Cumbria isn’t alone in having a number of coffin paths, or corpse roads. These days, they’re footpaths between one village and another, sometimes marked with crosses and punctuated with low stone benches. The paths cross water at least once, intersect other paths, and are curiously unpopular amongst locals after dark. Their function until a hundred or so years ago, was simple: these are the routes taken by coffin-bearers to the nearest church with a burial ground. Some routes were just a couple of miles, others much longer, but all cover wild and largely uninhabited territory.
Coffin routes are associated with many ghost stories. Perhaps the best-known is Wasdale’s coffin path story: in years gone by, the church in Wasdale had no licence to bury the dead, so bodies were carried by pony and cart over the mountains to St. Catherine’s Church in Eskdale. One day, the pony transporting a young man’s body bolted, taking the cart and coffin with it. A search was made, but neither the pony nor body was found. A few months later the young man’s mother died, and she too was taken along the coffin path. The pony pulling her coffin bolted at the same location. A pony and coffin was found, but it wasn’t the mother’s; it was the son’s, lost months before. The son was buried but the mother’s body was never found. It’s said that a ghostly horse is sometimes spotted galloping across the moor, still pulling the missing coffin.
Bodies were always carried along the path ‘feet first’ – hence the phrase, ‘I’ll only leave this house feet first’, meaning that the person will only leave when dead – so that the spirit couldn’t return home. It was believed that spirits couldn’t cross water, so coffin paths usually went over bridges or fords, or through marshy ground. Similarly, it was a good thing if the coffin path intersected another, ordinary route, as crossroads were believed to bind spirits (hence the practice of hanging criminals at crossroads). Coffin routes were swept regularly, to remove any spirit traces that would attract unwanted otherworldly beings.
There is a tradition across the UK and parts of northern Europe of ‘lych watches’, when people with supernatural abilities would watch the coffin path on auspicious dates, to see ghostly premonitions of who would die in the coming year.
It’s a curious fact that whilst coffin routes are regarded as medieval or early modern in origin, many of them are associated with much older human activity. The coffin route from Mardale to Shap runs past the Goggleby Stone, a giant standing stone which was part of a Neolithic stone avenue. In northern Europe, some coffin paths are known to link to Bronze Age burial grounds.
Perhaps the biggest hint that the coffin routes have been important in human ritual for centuries is, oddly, their association with faeries. That’s right: faeries. In the 21st century, we all think of faeries as short, gossamer-winged beings, but that’s a Victorian re-invention. In folklore, faeries are usually full-sized beings with a bad temper and amoral habits, and it’s curious how often stories of ghosts and faerie intersect.
There’s a clear example of the faerie link at the coffin path from Arnside to Beetham, which goes over the so-called ‘Fairy Steps’. A number of coffin paths across the country are linked to stories of faerie processions, sometimes described as faerie funerals or as faerie troops heading into battle. In Ireland in particular, houses that intersected old coffin routes were believed to suffer bad luck as a result of faery wrath.
Stories of faerie are often found at Bronze Age burial mounds and other sites that may have looked like burial mounds to people many years ago. In Glastonbury, Gwyn ap Nudd is said to live with a faery host, but many other, less well-detailed faeries are said to live in hills across the country, including Cumbria’s own Elf Howe, where a procession with military bearing, accompanied by a cloven-hooved man of small stature, was sighted in 1513(1) (note: howe is another word for barrow). In other places, such as Alderley Edge in Cheshire, the hills and barrows are home to ‘sleeping knights’, waiting to be resurrected when their skills are needed again.
We find it difficult to make the link, but many a faery tradition makes perfect sense when you substitute the faeries with ghosts. Under the burial mound, there is the body of an ancient noble or warrior, and his friends might have liked to imagine him feasting for eternity in his burial hall. The warrior becomes a ghost, and the passage of millennia turns the ghost into faery. Faeries, then, are a clue to antiquity.
Some identified coffin paths In Cumbria:
- Wasdale Head to Eskdale via Burnmoor
- Mardale (Haweswater) to Shap via the Goggleby Stone
- Rydal to Grasmere via Rydal Water and Dove Cottage
- Arnside to Beetham via the Fairy Steps
- Johnby to Greystoke
- Ulverston to Coniston
- Garrigill to Kirkland
- Borrowdale to Brigham
Note: ‘Faerie’ is the plural of ‘faery’. I’ll let Disney have ‘fairy’!
1. Legends of Westmorland and the Lake District, Anon (1868)