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!
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.
I’m appalled that the Ministry of Defence is applying to deregister Hilton, Murton and Warcop Commons near to Appleby -in what Commons campaigner Kate Ashbrook has described as “the biggest threat to Common Land Since the Enclosure Movement”.
Now we walk a great deal on these threatened lands, which are part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s stunning scenery and offers real wild walking of the finest quality.
I hope this will be vigorously resisted.
Friends of the Lake District say:
Cumbria County Council has announced a two day public inquiry into the applications by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to deregister Hilton, Murton and Warcop Commons, near Appleby in Westmorland.
These commons represent 3% of the stock of common land in Cumbria. 15 years ago the MoD applied to extinguish the common rights over the land to give them more control and flexibility. At that time, they stated categorically that they would not apply to deregister the land as common land. This is now precisely what they have done, with little or no evidence as to why. The applications are strongly opposed by ourselves, the Open Spaces Society (OSS), the Foundation for Common Land, the Federation of Cumbrian Commoners, and the local residents.
The inquiry will take place on 12 – 13 September and will be Barrister led. It will only focus on the legal issues surrounding the applications. This is very complex and the OSS has engaged their own Barrister to present their case which we support. There are issues of principle at stake here, namely the fact that the applications are completely at odds with Government policy on common land, that the MoD expressly undertook not to deregister the commons, and also that we believe the applications do not meet the legislative requirements.
Kate Ashbrook, General Secretary – The Open Spaces Society writes:
Local and national organisations(1) are campaigning to stop the Ministry of Defence from destroying a vast area of Cumbria’s cultural history. The MoD wants to deregister three large upland commons(2)and turn them into private land. Objectors say the deregistration would be unlawful and flies in the face of undertakings made by the MoD, at a public inquiry, to keep the commons registered in perpetuity(3).
MoD will privatise around 1% (4,500 hectares) of England’s total common land(4) if Cumbria County Council grants it permission(5). This would be the largest enclosure since the major enclosures of commons in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The threatened commons are to the north-east of Appleby-in-Westmorland, in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
If the land is deregistered, it will bring to an end hundreds of years of tradition of upland commoning, and the farming community, which used to have vital grazing rights over this land, would be denied any opportunity in future to graze their stock there.
The land would also lose protection against encroachment and development since works on common land require the consent of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in addition to any planning permission.
William Patterson of the Hilton Commoners’ Association said: ‘When the MOD negotiated the buy-out and extinguishment of the commoners’ grazing rights (known as ‘stints’) on Hilton Fell, Murton Fell and Warcop Fell, one of the fundamental issues was MoD’s agreement to leave the fells on the commons register. On the strength of this undertaking, the commoners accepted the buy-out. It is a breach of trust that the MoD now wants to cancel that undertaking without making a further agreement. I believe that to safeguard the future of these fells the land must remain on the commons register.’
Julia Aglionby of Foundation for Common Land commented: ‘Common land is the most valuable and protected type of land in England, an immensely precious resource for society that has already been reduced to a mere 3% of England’s area. The MoD’s arguments for deregistering 11,000 acres of commons at Warcop are spurious, legally contestable and not in the national interest.’
Viv Lewis of The Federation of Cumbria Commoners said: ‘The Federation is very much opposed to the MoD’s proposal to de-register Hilton, Murton and Warcop commons. Common land is important to hill farmers and makes up some of our most treasured landscapes. If the hills stop being common land and the commoners lose their rights to graze and the sheep leave the hills, what’s to become of the uplands?’
Jan Darrall, of Friends of the Lake District added: ‘The three commons of Warcop, Hilton and Murton amount to 3% of Cumbria’s common land. There is no foundation for the MoD to deregister our commons and destroy our cultural heritage and to deny local use. They gave undertakings during the 2001 Inquiry that the land would remain as common land and are now reneging on this so as to have total control over the land for who knows what? We need to fight for our rich common land to remain for all to enjoy.’
Hugh Craddock, of the Open Spaces Society commented: ‘For too long, the MoD has wasted taxpayers’ money ruminating on theoretical risks to the future of the Warcop training estate which have no substance in reality. Now the MoD is wasting more money, and other people’s time, on pursuing an application for deregistration of the Warcop, Hilton and Murton commons which is not only unnecessary and misguided, but entirely contrary to undertakings it previously gave. We shall fight the MoD in its pointless campaign which has dragged on for too long. We hope that the MoD sees sense and withdraws its application, and focuses its resources on managing the Warcop commons in accordance with the commitments it gave in 2002.’
1 The organisations are: Hilton Commoners’ Association, Cumbria Federation of Commons, the Foundation for Common Land, the Friends of the Lake District, and the Open Spaces Society.
2 Common land is land subject to rights of common, to graze animals or collect wood for instance, or waste land of the manor not subject to rights. The public has the right to walk on nearly all commons, and to ride on many. Any works on common land require the consent of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, under section 38 of the Commons Act 2006, in addition to any planning permission.
The three registered Commons are Hilton, Murton and Warcop. The applications to Cumbria County Council are listed as CA14/3 -CL26 Murton; CA14/4 -CL27 Hilton Fell; & -CL122 Burton Fell and Warcop Fell.
3 A public inquiry, held in Appleby in 2001, led to all grazing rights on the commons being bought out by the MoD. In return the MoD created some additional access opportunities on Murton Common and undertook not to deregister the Commons. It also undertook to create new common rights to ensure that the commons would exist in perpetuity. These limited rights were never delivered by the MoD.
4 Cumbria contains around 31% of the registered common land in England which is mostly in the uplands—the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, and North Pennines. The area covered by commons in Cumbria is 112,786 ha and these three commons cover some 4,500 ha.
5 Cumbria County Council is the commons registration authority for the county and has received three applications from the MoD to deregister the commons of Murton, Hilton and Warcop. The Council will determine the applications but the objectors believe that if it approves them, it would not be in accordance with the Commons Act 2006.
For some reason we’d never walked up to Penrith Beacon (937 feet) until last Sunday, when our little ramble – a short distance after our recent expedition to Cross Fell – was accompanied by the sound of church bells.
This was the place where beacon fires were lit throughout history, to warn of the possibility of invasion. The beacon dates back to at least 1296, and there was a watching house there for centuries. The present monument dates back to 1719.
The views over Penrith towards the Lakeland fells are very impressive. You can imagine how good beacon fires were as warnings on clear days. The views the other way, towards the Pennines are blocked by tree growth.
A steep path leads up to the beacon from Penrith, but we got the feeling that our presence was just tolerated. Much of the path through the woodland is hemmed in by barbed wire fencing.
Surely it would do no harm whatsoever if the Lowther family let the people of Penrith roam freely through these woods?
Even worse, there are attempts to get the draft Penrith Local Plan altered so that houses might be built across this precious woodland. I’m pleased to see there is considerable resistance to this outrage and desecration of an historical site by the residents of Penrith.
They should light the beacon – the heritage of Penrith is under attack!
John Lardiner runs down a street in the ancient city of York and vanishes off the face of the earth. In a dangerous race against time, Victorian adventurer William Quest is summoned to York to solve the mystery – what has happened to John Lardiner? Forced into an uneasy alliance with the city police, William Quest finds his own life in peril. Men who pry into the disappearance of John Lardiner end up dead. In York’s jumble of alleys and narrow medieval streets, William Quest finds himself pursued by a sinister organisation. Can he solve the mystery of John Lardiner’s vanishing before his enemies bring his adventurous career to an end? By the author of The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest.
Just outside Temple Sowerby, on the route of the old A66, is a Roman Milestone, one of possibly two thought to be in its original position. No inscription survives, but it’s still worth a visit.
I’ve written in the past about the importance of the line of the A66 between Penrith and Scotch Corner as an important Roman road. Just look at the Ordnance Survey map to see the profusion of Roman forts, etc. on the road.
Obviously the line of the road has been changed in two thousand years, so ignore modern dualling and bypassing – seek out the original line and you’ll discover Roman remnants. There are stretches of the Roman road which are now just pleasant bridleways and footpaths or quiet country lanes, particularly the stretch immediately east of Appleby.
So, avoid the modern stretches of busy roads and you can still walk in the steps of the legions.
But my personal view is that the courses of many of the Roman roads predate the Roman occupation. The Romans simply used and improved the paths used by Iron Age dwellers and their ancestors.
A fantastic karst landscape, terrific views and a Neolithic stone circle made this a wonderful morning walk from the little village of Orton. Although this ramble is in the county of Cumbria, this landscape has recently been added to the Yorkshire Dales National Park – and deservedly so.
Perhaps one day we’ll get our old county boundaries restored. Politicians should never have fiddled with them in the first place!
We set out from the village of Orton, where you can park for free in the village square. Buses are, to say the least, infrequent. The village itself is a bit of a gem, a grand old church and quite a selection of ancient buildings.
The original name of the place was Sker-Overton, changed to Orton in the local dialect. I found this out quite recently when I was researching my novel Villain – the third in the series which brings some reality back to the legend of Robin Hood. My book starts on the wild moorlands above Orton, before my villains return to Sherwood Forest.
Curiously, there are a lot of Robin Hood links in this part of Cumbria. His “grave” is high above the village. It was a visit to that a couple of years ago which inspired the start of my book. There were a lot of outlaws in these parts in medieval times, not least Adam Bell in nearby Inglewood Forest.
We followed the Coast to Coast long-distance path up through Broadfell Farm up to Orton Scar and the Beacon Hill. From here there are superb views across to the Lake District in one direction and the Howgill Fells in another, the valley of the River Lune in between.
Following the wall to the top of Beacon Hill, we came to the cross built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Here you get all round views, the ones I’ve mentioned before with the addition of the long heights of the northern Pennines.
The karst landscape of limestone pavement had already begun, intensifying in its splendour as we gained height. Walking north-east, following an impressive stone wall, we came to the entrance of the Great Asby Scar National Nature Reserve.
Great Asby Scar is one of the best limestone pavements in Britain. There’s something almost unearthly about this landscape. I can’t even describe what it is. You need to go there and look for yourself. It’s almost as though you’ve stepped outside time.
A good path leads out of the nature reserve to a cross-ways on the far-eastern edge of Beacon Hill. A wide track leading around the Knott, one of the highest points on the walk.
As the Knott is the highest hill in the Westmorland Dales, we thought we should climb it at last. It’s a modest height, surmounted by a trig point and crossed by a stone wall. An easy ascent, but well worth it for the excellent views.
We descended a track called Knott Lane – and here’s another impressive sight. A stone circle from the Neolithic period.
The Gamelands Stone Circle is situated on what was once open moorland, but the circle was first ploughed out in 1863. A wall was constructed nearby and most of the stones have been tumbled over time, probably deliberately in the course of agricultural works. At one point there was probably a burial kist within the circle. It was certainly visible in Victorian times, but has long gone.
Despite these interferences, the stone circle, one of the largest in the north, is still impressive. You can stand there and wonder about its purpose. There are many proposed solutions. It is, they say locally, not often visited.
It’s possible to return to Orton on footpaths from there, but we chose the lane back to the village, a very old road indeed.
A walk that lives in my mind as I think back, because of the strange landscape and that old stone circle.
These Westmorland Dales make an excellent addition to the National Parks Family. Away from the route of the Coast to Coast path, this is a very quiet area – you can walk all day and hardly see anyone. If you are staying in the district, Orton, Appleby and Kirkby Stephen or the villages thereabouts, are good places to find accommodation. There are buses to Appleby and Kirkby Stephen and sometimes Orton as well.