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!
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?
A village where the locals attacked a common land intrusion by their landowner, following a path where the “big house” servants walked to church, and tea importers with a sideline in opium dealing. The history you encounter on a five-mile walk in the countryside of Westmorland.
We set out from the village of Crosby Ravensworth, walking to Flass House. This path, running along the banks of the pretty River Lyvennet, was used by the servants of Flass each sunday as they made their way to church in Crosby Ravensworth. To facilitate their passage, the owners of Flass built two beautiful step stiles in the drystone walls. They’re still there today, and I hope they remain safe from the zealots who want every stile destroyed in favour of gates.
A pretty path, the river a delight and the autumn colours quite beautiful. A heron stood as still as a sculpture in the water, looking for fish. It took off after a while, flapping like something out of prehistoric times, its weird cry echoing across the landscape. I’ve always liked herons. There’s something so wonderful about these riparian denizens.
As we walked, I thought a lot about the servants of Flass, obliged to go to church in their few hours of leisure. Programmes like Downton Abbey give the impression that being a servant was great fun. It wasn’t. It was darned hard work, with little time for yourself and appalling pay. I’m old enough to remember lots of old people who’d been in service – it was a huge chunk of the British population until World War Two. I can’t recall one who looked back fondly on their days of servitude, or felt particularly charitable towards their so-called “masters”.
The Dent family, who owned Flass, made their money from tea and opium importing – though we should note that opium was perfectly legal in those days. Hence all the opium dens around the country (I put one in my novel Deadly Quest – those of us who write Victorian crime stories love the idea), and, of course, poets like Wordsworth and writers like de Quincy spent most of the time high on the stuff and its derivative, laudanum.
Interestingly, given its history, a more recent occupier of Flass was raided and jailed for running a cannabis factory from the premises – sort of appropriate in a way.
The path goes through a tunnel just before you reach the high back wall of Flass, carrying a track into the owner’s pheasant preserves. The path beyond was beautiful in the autumn light, like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting, or something out of a ghost story by MR James.
Flass House, built in 1851, is currently empty and being renovated. We thought the house was an ugly pile, a long way from its Italianate or Palladian influences. But you can see the back gate in the surrounding wall through which the servants would emerge every sunday for their walk to church.
A few hundred yards on brought us into the pretty village of Maulds Meaburn, one of only three left in England where sheep still graze on the village green. This was once the village “waste”, land common to all. It was the scene of a modest rebellion way back in 1585 (October 22nd, to be precise), when the villagers fought off an attempt by their landlord to build on their waste.
The landowner, Christopher Lowther, built a little court-house in the middle of the green, an intrusion into the villagers’ ancient rights. The village wives abused the workmen Lowther had hired and Lowther himself. They threw stones at them, but the building went on. On the night of 28th October, a number of Lowther’s tenants, led by one James Fletcher, armed with pitchforks, axes, long-piked sticks, swords, dagger and other “unlawful engines”, attacked the building and razed it to the ground.
It all led to a court case in York, where the villagers argued that, according to the indentures, the lord couldn’t build on the waste without the villagers consent. That if they ignored the intrusion, he might further encroach on their common ground. They said that Lowther refused to listen.
Taking on a landowner in 1586 was seldom a good idea. Lowther won compensation of £8, and the attacking villagers were fined between 40 shillings and £3 as a punishment. Still Lowther wasn’t satisfied, bringing the matter to trial again. He managed to obtain a decree to have a piece of the ground to build his court house.
The Lowthers had incredible power over the populace (some might argue the family still do!) His tenants in Maulds Meaburn were obliged to carry sixty loads of coal, paying themselves in advance, from the pits on Stainmore, and having to haul it the many miles to Lowther Hall. This too led eventually to a legal dispute. The ruling still came down on Lowther’s side, though the tenants were granted the right to take the coal only as far as Meaburn Hall, instead of Lowther.
Today, the green is peaceful, the river idyllic and the cottages picturesque. There can’t be a village in the land that isn’t able to tell similar bitter stories.
To get a view over the whole valley, we followed the footpaths and lanes up to Brackenslack, then paths back down to Maulds Meaburn, before walking back past Flass to Crosby Ravensworth, now walking in the direction the servants would have taken on their way to church.
In the churchyard, we examined the graves of some members of the tea and opium dealing Dent family. The two villages have really changed very little since they lived here, and their servants walked the old ways of the Lyvennet valley.
A few blogs ago, I reported that Beacon Hill in Penrith was under threat from plans by the Lowther family to build on this grand high place. I’m pleased to report that public protest has persuaded the Lowther estate to withdraw their plans – at least for the high points of the Beacon.
There was a wonderful cloud inversion as we drove up Hartside on the way to Garrigill, for a walk along the Pennine Way and the South Tyne Trail. One of the best we’ve seen for a long time, hiding the levels of the Eden and the Solway. The high Pennines around were high above the clouds, a hard frost giving a ‘first taste of winter’ look to this wild northern countryside.
The road to Alston has one of the steepest climbs in the country as it ascends to Hartside – the once familiar cafe now a sad ruin after a recent fire. Interestingly, it was turnpiked in the 18th century at the expense of the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital in London, mostly because they owned a lot of moorland around Alston.
Turnpikes were effectively toll roads, built at the expense of private companies. I suppose, given that there was no real income tax at the time, it was the only way roads could be funded. Companies did it for profit, of course.
The snag was that people had to pay for travel, no matter how poor they may be. Some rich travellers didn’t like to pay either. It wasn’t unknown for wealthy gents to leap the toll gates on their horses. George Templar of Stover, Devon, made rather a habit of it.
But in a round about way, the creation of toll roads might have preserved some of our old ways, our ancient tracks which are now rights of way. Cunning travellers, seeking ways to avoid paying at the tollhouses, would seek out any useful untolled track that took them in the right direction. Hence, old stretches of road, footpaths and bridleways gained a new and surreptitious use.
We had intended beginning our walk from Alston, but they were resurfacing the road through. Instead, we started from Garrigill, so familiar to walkers of the Pennine Way, who come down tired and thirsty from the wilderness around Cross Fell.
Garrigill a pretty little village, one of the remotest in England. It was once named Gerard’s Gill. During the productive years of the lead-mining industry over a thousand people lived in Garrigill. It has shrunk by several hundred since.
We followed the Pennine Way along the South Tyne, which also bears the route of the South Tyne Trail. A pretty walk this, along a particularly beautiful stretch of river. The autumn colours were at their best, and it was pleasing to see a considerable amount of fly agaric – associated so much with fairies and witchcraft. It’s a powerful hallucinegenic and dangerous. Witches, they say, used to make their flying ointment from it. We hadn’t seen any for a long time. It gets its name by its ability to attract flies, of course.
Above the path are several farms bearing the name Skydes, High, Middle and Low – interesting name, perhaps Norse? There’s a Danish word which is similar, meaning fire or fusillade or shooting. If anyone has a definite explanation of the word please let me know…
I never walk the Pennine Way without thinking of the many people who have walked it – not least Tom Stephenson who created it – I met him once a long time ago – and Wainwright, who wrote a guidebook, but didn’t like the trail very much.
Whatever your views, this stretch is a delight, wooded riverbank and surrounding high moorland.
We came out in Alston, the highest market town in England (though the folk of Buxton would dispute that claim) – a nightmare on this day as they were tarring the main road through. A pleasant place, which has been used for films and television. It was used in a recent production of Oliver Twist – appropriately for Charles Dickens visited the town in 1838 while researching his next novel Nicholas Nickleby.
Like Garrigill, it was a boom town in lead mining days. Silver was mined here too, the ore often being sent down for minting in Carlisle. Its market dates back to 1154.
Seeking a slight alternative back we took the well-established track to Nattrass Gill, passing through Annat Walls farm – where an old farmhouse has become a barn. Wonderful, these old buildings. So little changed. You could easily film a period drama in any one of them.
Nattrass Gill is a waterfall running through a wooded ravine, crossed by a narrow footbridge. It was a scenic spot beloved by Victorian tourists, though there were fewer trees in those days. The stone steps were put in to facilitate their access. A pretty spot, rather dramatic. Were in nearer the roads it would be thronged by modern-day tourists. Pleasant that you have to walk if you want to see it.
From Bleagate Farm – it gets a mention in documents dating back to the 1300s – we were retracing our steps of the morning, along the South Tyne back to Garrigill. The frost of the morning had lifted and there was bright sunshine, adding a delight to the autumn colours.
We all associate Robin Hood with Sherwood Forest, but as far as place-names go, the outlaw appears all over England. I was minded of this the other day, as we were strolling around Richmond Castle in Yorkshire. Or Richmondshire, if you prefer. There’s a ruined tower in the castle named after the old wolfshead.
As it happens, there’s little historical basis for the name. Popular thought decrees that romantic Victorians called it Robin Hood’s Tower.
I suspect the same happened with lots of other Robin Hood links, the names are either there through the efforts of recent romanticism and…
Then there were lots of Robin Hoods. As some of you might know, I’ve spent the last couple of years writing a series of novels in which I’ve tried to root Robin in medieval reality. I’ve set my books in Sherwood Forest, though my Robin makes excursions into Westmorland, where there are lots of Robin sites, briefly Barnsdale, Fountains Abbey, Hathersage in Derbyshire.
My own belief is there was once an original Robin Hood. Who he was and where and when he lived, we shall never know. But rest assured, he wasn’t the romantic outlaw of legend. But he obviously made a name for himself, for I believe that that Robin Hood became a generic name for lots of other, possibly bold, outlaws.
And that’s why you find the place name in so many places across the land. They were named after their local Robin – lots of successors to the original.
Walking on the Westmorland fells, we often visit Robin Hood’s Grave – it’s obviously a cairn of questionable age. At Fountains Abbey, there’s a Robin Hood’s Well and Wood. (I used it as a setting for my Robin Hood novel Villain). Tradition alleges – with little evidence – that the monk called Friar Tuck trained at Fountains Abbey, though as far as the old ballads go, Tuck was a late arrival. Much later in the Middle Ages, a robber-monk called Tuck appeared in reality at Lindfield in Sussex. Nothing to do with Robin Hood, though you wonder if the Sussex monk was named after an earlier legend.
You get little help from the Robin Hood ballads. Only a few are very early, the first claiming Barnsdale as Robin’s hideout, though interestingly it also has the Sheriff of Nottingham as a character. I must say that had I been a medieval outlaw, I wouldn’t have chosen Barnsdale as a refuge. It was a place then of open heaths and small woods – not a very good place to hide if you are literally outside the law and anyone can bring you down.
The problem is, the ballads that we have were probably written down from original oral sources, and the person writing them down localised them so that they referred to places his audience might know. So the original Robin could have come from anywhere. Just fill in the blanks as you rewrite the old verses.
But other place names – there’s a strong tradition that Little John hailed from Hathersage in Derbyshire – you can still see his purported and very massive grave. There are several other Robin Hood graves, including the famous and currently threatened one at Kirklees.
We also have Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, where the outlaw saw off some pirates. There are also several Robin Hood pubs, including one in Penrith in Cumbria – though – as you are getting nearer to Carlisle, you are really entering the territory of the outlaw Adam Bell, whose adventures and crew are very similar to Mr Hood’s. There’s Robin Hood’s Stride in the Peak and a lot of other Robin features across the north and Midlands. Geographically, he got about as much as King Arthur.
And, of course, there is Robin Hood International Airport – a sight that would probably have overwhelmed the original ballad writers.
So if you have another Robin Hood location, do leave a comment, especially if it’s not one of the famous ones.
I’m currently working on the fourth and final novel in my Robin Hood series. The first three are out in paperback and on Kindle if you fancy a read (Just click on the link below for more information).
Interesting, I think, that a legend can have a validity for nigh on a thousand years, and that a medieval peasant could come into our very different 21st century and we could still both relate to the character of Robin Hood.
Industry has brought its own tracks to our countryside. Many of the paths we follow today were created or adapted by those who worked the land in various ways, not least mining.
The Pennines have been worked for lead since at least Roman times, though there was a great spurt of activity in the Victorian age. A hard life it was too for those miners, dreadful hard work in appalling conditions. The pay was poor. Many of the miners died young.
I have mining ancestors, though they mined coal. They didn’t live very long, so I have considerable sympathy for the lead miners who worked in such a hard environment as the high hills of the Pennines.
We walked from Dufton up to Great Rundale Tarn in the hope of seeing the heather out, but it was long past its best – the long winter and the early summer heatwave seems to have interfered with the country calendar around here.
We’d last come this way in the winter, when the snow was still clinging to the Pennine hills. Re-walking a route in all seasons gives a good idea of what life might have been like for the men and women who lived and worked these hills in times past.
The track from Dufton runs past Pusgill, around Dufton Pike before making a steady ascent up through what is a land of dereliction, where the old lead mines would have been. Here are the adits, the remnants of shafts, the ruins of stone huts, the great rocky slopes of waste. The track itself along which men would have walked out from Dufton to face many hours of hard labour, until they could return to the comfort of their beds.
Mine workers never got rich from their toils in the Pennines (or elsewhere) – the fruits of their labours went into the pockets of the mine-owners and shareholders. Not a lot’s changed really!
There were a few grouse about as we came above the mining valley to the shooting box, which stands isolated on the edge of the Pennines plateau. But not as many as we saw in the winter, when we came across the blackcock. The wilderness – surely the last great wilderness in England – goes for many miles to the north-east, where the Tee, Tyne and Wear begin their journeys to the North Sea.
Great Rundale Tarn, with its little unamed neighbour stood cold and bleak on the top of the hill. The kind of mere where Grendel might have crept from in Beowulf. Not a place of beauty, more a little lake of nightmare, devoid of birdlife or much else. Worth looking at, though I preferred it on our winter walk when its waters were iced over.
We came back over White Rake and Cow Band, where there’s a lot more evidence of mining, including a hush – where miners stored water on the top of hills, releasing it in a great rush to remove the top-soil, to reveal the ore. Here too are shafts, drainage adits and the wrecks of more huts.
A grand place for good views too, clear across the Eden valley to the far hills of the Lake District.
I can find little written material about these mines, even though the industry continued until into the last century. We can only surmise what happened along the Great Rundale Beck from what we know about Pennine lead-mining generally.
A lovely day, but you leave the place thanking your lucky stars you weren’t forced to work the day through, and possibly the night as well, as a lead-miner.
Back in the days when I was an area footpaths secretary for the Ramblers Association, the usual moan of the country landowners association was that our quaint network of footpaths should be cut down and rationalised because, they said, “who is interested in the way our ancestors walked to church?”
Er, well actually I am, just as I’m interested in the way drovers took the beasts over the hillside, pedlars and jaggers used our ancient paths to travel from village to hamlet, and miners made tracks on their way to distant moorland mines.
It’s what this blog’s all about. Our path network is a hugely important part of British history, as relevant to our understanding of the past as Stonehenge, our great cathedrals, our ancient castles and our country’s battlefields.
But these paths are only of value if we are walking in the steps of our ancestors, which is why I believe they should never be closed and diverted only in exceptional circumstances. I’ve seen some terrible diversions agreed by rambling group footpath officers, some of whom shouldn’t be in the job.
These thoughts came to mind a lot as we walked from the Cumbrian village of Dufton to its parish church, which is situated some three-quarters of a mile from the village – a long way for the villagers to walk on a sunday. They had an immediate choice of walking there along a quiet country lane which leads to the hamlet of Knock, while farmers coming from the Pennines side of the valley could use a rather charming public footpath which exists today, winding across the farm field through a splendid squeeze stile into the churchyard.
We walked out of Dufton, the place of the doves, beloved of the poet Auden, and sought out this path, knowing we were walking in the steps of generations of local people who’ve walked this way. These were lands owned by some of the famous names, such as the Dacres and the Howards.
Dufton Church is an absolute delight. St. Cuthbert’s is ¾ mile north west of the village between Dufton and Knock. Some of the present church fabric dates to at least the 12th century, though there was almost certainly a church on this spot much earlier. Tradition says that St Cuthbert’s body was rested here, having been carried by the Lindisfarne monks fleeing from the Vikings during ninth century. It was rebuilt in 1784 and again in 1853.
Today, it has a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere. Well worth a visit even on this shortest of walks. Following a rather nice and growing tradition, they have filled a back pew with second-hand books on sale to help refurbish the church fabric. I purchased a copy of the short stories of Maxim Gorky, published in Moscow – you do wonder how the book ended up in such a very English church?
Have you noticed that it’s not uncommon for churches to be situated a long way from their parish village? There’s no explanation as to why Dufton church was placed where it is, though it is almost equidistant between Dufton and Knock, so that might be a reason. Chapel goers in Dufton were spared the walk, their chapel being within the village confines.
There are similar splendid examples in Dorset, while on Dartmoor, Okehampton church is a good way out of the town, and Brent Tor is situated on the very top of a rugged hilltop. Perhaps these distant locations were a test of faith?
Whenever I follow a church path I always recall that scene in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles when Tess and the other milkmaids from Talbothays Farm are walking to church and have to be carried across a ford by Angel Clare.
The path continued across the churchyard and we followed it to the lane leading into Knock, a remote Pennine hamlet with some rather splendid architecture. We walked up the bridleway leading to the rounded hill of Knock Pike, in search of blackberries, but we were too late for any worth picking – many a walker on the old ways would have mouched in the same way over the centuries.
We travelled the footpath to the Rundale Beck, and then took the Pennine Way back into Dufton, a route we know well. Some of these paths made for animal droving or used by the lead miners who’ve frequented this place since Roman times.