Cumbria has a number of interesting and picturesque corpse roads - ancient paths on which the dead were transported on their final journey. Most tend to be more path than road and some are even marked on Ordnance Survey maps and signposts.
West Cumbrian writers Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park have published a book on this subject, which is actually more fascinating than morbid! A number of the roads have special significance and are clothed in folklore and superstition, such as tales of ghosts and spectral funeral processions.
As Halloween approaches, we take a look at some of the areas highlighted in the book as well as some of our nearby cottages... We dare you to visit!
Wasdale to Eskdale
This is one of the more famous corpse roads in Cumbria. It stretches from Wasdale Head to the village of Boot in Eskdale and on to St Catherine's Church a few hundred yards further on towards the river. As Wasdale Head had no church early on, the deceased had to be carried over the fells to Eskdale for interment.
There is a ghost story associated with it that suggests it's haunted by a woman tied to the body of a horse. The woman died while grieving the recent loss of her son, whose body was lost when the horse bolted on the corpse road, and in turn her body was also lost in a storm on the way to interment. Although the son's corpse was eventually recovered and buried, the mother's was never found and she is said to haunt the route alone.
Marked as the Old Corpse Road on Cumbria's definite map but not on the OS map, it runs from Wasdale Head Inn, past Burnmoor Tarn (passing a double-backed packhorse bridge en route) before eventually dropping down into Eskdale past Boot Mill. If you wish to follow it, it's a 10km walk (and 10km back!) and at times takes you through boggy terrain but it's not impossible to do in one day. Many people, however, choose to start from either end and walk as far as Burnmoor Tarn before turning back.
Situated near Ravenglass, Irton is referred to in the book as "The spaghetti junction of Cumbrian corpse roads". For the most part, corpse roads are more myth than fact, but Irton's corpse roads were proven in law as routes not to be meddled with even by the lord of the manor. And it's all down to a bitter row that broke out in 1899.
Thomas Brocklebank, the then owner of Irton Hall, closed off a footpath going past the window of his manor. Local resident Joseph Burrough objected, believing this was a right of way and had been for centuries. He won the support of Bootle Parish Council who decided to take the fight to court. What followed was a nationally-notorious legal battle lasting many years that involved dozens of witnesses and included a two-week trial, after which the jury was unable to reach a verdict. It was instead suggested the parties sit down and sort things out for themselves.
But the legal action continued for another four years and finally ended in the High Court with the villagers winning after Mr Justice Joyce found "the path had been used as a right for as long back as living memory extended".
Due to the condition of the paths today, the walks that Alan and Lesley highlight in their book take in just some of the routes - but they're well worth a visit. Irton Hall is now open to visitors seeking refreshments and Woodland's tea room is nearby, as are other pubs and refreshment places.
Borrowdale to Keswick
This ancient corpse road, which led out of Borrowdale, skirting around the western edge of Derwentwater and ending at Crosthwaite Church, became the centre of national newspaper attention in 1886 when the then owner of Fawe Park tried to close it, ignoring pleas from local people and ordering her gardener to fasten a gate across the track and erect barriers made of brambles and sticks.
The Reverend Hardwicke Rawnsley, of Crosthwaite Church, took up the fight and revived Keswick's Footpath Preservation Society. Protesters marched en masse along the path and the owner was unable to keep them out. It remained open and in the 1970s the Ramblers Association - the "descendants" of the Keswick Footpath Preservation Society - made the path part of the Cumbria Way, a 70-mile long-distance route that stretches the length of the county and is nowadays frequented by fundraisers.
If you follow any part of these routes, spare a thought for all those who fought to maintain access to these ancient paths, not to mention the folk whose final journey was along one of Cumbria's many corpse roads.
There are many interesting ghost stories attached to Cumbria's corpse roads, which can be read in Alan and Lesley's book. It also gives detailed directions if you're eager to explore the routes yourself. The Corpse Roads of Cumbria is available from bookshops and also on Amazon, price £10.
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