

The parts of Cumbria outside the honeypot of the Lake District are desperate to woo tourists to their part of the county. I am hoping to persuade them to shout louder about their corpse roads (or indeed other ancient paths).

Spending £20 on a wooden sign with ‘coffin path’ painted on it would seem a cheap and easy way to start. Readers may wish to investigate their local corpse roads and do the same.

The Corpse Roads of Cumbria by Alan Cleaver & Lesley Park is £10 from bookshops (please support your local bookshop!) or online. Alan Cleaver is a former editor of the Wycombe & South Bucks Star who retired to Cumbria after a career in journalism which included 10 years as editor of the Hampshire Chronicle.