Published by Icy Sedgwick on June 16, 2016

Take a walk along the old Corpse Roads

Corpse roads might conjure up weird mental images of highways paved with the dead, or possibly byways only used by them, but they’re actually more straightforward than they sound.

In days gone by, remote communities often didn’t have anywhere to put their dead. Only the churches held burial rights, so corpse roads connected the graveyards to the small communities.

In the UK, corpse roads are sometimes called burial roads, funeral roads, or lych ways. As you can imagine, they’ve become pretty associated with wraiths and ghosts.

The name pretty much says it all.

But come with me. Let’s take a walk along the old corpse roads…

Corpse roads meander through the British countryside, a forgotten relic of the rural communities we once had. But what folklore has grown up around them?

Mick Garratt [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The photo above is a corpse road in Cumbria. Until 1736, the community of Mardale carried their dead along the corpse road to Shap’s burial ground.

In 1736, the Holy Trinity church was built and the dead of Mardale could be buried closer to home. But just look at that photo. The sheep don’t seem to be particularly bothered by any spectres.

Mardale itself now lies at the bottom of the Haweswater Reservoir. It was submerged in 1939, and 97 sets of remains were transferred from the churchyard to Shap.

Seems the dead of Mardale were destined to lie in Shap come hell or high water – literally.

Corpse roads meander through the British countryside, a forgotten relic of the rural communities we once had. But what folklore has grown up around them?

© Nigel Chadwick; This is the old drover’s track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale.

A lot of the old corpse roads now only exist as footpaths. For the latter, few remember or know their original purpose. Sometimes fields can give them away, especially if they’re called something like “Church-way”.

But it usually takes a combination of old maps, local knowledge and the occasional legend to plot their course. According to Philippa Waring’s Dictionary of Superstitions, land becomes a public right of way if a corpse is carried over it (1978, p. 66).

Atlas Obscura point out the locals didn’t want rotting bodies carried across their land. That explains the remoteness of the paths.

How do corpse roads link to folklore?

There are certainly plenty of tales surrounding them. Superstitions ran a lot higher in days gone by. People liked their corpse roads to meander through the countryside. It’s unsurprising since they believed spirits travelled in straight lines.

So if a different route had to be followed, for whatever reason, it was considered bad luck. This is possibly due to the fact that the corpse had to be taken along an actual corpse road to prevent them returning home later on.

Corpse roads meander through the British countryside, a forgotten relic of the rural communities we once had. But what folklore has grown up around them?

© Gordon Brown: The corpse road above Rydal Water

Then you have the corpse candle. This is particularly associated with Wales, and is believed to travel along the route from the cemetery to the dying person’s house and back again. Seen as an omen, the lights allegedly appeared on the night before a death when the spirit traced the path to the cemetery in advance.

As with most legends, some confuse these corpse light with the will-o’-the-wisp, a mischievous spirit that tried to lead travellers astray (often into marshes). To play Scully for a moment, the possibility remains that such lights did exist…produced by the methane gas produced by decomposition.

Apparently, barn owls can also be luminescent in some instances, so perhaps the locals just saw glow-in-the dark birds.

How cool does that sound?!

Other legends abound. According to Legendary Dartmoor, mourners carried the corpses feet first, so they pointed away from their home. Sometimes the road would cross bridges or stepping stones, since spirits couldn’t cross running water. A lot of effort went into making sure the dead didn’t come back to haunt the living.

Corpse roads meander through the British countryside, a forgotten relic of the rural communities we once had. But what folklore has grown up around them?

© Nigel Chadwick; A stream crosses the Corpse Road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale.

Some of the corpse roads featured coffin stones to allow mourners to set the coffin down while they rested. The coffin therefore didn’t touch the ground, which apparently stopped the spirit from wandering off!

A lot of the surviving corpse roads are just meandering paths now, their original purpose lost in the mists of time. But for those that still have their crosses and coffin stones, they remain a slightly eerie pathway through the English landscape.

Would you ever follow a corpse road? Let me know in the comments!


You might also like;
Pay a visit to the Dead-house
Exploring the Charterhouse Plague Pit

If you’re interested in corpse roads, I wrote a short story about one, which you can find in your free copy of my short story collection, Harbingers: Dark Tales of Speculative Fiction! Download it below.

Get your free book of short stories!

"Creepy mummies, ghosts, ghouls, and the paranormal" ⋆

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Comments

  1. Anne
    June 28, 2016 - 10:12 am

    This is such a great post. I didn’t have a clue were the name came from and I love these types of stories.
    xo Anne

    • Icy Sedgwick
      June 28, 2016 - 12:24 pm

      Glad you liked it!

  2. Tracy Hicks
    July 10, 2016 - 1:36 pm

    Awesome article!! I wish I’d known about these before my trip to England; but we came back literally (June 14) just before you published it. That’s okay, now I have the information for my next trip! Thank you so much, this is such a cool twist to walking paths!

    • Icy Sedgwick
      July 10, 2016 - 1:43 pm

      I’ll see if I can follow some myself!

  3. Cynthia Raleigh
    July 10, 2016 - 2:52 pm

    Thank you for the article on such an interesting subject; very informative. I would love to walk the paths of some of these old roads.

    • Icy Sedgwick
      July 10, 2016 - 2:58 pm

      I’m going to try and follow some and take photos!

  4. Earleen Devine
    July 10, 2016 - 10:57 pm

    Very interesting!

    • Icy Sedgwick
      July 10, 2016 - 11:05 pm

      Thank you!

  5. miles fielding
    July 11, 2016 - 6:36 pm

    They were also called coffin roads. There is one between Newbiggin On Lune and Ravenstonedale in Cumbria.

    • Icy Sedgwick
      July 11, 2016 - 6:42 pm

      Have you ever followed it?

  6. Kira
    July 11, 2016 - 7:03 pm

    Good to find a kindred spirit. This article is fabulous — I wish I’d found it when I’d compiled my corpse lights research post (here: http://www.kirabutler.com/my-creepy-search-history-corpse-lights/)

    Nonetheless, excited to read Harbingers. You’ve got a new follower. 🙂

    • Icy Sedgwick
      July 11, 2016 - 7:07 pm

      Hurray! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I hope you enjoy Harbingers!

  7. Adrian Midgley
    July 12, 2016 - 2:28 pm

    That’s an idea, not a fact, about the particular road.

    Too much confusion between ideas and facts, recently, and with bad effects.

    • Icy Sedgwick
      July 12, 2016 - 3:35 pm

      Which part is the idea you’re referring to, rather than the fact?

  8. Larry Kollar
    August 8, 2016 - 5:08 pm

    I missed this when you first ran it. Are walking tours still a thing in the UK? Seems like that would be a quirky variation.

    • Icy Sedgwick
      August 8, 2016 - 5:10 pm

      Yeah, walking tours are big business. But yeah, corpse roads could prove some interesting routes!

  9. Tim Jinkerson (@timjinx)
    November 17, 2016 - 1:19 pm

    I can recommend the Coffin Route to Alcock Tarn in Grasmere, a lovely circular route, not too tough but a bit of a work-out. There are resting stones for the coffins along the first part of the route. Make sure you leave by 10:30 if you want to make if for lunch back in Grasmere – or take a packed lunch and eat it by the tarn.
    https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/allan-bank-and-grasmere/trails/alcock-tarn-walk

  10. ANASTACIA HOPKINS
    January 20, 2017 - 6:26 am

    This is fantastic. Thanks for sharing! I thoroughly enjoy your folklore work. Especially when you help me to win an argument! Lol Just curious about the corpse candles which I thought were also Scottish and stationary. I have to find the book again but it refers to corpse candles as supernatural grave markers for bodies of murder victims who were never found…

  11. Sarah Brentyn
    January 29, 2017 - 11:10 pm

    This is so cool. And, yes, I would totally take a walking tour of a corpse road. Have you read the YA series “Raven Boys” by Maggie Stiefvater? She has “ley lines” in there and at least one of them has a corpse road running along/through it.

    • Icy Sedgwick
      January 29, 2017 - 11:24 pm

      Ooh I’ll have to check that out!

  12. Katherine Hajer
    February 17, 2017 - 6:02 pm

    I’ve never heard of these before — so interesting! They sound like a great way to have a countryside/historical hike.

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