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?
Brownber Hill – you see its splendid shape from so many places. Many gaze, I suspect, but few climb to its lonely summit. But why not? It’s a grand hill and a terrific viewpoint. A dramatic rampart of the Eden edge of the North Pennines.
It’s not that people don’t walk in the area. Nearby Dufton Pike is regularly climbed – and Brownber is higher than Dufton Pike. The Pennine Way runs not far away. The leadmining valley of Threlkeld Side goes to one side of Brownber.
It may well be, and I don’t know, that before the CRoW Act (Countryside and Rights of Way Act) access to Brownber Hill might have been discouraged.
But it’s access land now.
We walk in this area a great deal. We’ve never seen anyone ascending, descending or on the top of Brownber Hill. And, I have to admit, we hadn’t either until yesterday, though we’ve often meant to do it. Walkers in the area could do both Brownber and Dufton Pike in a pleasant morning expedition.
We followed the Pusgil Track up from Dufton, passing Dufton Pike, to where the footpath heads downs to the Rundale Beck. Crossing the wall by a stile we walked steeply downhill and crossed the beck.
Now, despite being access land there’s no actual access point on to Brownber Hill here (I seem to recall that the CRoW Act was supposed to create access points?) So we climbed a wooden fence by a wired-up gate.
A very clear path leads up to the top of the hill, undoubtedly created by a quad bike in its early stages. A simple but quite steep path that leads without argument to the summit of Brownber Hill.
Although Brownber comes to a dramatic and rocky edge above the beck, the highest point – and its debateable – is on a wide and featureless plateau. Sphagnum moss like a vast cushion to walk on, though curiously dry – no doubt because of the rock not far down.
The views from the top are excellent, along the line of border pikes and across the Eden Valley and across to the greater heights of the Lake District mountains. Beyond, and to the east and north, are the mysterious hills of the Pennines. Great walking country and free of the crowds you find in more popular hillscapes.
Brownber continues into its larger neighbour Rossgill Edge, a great rocky ledge where the lead-miners sunk shafts and made hushes. It would have been nice to continue our walk up on to its heights, but a fence-topped stone wall makes access difficult – another access denial that the Ramblers Association and the CRoW people should look at.
We followed the stone wall back down to the beck. In some ways the most dramatic side of the hill, where it attains a beautiful and craggy shape, great splurges of white quartz colouring the darker rocks.
An easy crossing of the beck and then back along the Pusgil Track to Dufton.
Brownber Hill is certainly worth a climb, though how splendid it would be if the access could be improved both on the Dufton Pike side and on the ridge between Brownber and Rossgill Edge.
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.
For a walk including the three highest summits in the Pennines you need a good clear day. Because the long ridge of tops on the western edge of the north Pennines offer magnificent views across the Eden Valley to the Lake District in one direction, and over the wild fells of the Pennines in the other.
Cross Fell (2,930 feet) is not only the highest point of the Pennines, but – if you exclude the Lake District mountains – the highest summit in England.
It’s a fell that lives in myth as well as history. In its past history it was known locally as Fiends Fell, the abode of demons. It’s the home of the ferocious Helm Wind, the only named wind in Britain, which has been known to sweep down from its heights and devastate the Eden valley below. St Augustine is said to have blessed the hill to take away its curse, hence the word Cross – though some point out it means cross as in angry.
Seeing it most days in the distance, in all its moods, I can well imagine it as the sort of place where trolls might live. Cross Fell has an average of 110 inches of rain every year, and the snow has been known to deck its long ridgy top for 140 days a year.
But it was in a benevolent mood when we climbed it the other day, offering no more than a pleasant breeze to take away the heat of a scorching day. We were glad of the slight wind, for we notched up twenty miles through some of the loneliest country in England.
We left the village of Dufton in a blazing heatwave, following the Pennine Way as it wound around Dufton Pike to Cosca Hill. The walk up to Knock Old Man is the steep bit of the walk, but the views over the Eden valley and its guardian pikes – Murton Pike, Dufton Pike and Knock Pike – were stunning. Not as green as usual, for the heatwave has seared them an almost autumnal brown.
This is wonderful walking country. It’s true what they say – if the nearby Lake District didn’t exist, these north Pennines would be thronging with fellwalkers. We did see a few people doing the Pennine Way, but nowhere near as many as would have been there once upon a time.
Until Knock Old Man is passed, the secrets of the high Pennines remain hidden from view. Then, as the ridge is achieved, the vista over remote country to Teesdale comes into view. Like Dartmoor on a grander scale, I thought. Miles and miles and miles of wild mountainous land.
The only thing to remind you that you are in the 21st century is the golf ball radar station – air traffic control – on Great Dun Fell, which looks like it has wandered in from a science fiction film. The private road leading up to it is the highest bit of tarmacced road in England. We followed the ridge towards it, seeing nothing alive but the odd moorland bird, and a stoat scampering along the path as we went.
On then over Little Dun Fell to the head of the Crowdundle beck, which I know quite well in its lower stages. Once you’re up on the ridge, there’s little climbing left to do – just a gentle ascent through a rocky band and then a stroll along the ridge to the top of Cross Fell, with its rocky cairn and shelter in the shape of a cross.
It’s worth the climb – so much to see, right across to Ullswater and distant Derwent Water, Blencathra, Helvellyn – too many summits to name.
If the Fiends Fell could talk, what stories it might tell. Of the Romans who marched from fort to fort in the valley below, the Vikings who settled the pastoral landscape beneath, probably scaring their children to sleep with their tales of trolls on this great height. And of the many walkers who’ve come along the Pennine Way, making their own memories of the long and high range of hills along the way.
We took a long and circuitous route back to Dufton through Knock, stopping all the while to gaze back at where we had been – past the golfball radar station, up to the top of Cross Fell’s long plateau. After even a brief moment, it seems almost unbelievable that you were ever up there.
A wonderful day’s walking.
And a big thank you to the Trolls of the Fiends Fell, for granting us a special dispensation of good weather and clear views.
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.