The Lich Way on Dartmoor, running from Bellever to Lydford was the first corpse road I ever followed, a long stretch across some of the wildest parts of the Moor. In fact, I helped to identify a probable early part of the route, correcting the way marked on the Ordnance Survey map, during my time at the Dartmoor Preservation Association. It’s a track well worth seeking out.
I’ve walked a number of corpse paths since in various parts of the country, including some of the best-known in Cumbria. But in the past couple of weeks I’ve learned about a great many more – including some we’ve walked without even realising it…
All thanks to a splendid new book on the subject by Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park – The Corpse Roads of Cumbria (Chitty Mouse Press ISBN 9781985190344) which I absolutely recommend.
A fortnight ago, we went to a talk by Alan at Penrith Library. If he repeats the talk near to you do go and listen. Alan’s a terrific speaker who shares his enthusiasm for these ancient paths in a very informative way. Walking the ways that the folk of old used to convey their dear departed to their last resting places makes you look at the whole countryside and its paths in a new way.
Alan and Lesley’s sumptuously illustrated book is well-worth getting. Worth reading even if you live a long way away from Cumbria, for the wealth of knowledge not only about the paths themselves, but on the tales and legends that go with them.
Did you know, for instance, that you can have bridal paths as well as bridlepaths? And what does happen if you encounter corpse candles or death lights? And just what was the death-chair of Brampton? Want to know how to identify a coffin-rest? And do you really want to hear a death-rap?
Even if you are not superstitious, these old paths take you into the very heart of some great walking country, and the authors have provided some excellent maps to help you follow in their footsteps. There are lots of new walks for us listed and we’re looking forward to seeking them out over the coming months.
One particular path of interest is the oft-walked and well-signposted corpse road between Ambleside and Grasmere. But is it? As the authors point out, William Wordsworth, who had two homes adjacent to it and who walked it every day, never mentioned it as a corpse way. Intriguing!
To go back to Dartmoor – apart from the Lich Way (you’ll find the route described in William Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor) there were other shorter corpse roads. On Dartmeet Hill is the Coffin Stone, a natural boulder inscribed with crosses and the initials of the dead whose corpses were rested upon it on their way to Widecombe Church – legend has it that the great crack in it appeared when the body of some evil-doer was placed upon it – and retributive lightning split it in two?
The Corpse Roads of Cumbria is available through all good bookshops, other stores in Cumbria and online. Do read it!
It’s twenty-one years since I was last atop High Street, that broad and considerable Lake District fell which carries one of England’s highest Roman roads.
We’ve walked other stretches of High Street over the past few years, but not right to the top. It’s not your typical Roman road, of course. It bends more than most. And that adds to my theory…
Which is that, as a Roman road, High Street’s a bit of a fraud. Oh, don’t get me wrong – it’s a Roman road all right. I’ve no doubt that the Romans used it and engineered much of its soaring length. But I believe they did all that along the course of a much older, prehistoric trackway.
I’ve walked a great many prehistoric trackways in my time and a fair number of Roman roads. When I walk High Street, I’ve a feeling I’m on both. And through such wild country, what would be more likely than the Romans would adapt an existing route?
Anyway, it was a gorgeous day for fellwalking. Apart from an occasional gusty wind, one of the best this year. Blue skies and views right across the Lake District, every crag and top brilliantly delineated.
We set out from Hartsop and took the walk up past Hayes Water to the Knott, the first of the seven Wainwright tops we had decided to walk. Wainwright, I think, describes it as a bit of a trudge. He might be right, but the views back over Patterdale towards Helvellyn are sensational.
The Knott’s a sturdy little bump with lovely views, but on we went to Rampsgill Head. Having done the long climb from Hartsop, the rest of this walk is delightfully easy, along good paths with wide open views. We followed one to High Raise, the third of our Wainwright tops. Ullswater in view now and the north Pennines, with Cross Fell standing out dramatically against the blue sky.
We halted here for a while, looking across to the The Nab and the Martindale deer forest. The walk we’d done the last time we were in this vicinity. On then to Kidsty Pike, sadly missing the eagles that were once such a feature of these fells. So easy is the path that we were there before we realised it, admiring the scene down towards Haweswater and across to the Nan Bield Pass.
The walk along the Straits of Riggindale offers some of the best walking in the Lakes, I think. Dramatic and with fine surrounding mountain scenery. It was here we began to meet many other walkers enjoying a fine Lakeland day. I tried to picture the Roman soldiers marching this way. The views they saw wouldn’t have been very different. And they would have had to walk this way in all weathers.
I’d heard of High Street long before I ever contemplated its reality. Nearly sixty years ago, in fact, in the Black Country of the Midlands. I was reading Arthur Ransome’s wonderful novel Swallowdale. The children have just climbed Kanchenjunga (Coniston Old Man really) and the Amazon pirate Nancy Blackett is describing the distant Lakeland scene. And she mentions High Street. And something in the way Ransome wrote that has always stuck in my mind.
A great broad hill, where once they raced horses. The last time I was here was when I was walking the Kentmere Horseshoe – twenty-one years ago? Where has the time gone?
We wandered on towards Thornthwaite Crag – which isn’t a crag really, but it does have a very notable pillar cairn, though I’ll swear it’s not quite as high as the last time I was there.
We had been planning to retrace our steps. but I’d never been to Gray Crag, so we decided to make that our seventh and final Wainwright of the day. A pleasant ridge walk down to its top, with superb views over much of the country we’d walked across. Then a steep descent into Hartsop.
Wainwright suggests doing Gray Crag directly from Hartsop, though I suspect most walkers do what we did and use it as a descent from Thornwaite. Certainly the path’s clearer to follow in that direction.
A very pleasant walk, especially the airy bits when you’ve got most of the climb out of the way. Good paths and lots of history.
Coming next: A review of The Corpse Roads of Cumbria.
THE COMPLEAT TRESPASSER Journeys into the Heart of Forbidden Britain by John Bainbridge
WALK MAGAZINE SAID OF THE COMPLEAT TRESPASSER:
“On a vagabonding tour through Britain’s most delightful countryside and forbidden tracts, Bainbridge charts the history of access and assesses the present state of the law. Villainous landowners feature; so do the likes of GHB Ward and CEM Joad, calling at rallies for access to mountain and moor. Gamekeepers, spring-guns and mass trespasses also get a look-in. Redolent of country air, with nature and archaeology dealt with in graphic style, the book evokes the age of campaigns before words like ‘stakeholder’ and ‘partnership’ were hatched out. The author lends his support to the England Coast Path campaign and calls for the Scottish access model to be extended throughout Britain. It’s thought-provoking stuff and well worth a read.”
In 1932, five ramblers in England were imprisoned for daring to walk in their own countryside. The Mass Trespass on to Kinder Scout, which led to their arrests, has since become an iconic symbol of the campaign for the freedom to roam in the British countryside.
The Compleat Trespasser – Journeys Into The Heart Of Forbidden Britain, written by outdoor journalist John Bainbridge, looks at just why the British were – and still are – denied responsible access to much of their own land. This book examines how events throughout history led to the countryside being the preserve of the few rather than the many.
It examines the landscapes to which access is still denied, from stretches of moorland and downland to many of our beautiful forests and woodlands. It poses the question: should we walk and trespass through these areas regardless of restrictions?
An inveterate trespasser, John Bainbridge gives an account of some of his own journeys into Britain’s forbidden lands, as he walks in the steps of poachers, literary figures and pioneer ramblers. The book concludes with a helpful chapter of “Notes for Prospective Trespassers”, giving a practical feel to this handbook on the art of trespass. At a time when government is putting our civil liberties at threat, destroying the beauties of our countryside, and your right to access it, this book is a most useful read.
Epiacum, the Romans called it, a second-century fort built to guard the empire’s interests in Pennine lead mining, and probably to provide backup for Hadrian’s Wall. It’s unique in being the only lozenge-shaped fort in Britain – rather than the more familiar playing-card shape, and has the most complex defences of any Roman fort yet found. By coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Bernard Cornwell’s latest historical novel War of the Wolf, where he uses the fort fictionally in a climactic Viking battle several centuries after the Romans left our shores.
It’s a wonderfully lonely spot, high up on the fells with just isolated farms nearby and miles of wild countryside all around. You can drive there, but we preferred to walk from the market town of Alston, three miles away. The paths up there are pleasant too, the Pennine Way and Isaac’s Tea Trail.
Isaac’s Tea Trail? Isn’t that grand! But this isn’t an invented route linking up all the tea-shops in the vicinity. It’s named in honour of the legendary tea-seller, itinerant, jagger and well thought-of fundraiser Isaac Holden. Isaac began his working life as a lead miner in these hills. He travelled these hills, selling tea – then quite a pricey commodity – to isolated farming communities. The trail, thirty-six miles long, uses many of the ancient paths he would have taken.
We hope to walk much more of this path in time, but we very much enjoyed our first experience of it on the walk up to Epiacum – the Roman fort must have been quite a familiar sight to Isaac as he earned his hard living.
I’ve written before about the joys of Alston – high up in the North Pennines. Familiar if you’ve never been there as a film location. Productions of Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre and some of the Catherine Cookson films have used it as a setting. You can see why. Take away the cars and some minor infrastructure and you could easily be back a couple of centuries.
Memories of a war of a later time were evoked as we walked past Alston’s War Memorial. I write this as we near the centenary of the Armistice. My great uncle, Harry Howl Jeffs was killed in October 1918, just a fortnight before the end of the Great War, having served for much of the conflict. Fortunately my grandfather Joseph Bainbridge came home from the Trenches. My own father, another Joe Bainbridge, survived a great deal of fighting in World War Two. I read the names on all war memorials – men and women who lived in beautiful countryside like this never to come back. I wonder what the Romans stationed up at Epiacum would think if they could know that two thousand years after their time we still haven’t found a way of weaning the human race away from war.
A lovely stretch of the Tea Trail and Pennine Way followed as we made our way uphill into wilder countryside. It reminded me of some parts of the Scottish Borders and, of course, it really is. The wild frontier of the Roman Empire. At least after the Romans had to withdraw from the line of the Antonine Wall.
After Harbut Law, we climbed and then descended to the beautiful valley of the Gilderdale Burn, which we crossed on a footbridge. The Gilderdale Burn is the boundary between Cumberland and Northumberland. It must have been so familiar to the Romans marching this way along the nearby Roman road known as the Maiden Way.
A long but gradual ascent through sheep ranges brought us at last to Whitley Castle, Epiacum. Even though all that is left are the long mounds which were once the footage of walls and the defensive ditches it is still very impressive. Such was the confidence of its Roman defenders, that it’s actually overlooked by higher ground, itself covered by the mounds and scars of more recent lead mining activity.
We searched the molehills in vain for Roman artefacts – not that we ever have any luck. Some people do, however, and “molehill archaeology” events are occasionally held at the site. There’s a board with a useful illustration of what Epiacum might have looked like. The glory that was the Roman Empire might have left this spot, but the site is still magnificent.
We followed the footpath down to Kirkhaugh Railway Station, on what is now the South Tynedale Railway heritage line. In fact, the station is a shelter and not much more but, in the season, you can catch an old train here from Alston and walk up to Epiacum – a thrilling way to get there.
The South Tynedale Railway was once part of the main railway line between Alston and Haltwhistle. In an act of folly by British Rail it was closed to passengers in 1976. Fortunately, enthusiasts replaced the line with a two foot narrow gauge railway – the highest in England and is now run as a charitable institution. The charity has several steam and diesel engines and is working on the restoration of more. We will certainly be seeking a ride in the future.
The South Tyne Trail runs alongside the railway line, fenced off for safety. A lovely level stretch of the trail, open for both walkers and cyclists. The scenery along the South Tyne river is very attractive. We crossed back from Northumberland into Cumberland along the way back to Alston.
As we wandered back, I thought a lot about Isaac Holden, the jagger in tea, who would have known every fell and valley in these wild hills. A tough life no doubt, but probably a healthier and safer one than lead mining. We hope to walk more of his Tea Trail in the future.
Despite the Tea Trail route and the Pennine Way, this is still countryside neglected by lots of walkers. So if you fancy a change from the fells of the Lake District why not give it a go?