One foot in the grave
With Hallowe’en upon us, Mark Rowe explores the morbid history of some of Britain’s most scenic ‘coffin trails’ and picks the best urban cemeteries for a ghoulish autumnal stroll
Dying in medieval times was just the beginning of it. Many parishes demanded the dead were interred at the regionally dominant church, often requiring arduous and solemn journeys across paths, lanes and open moorland, with coffins lugged by pallbearers, strapped to horses or towed in a cart. It was a way of life: distances that today we might find daunting with a backpack were de rigueur for those entrusted with the body’s final journey.
Echoes of this tradition are still evident in the form of age-old coffin trails – also known as byre, church, lyke and lych ways. The word ‘coffin’ is a misnomer, though, as bodies would often be carried in a windsheet or wrapped in wool to lighten the load.
Often appropriately moody and atmospheric, coffin trails tend to be a feature of counties where sparse populations were sprinkled across moorland and hills: they are clustered in the Lake District, Dartmoor and across the emptier quarters of Wales and Scotland.
The trails evolved in medieval times under the watch of the Catholic Church. “The church kept a pretty tight rein on its congregation and insisted that burials took place in the mother church,” explains David Stewart, co-author of Pathways (£20, Guardian Books), which explores Britain’s ancient tracks. “Burials were not allowed in little chapels that might have been more convenient. It helped the church keep its spiritual hold over people, and gain financially from burial fees.”
Landowners feared that a coffin trail could become an established right of way, so they tended to be open only to the corpse and carriers. Superstition played its part: corpse roads were left unploughed, it was considered inauspicious if a different route had to be taken, and the spirit of the dead could not cross water. “There were plenty of rituals,” says Stewart. “The coffin had to be carried with the feet facing away from the place of death or home, so that the spirit wouldn’t fly back and haunt it.”
Two Lairigs Trail, Glencoe (above)
DEATHLY HISTORY: Glen Etive is believed to have fallen within the parish of Ballachulish, requiring any dead to be carried over the passes and into Glencoe for burial. A stone cairn in Lairig Eilde is thought to be a remnant of this trail.
PROCESSION ROUTE: The 15km/9-mile route is a dramatic circumnavigation of two Munros, climbing through Lairig Eilde – the ‘pass of the hinds’. It returns via the parallel Lairig Gartain, or ‘pass of the ticks’, which is (alas) equally well named. Along one gruelling track above the river you’ll wonder how often pallbearers tacitly agreed to ditch the deceased into the nearby deep peat.
FURTHER INFO: www.glencoe-nts.org.uk
Mardale, Lake District
DEATHLY HISTORY: Beneath the waters of Haweswater Reservoir lie the remains of the sunken village of Mardale, whose inhabitants had to carry their dead on an arduous route across Mardale Common to Shap.
PROCESSION ROUTE: There are several options, but try walking the 17km/11 miles from Mardale Head to the north end of the reservoir, taking the footpath past Naddie Farm to Swindale Head and the corpse road back over Mardale Common to Haweswater. Expect wonderful views of High Street and Rough Crag – the local equivalent of Striding Edge.
FURTHER INFO: www.golakes.co.uk
Lych Way, Dartmoor (above)
DEATHLY HISTORY: Dartmoor’s Lych Way dates back to the 14th century, making it arguably the oldest identified coffin trail. Lydford was once England’s largest parish, and required the deceased from the distant ancient tenement farms in the heart of Dartmoor to be transported for burial in the northwest edges of the moors.
PROCESSION ROUTE: The hugely atmospheric 19km/12-mile route leaves Bellever, passes a Forestry Commission plantation and follows the moor road between Moretonhampstead and Princetown before angling diagonally up to St Petroc’s Church in Lydford. St Petroc’s cemetery is a delight: look out for the elaborately inscribed grave of watchmaker George Routleigh, who was ‘wound up’ in 1802.
FURTHER INFO: www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk
Lyke Wake Walk, North York Moors
DEATHLY HISTORY: The punchline of the Lyke Wake Walk – probably the best-known coffin trail
of all – is that it has nothing to do with corpse trails. “The walk is a complete fabrication,” admits Gerry Orchard, secretary of the New Lyke Wake Club. “The original thinking was that if you manage it, you’ll be good for a coffin at the end.”
PROCESSION ROUTE: The 68km/40-mile Lyke Wake Walk runs from the westernmost point of the
North York Moors to the easternmost, following the watershed between Osmotherley and Ravenscar. This is classic Moors scenery: wind-pummelled moorland and squawking red grouse erupting from sprigs of heather. A coffin-shaped badge awaits anyone who completes the walk within 24 hours.
FURTHER INFO: www.lykewake.org
For the full version of this article with six more coffin walks, pick up the Autumn 2012 issue of walk from Cotswold Outdoor or why not join the Ramblers and get it delivered to your door four times a year?