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!


How Many Fairfield Horseshoes Have You Walked?

Walking the Fairfield Horseshoe is one of the most popular ridge walks in the Lake District – and deservedly so. It offers excellent views, a wonderful feeling of being “up there” and gives a great deal of satisfaction. Horseshoe walks – up along one ridge, across the top and down t’other side often do.

From Great Rigg (c) John Bainbridge 2018

And you don’t have to be in the Lakes. There are walks of a similar nature elsewhere, such as the Widecombe Horsehoe on Dartmoor – Hameldon, Grimspound, Honeybag Tor, Chinkwell Tor, Hound Tor. There are several extensions and variations, all offering an excellent day out.

But let’s get back to the Fairfield Horsehoe, usually walked from Ambleside or Rydal, closing the gap with a stroll through Rydal Park. Fellwalkers will be familiar with the route – Nab Scar, Heron Pike, Great Rigg, Fairfield, Hart Crag, Dove Crag, High Pike and Low Pike. Or the other way round.

I suspect that’s the Fairfield Horseshoe route known to most fellwalkers.

But it wasn’t always so.

Look at pre-war Lake District guidebooks and you’ll see other versions. William T. Palmer, for instance, who was almost as renowned in his day as Wainwright is now, gives a slightly harder route, taking the end bit of the Horseshoe from Dove Crag down Red Screes instead, omitting High and Low Pikes.

Other classic writers do the same, as above, but starting the route from Grasmere instead of Rydal and Ambleside, omitting Nab Scar and Heron Pike and substituting them with Stone Arthur to Great Rigg.

The choice is ours, and I admit to only doing the classic route so far myself, though individually I’ve been to every summit listed above in various combinations. Perhaps if my stamina lasts out, I might try every possible variation, though I’d miss High and Low Pike – the two make a beautiful descent on a clear day of long views.

I hope to do the classic route of the Fairfield Horsehoe again this summer. It’s so lovely to be up on those ridges.

These thoughts came about because on a recent blisteringly hot day, we set out from Grasmere, past (yes past!) the Swan Inn and up to Stone Arthur. I like Stone Arthur, not least because it offers such sensational views over Rydal, Grasmere and so many familiar fells beyond – I think of them all as old friends.

Grasmere from Stone Arthur (c) John Bainbridge 2018

It had been a decade since I was up there, and that had been on a day of restricted views and cold rain. So it was good to be up there again with views right across fells and lakes to the Irish Sea. A simple and not very long walk, so we took the easy stroll up to Great Rigg as well.

Wandering along I had many memories of days on the Fairfield Horseshoe. I described a similar expedition in my book “Wayfarer’s Dole”.

Familiar or not, these are wondrous fells. A joy that should be often revisited.

My 1870s Victorian guidebook considered the walk up to Fairfield an easy walk. It’s true there are a very great many harder mountain walks, but going up on to the ridge from Grasmere is extremely pleasant.

And just how many other Horseshoe variations are there?


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.





Walking A Corpse Road

On Dartmoor is the Lich Way from the middle of the Moor to Lydford – the parish church that once covered the entirety of Dartmoor Forest. There are several minor Dartmoor burial paths as well, including the one going up Dartmeet Hill on the way to Widecombe church, which includes – on Dartmeet Hill – the inscribed Coffin Stone. There are several good corpse routes in the Lake District – the one from Ambleside via Rydal to Grasmere is worth checking out.
But a very atmospheric corpse road, little changed since it was first used, runs down Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales.

There was a thick mist as we made out way over from Kirkby Stephen to Keld in Swaledale, but by the time we reached the tiny village, which is on both the Pennine Way and the Coast to Coast Path, it had melted away, leaving clear views down the dale and over the lonely and seemingly endless stretches of moorland.


We had come to walk part of the corpse road, along which the dead of Keld were carried the twelve miles to the parish church of Grinton, to be buried. And a wild journey it must have been in bad weather, for the stretch that we walked, between Keld and Muker is both high and exposed.

Keld itself feels like the village on the edge of the world. As Wainwright says in his Coast to Coast Guide “a sundial records the hours, but time is measured in centuries in Keld.” On the lane out of the village is the war memorial, commemorating the four men of the district who died in the Great War. But were they to come back they would hardly believe they had been away at all, so unchanged in this village.

The Corpse Road on Kisdon Hill (c) John Bainbridge 2015

The corpse road is a well-defined track climbing the western side of Kisdon Hill, offering grand views over this quiet and unspoilt land.  I have a great interest in corpse roads. This seems a particularly unspoiled example.

If you met a corpse-carrying party who’d wandered in from the Middle Ages you wouldn’t feel terribly surprised.

But this day we saw no ghosts. Just a solitary shepherd feeding his sheep and a great many lapwings.

The path goes steeply downhill to the little village of Muker (pronounced Moo-Ker). A tad bigger than Keld, but not much bigger. The church is delightful in its simplicity. Built in the 1580s – one of the few in England dating from the reign of Elizabeth I – and thus making much of the corpse road redundant, offering a decent burial ground for the people at the head of Swaledale. We liked the stained glass, showing Christ as a shepherd and the appropriate 23 sheep – all of the Swaledale Breed. This is where we left the Corpse Road, though we hope to resume it one day.

Muker from the Corpse Road (c) John Bainbridge 2015

On then to the River Swale itself. Here there are lots of signs of lead-mining, though nature has healed the scars. The miners, who would work a long day at the mining and then farm as well, used the system of mining known as hushing. Holding back water in huge dams on the hill-tops. Then releasing it in one mighty surge to wash away the topsoil, making the ore more visible.

There are the ruins of a smelting mill with some delightful waterfalls at Swinner Gill, with fine views back over Kisdon Hill. Then past Crackpot Hall, now a ruin, abandoned due to subsidence in 1953.

The name Keld comes from the old Norse word for water, and there’s certainly a lot of it about. There are a great many waterfalls on the Swale itself and its tributary becks. Just before you hit Keld again are a beautiful series of falls known as East Gill Force – a lovely spot to linger.

East Gill Force (c) John Bainbridge 2015

If you fancy a walk that’s lost in time with a great deal of history, then this is the walk for you.