Walking the Corpse Roads

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. 51f383GvkwL._SY362_BO1,204,203,200_

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!


Jay’s Grave – Burial at the Crossroads

Kitty Jay was buried at the crossroads because, legend tells us, she was a suicide. Her little grave is a much-visited place on Dartmoor, marking the crossroad of two highways – one a present-day modern road, the other a green track leading from the Widecombe valley towards the high ground around Manaton. Four Cross Lane, though the name is not often used these days.

Burying suicides at crossroads was not unknown in earlier times. There are other examples by the old tracks and roads of the British countryside, but the story of Kitty Jay strikes a note that seems to reach out to people.

But what is the truth about Jay’s Grave?

Well. here’s the legend: Kitty or Mary Jay (sometimes Ann) was apprenticed as a maid from Newton Abbot workhouse. She became pregnant and hanged herself in Canna Barn (when I was young, the farmer said the one rafter in the barn that wasn’t rotting was the one she tied the rope around!)

In Victorian times, the grave was found once again, as recounted in Devon Notes and Queries:

Jay’s Grave, which is by the side of the Ashburton and Chagford road, where the Heytree and Hedge Barton Estates meet. A workman of mine, aged 74, informs us that about forty years ago, he was in the employ of Mr. James Bryant, of Hedge Barton, Manaton, when he remembers Jay’s Grave being opened, in which a young unmarried woman who had hung herself in Cannon (sic) Farm outbuildings, which is situated between Forder and Torhill, was said to have been buried, but no one then living at Manaton could remember the occurrence.  The grave was opened by order of Mr. James Bryant in the presence of his son-in-law, Mr. J. W. Sparrow, M.R.C.S. Bones were found, examined, and declared to be those of a female. The skull was taken to Hedge Barton, but was afterwards placed with the bones in a box and re-interred in the old grave, a small mound raised with head and foot stones erected at either end. Such is the present appearance of the grave.

Jay’s Grave became a early tourist attraction in the twentieth century, promoted a great deal by the author Beatrice Chase (Olive Katherine Parr) in her bestseller The Heart of the Moor.

Beatrice Chase was mostly responsible for the tradition that flowers mysteriously appear on the grave when nobody is watching. She was one of the first to actually put them there, though there have been many others – several of them known to me. Now the multitudes deck the grave and there’s no feeling of mystery at all, which is a pity.

The grave, by the way, has changed a great deal in the fifty years I’ve known it – it used to be a much simpler mound, and has, I think, been spoiled by the adjustments.

The tale has inspired lots of Dartmoor Culture, with songs by Seth Lakeman (whose dad Geoff used to interview me about badgers for the Daily Mirror many years ago), and Wishbone Ash. John Galsworthy, who lived nearby at Manaton wrote a short story based on the tale, called The Apple Tree. Lois Deacon (of whom more below) wrote a whole novel entitled An Angel From Your Door.

How much of the Kitty Jay legend is true is debatable. Why did a pregnant woman in c.1820 feel the need to kill herself? Parish records for both Widecombe and Manaton suggest that it was not uncommon for young Dartmoor girls to be pregnant as they walked down the aisle for a later marriage? The legend suggests she killed herself in shame…

Was she, as the legend implies, suicidal because of a broken love affair?

We’ll never know, but if she was the victim of social exclusion, it’s rather amusing that she’s remembered to this day and those who judged her are quite forgotten.

But many years ago I did all I could to investigate the tale. I spent an afternoon with Lois Deacon at her Chagford home. She was a formidable but charming Quaker lady who’d become notorious for writing a book about the early love life of Thomas Hardy, Providence and Mr Hardy.  She was also long before the secretary of the great Liberal politician Isaac Foot, father of all those famous sons, Michael, John – another friend of mine – and Dingle, who all made a mark on politics.

She admitted to me that she often put flowers on Kitty’s grave. But then she showed me a humdinger of a piece of evidence – she produced a photocopy of an apprentice record from the Newton Abbot poorhouse. It showed that a Catherine Mary Jay was apprenticed as a maid to Barracott Farm at Manaton – not that far from Canna Barn where the fatal deed was done. I believe the date was around 1820, though I can’t remember for sure.

Could this have been the Kitty Jay of legend? I think it very probably was, though how much of her subsequent tale is true is probably lost in the mists of time.

Annoyingly, I never followed up the evidence in the document Lois produced, and the lady is  long dead. But it’s out there… somewhere. Perhaps in the Record Office or some parish archive? If anyone can track it down then please do let me know.

And while you are walking our ancient tracks, do take a long look at any unspoiled crossroads you come upon. Burials at such places were not that uncommon.





Till May Be Out…

‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

The old saying comes to mind as we walk through the English countryside in the struggling days of our long-delayed spring. Many think this adage refers to not shedding clothes until the warmth of the month of May finishes, though in fact, it almost certainly refers to the blossoming of the May tree – the Hawthorn or Whitethorn.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

The Hawthorn takes its name from its fruits, the haws. It features regularly in the hedgerows of England, mostly because of its ability to keep livestock in fields – its young leaves known so familiarly as ‘bread and cheese’.

This tree’s name roots back into the earliest days of the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) language, haegthorn is the word our ancestors used, though pronounced not unlike the more modern hawthorn. The word means, literally, hedge-thorn, indicating its ability as a boundary plant.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

You often find the May, the Whitethorn, lining the routes of our ancient paths and tracks, the old ways often running alongside some ancient boundaries.

At the village of Salcombe Regis in east Devon, a stone marks the site of the old thorn tree which was just such a boundary, by the appropriately named Thorn Farm. The original tree marked the cultivation boundary between the manor and common ground. I well remember the old tree that stood there, close by a stone describing its original function. The tree, sadly, was lost some years ago, though a replacement was planted.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

If you see large hawthorns growing close to a path, you are probably seeing evidence of a very ancient boundary, and the chances are that the path you are following is of great antiquity.

The boundaries were, according to folklore and tradition, not necessarily just physical.  May trees lining your surrounding were said to protect you from demons and malicious fairies. Cutting down a hawthorn was said to bring bad luck, though bringing a few sprigs into your house allegedly brought good fortune. Wearing a sprig in your hat supposedly protects you from being struck by lightning.

Because of its links with Christ’s crown of thorns, the power of the thorn to do good gave the hawthorn a popularity with Christians too. The famous thorn tree at Glastonbury, which flowers every Christmas, was said to have grown instantly when Joseph of Arimathea, stuck his walking staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill as he journeyed there with the boy Christ.Hawthorn, East Devon coast

And should you get pricked by a seemingly immovable thorn – well, there’s an ancient Dartmoor charm to solve your problem and prevent infection which goes:

“When Christ was upon middle earth, he was prick, his blood sprung unto heaven, it shall neither runkle, canker or rust – neither shall they blood (then name the person’s name) they do it for and say in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy ghost.”

Well, worth a try, I suppose…

So, when you’re out walking on these May days, take a look at the Hawthorn tree – there’s quite a lot of history and myth there. And the May blossom is a delight at this time of year.

All of the pictures above were taken of May trees in East Devon. 

Pictures copyright A and J Bainbridge