There was a time in England when commoners couldn’t afford to hire a horse or a cart to transport their dead, and so they were forced to carry the corpses themselves to the nearest church.
This unpleasant situation led to the creation of paths like the Swaledale Corpse Way, now known simply as the Corpse Way or corpse road, a 16-mile medieval track linking the hamlet of Keld with Grinton, farther down the valley, a small village and civil parish in the Yorkshire Dales, in the Richmondshire district of North Yorkshire.
Grinton holds St. Andrew’s Church, often called “The Cathedral of the Dales”, which for centuries was the nearest sanctified ground and the main church for the whole of upper Swaledale, with many burials coming from miles away.
The tradition of walking this path continued until the Church of St. Mary the Virgin was built in Muker, which was closer to the isolated hamlet.
In any case, those carrying their dead along the Swaledale track came up with various solutions to ease their burdens.
Wicker coffins were reportedly used instead of wooden ones to help lighten the load on what could be a long walk.
Moreover, several flat stones, located at intervals along the path and traditionally called “coffin stones”, are said to be where the coffin would have been set down while the mourners rested for a while before continuing their trek along the valley.
Such stones can still be seen along the route still today. But, of course, the conveyance of a coffin in harsh winter or wet seasons was more difficult and there are stories of coffin bearers mired in mud and mourners wading through bogs.
Not surprisingly, paths such as this one are steeped in folklore: tales of ghostly happenings abound, and it is said that rituals were often performed along the paths, particularly at river crossings and crossroads, to help prevent the spirits of the dead from returning.
Also Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream talks of spirits following particular paths to and from their last resting places: “Now it is that time of night, That the graves all gaping wide, Every one lets forth his sprite, In the church-way paths to glide.”
And no doubt the corpse road would be particularly appealing to a wandering ghost.
Along the Swaledale Corpse Way, a headless black dog is said to occasionally be seen at the bridge near the River Swale, where it leaps into the water below.
The ghost is considered a bad omen, and even a prophecy of death.
The specialness of the river crossing seems to reflect a long-held belief that the spirits could not cross water. Whether the Catholic church tacitly approved of all these pagan beliefs, knew nothing of them or quietly tolerated them is difficult to know.
There are several corpse paths throughout England, and they can be marked on the map using a variety of names, including corpse way, coffin road or bier way.
They often pass through remote places, partly because landowners feared the routes might become standard passages for trade and travel and, interestingly, the difficulties encountered by the funeral procession as it waded through the mire were often therefore deliberate: no-one would take the route unless they had to.
However, the Swaledale path in particular is worth walking.
From Keld, the broad grassy path is quite amazing as it ascends the pictoresque Kisdon Fell and affords epic views of Swaledale.
The track can easily be joined in several locations, including at the start, from Keld, where there’s parking in the village.
Here it can be followed over Kisdon Hill and down to Muker. Alternatively, there is easy access along the meadow paths from Reeth to the endpoint at Grinton. The endpoint of the path, St. Andrew’s Church in Grinton, is worth a visit in itself with its stained glass windows and a quaint old graveyard.