An eerie journey along old Corpse Roads

Can anyone believe that I have written Halloween (related posts for 7 years now.  When I started this blog I thought I’d be lucky to still be going in a month.   As with everything else, I always try to keep my Halloween posts grounded as I think that makes them more realistic and also more scary.

This year is going to be relatively tame as I’ve posted quite a few true-life gory events in the last year or so but it is still hopefully an interesting theme, that of Corpse Roads.  Sometimes they have variations such as Coffin way or Church fields but the connotations are the same.

In days gone by, remote communities often had nowhere nearby to put their dead as only churches were sanctioned for burials in most situations (not so plague pits or criminals).  However in the countryside hamlets and smaller villages could be 10-15 miles from the nearest churchyards but they could be miles away from the smaller villages. Corpse roads, burial roads, funeral roads, or lych ways offered a dedicated means for the dead to be taken to consecrated grounds.


The Old Corpse Road from Wasdale in the Lake District.

A lot of the old corpse roads now only exist as footpaths. For the latter, few remember or know their original purpose.   Obviously most landholders didn’t particularly want distressed families and friends traipsing rotting bodies across their lands and so such Corpse Roads were deliberately given remote and barren routes which were far off the beaten track even in centuries past, let alone with the spread of motorised transport in the 20th Century.

There was also a popular belief that should three funeral corteges pass over a route then it automatically becomes a public right of way which would also be something many landowners would try to avoid.

Things became obviously incredibly difficult during a snowy winter or wet period and there are stories of coffin bearers mired in mud and mourners wading through bogs. It must have made the loss of a family member even more painful, unless it helped to take your mind off things. It certainly means that coffin roads go through some of the most desolate and remote parts of our fells, giving them an atmosphere appropriate to their role.

Corpse Roads began to decline when even the poor were able to afford rudimentary hearses and when much common land was fenced off during the Enclosure Acts which made using some of them difficult on a practical basis.

Back in times when people were much more superstitious,  people believed spirits only travelled in straight lines. Not wanting to be haunted by aggrieved ghosts it was thought that one way to stop ghosts returning to their home involved taking a meandering route to the graveyard through the countryside rather than a more direct and easy route. This may have its roots in prehistoric times when Neolithic earthen avenues called cursuses link burial mounds: these features can run for considerable distances, even miles, and are largely straight, or straight in segments, connecting funerary sites, there is even one just outside Stonehenge.


A neolithic cursus leading to Stonehenge

In some areas such as Wales, there would be the corpse candle with people believing it travels 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.

Not to be confused with other non-earthly spirits such as the Will-o-the Wisp that would try and lead travellers astray and often to their demise into marshes and bogs with even some scientific belief that they could be due to decomposing methane apparently.,

Corpse lights have been a very common occurrence and they would sometimes be seen to flicker around the home and eventual burial sight of the unfortunate person nearing the end of their life though at least one 19th century researcher in Sussex believe the lights were likely to be glowworms.

Most isolated and remote parts of Britain and their Corpse Roads and many had local traditions, around the bleak moors of Cornwall and Devon in the SW mourners would carry 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. In fact everywhere in Britain a great deal of effort went into making sure the dead didn’t come back to haunt the living unlike in other places.

Interestingly some of the corpse roads featured coffin stones to allow mourners to set the coffin down on while they rested. With the coffin never touching the ground, everyone could be assured that the spirit of the deceased wouldn’t wander off!   You can still see some of these around the countryside though knowing what they are is another matter.  Some can be simple stones and others something all the more elaborate.

Lamplugh in Cumbria is one such location to boast a coffin rest, also known as a corpse cross. It’s near the church and gave pallbearers somewhere to put the coffin while they caught their breath.


A coffin rest in Lamplugh, Cumbria not far from where I was born.

Times being as tough as they were and so many being impoverished, it was common that the family and friends couldn’t afford a coffin in which case you could actually borrow a public coffin for most of the journey with the person being enclosed in a sack or cloth.  When you had finished with the coffin, you’d take it back to the pickup point at the churchyard like the coffin rest below.

An 18th Century Coffin Rest.

It wouldn’t be Halloween without a ghost story so how about this one from the old Wasdale Head to Eskdale Corpse Road whose family made the mistake of using a horse rather than carrying the deceased by hand.  A young man had died and his body was being taken from Wasdale Head to Eskdale on the remote corpse road over Burnmoor. It was a misty winter’s day and some way into the journey the horse took fright and bolted. The party of mourners searched for hours but the horse and its grisly cargo had vanished.

Returning home in absolute despair having first lost only son and then his body, collapsed and died. During her own funeral procession, on the same path and at the same place, her horse too took fright and ran off into a snowstorm. In the desperate search that ensued the son’s horse and corpse were discovered but the mother’s had disappeared for good. From time to time, a ghostly horse and coffin appear on this lonely fell path to no doubt scare the living daylights out of intrepid hikers.

A Corpse Road

The double-backed bridge on the corpse road from Wasdale to Eskdale, Lake District, (photograph by Alan Cleaver)


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A piss-poor history of urine

I’m going to try not to use the P word too much in this post, as tempting as it is as that would be taking the Pee but urine has actually had a long history of practical uses especially in medicine.

None other than Pliny the Elder back in Rome  recommended fresh urine for the treatment of “sores, burns, affections of the anus, chaps and scorpion stings”, while stale urine mixed with ash could be rubbed on your baby for what we would now call nappy rash.

In early-modern Europe urine went on to have even more uses with  pioneering French surgeon Ambroise Paré noting that itching eye-lids could be washed in the patient’s urine provided that it had been kept “all night in a barber’s basin” first. The father of chemistry, Robert Boyle, advised certain patients to drink every morning “a moderate draught of their own urine”, preferably while “tis yet warm”.  He also performed numerous experiments with human blood and urine including using both as invisible inks and noted how the latter was highly valued by dyers;

As disgusting as this might sound,  Thomas Willis who was then the richest doctor in England instructed a young lady to drink her own warm urine against “extreme sourness” in her throat.


Thomas Vicary

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Paying homage at the tomb of the Venerable Bede

If like myself you have anything like a passing history in old Anglo-Saxon history or even history itself, the works of Bede are something to behold.

I always find it a bit boring I suppose that so many people think of British history as being Stonehenge, Romans, Vikings, a bonkers king who kept killing his wives, Victorians and WW2.    Similarly populist history such as on the History Channel were all Romans, ancient Egyptians and Nazis but nothing about the 99% of history that is lesser known and all the more interesting for it.  Rather like being a food connoisseur but only being interested in McDonalds.

Hopefully if there is one thing my 7 years of blogging has proved it is that people love obscure history too as history is all about people.

St Bede the Venerable is the bedrock of our understanding of the centuries up to and including early Anglo-Saxon history.   As well as his incredible range of work he is chiefly responsible for working out the calculations for Easter as well as establish the to us extremely obvious and easy way of dating events from the time of Jesus.  Of course people use various events for year zero but incredibly at one time in the British Isles and Europe at least, this was an entirely new concept!

Bede’s most famous work is the Historia Ecclesiastica and his primary motivation in writing the Historia Ecclesiastica was to show the growth of the united church throughout England. The native Britons, whose Christian church survived the departure of the Romans, earn Bede’s ire for refusing to help convert the Saxons; by the end of the Historia the English, and their Church, are dominant over the Britons.

This goal, of showing the movement towards unity, explains Bede’s animosity towards the British method of calculating Easter: much of the Historia is devoted to a history of the dispute, including the final resolution at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Bede is also concerned to show the unity of the English, despite the disparate kingdoms that still existed when he was writing. He also wants to instruct the reader by spiritual example, and to entertain, and to the latter end he adds stories about many of the places and people about which he wrote.

Bede’s extensive use of miracles can prove difficult for readers who consider him a more or less reliable historian, but do not accept the possibility of miracles. Yet both reflect an inseparable integrity and regard for accuracy and truth, expressed in terms both of historical events and of a tradition of Christian faith that continues to the present day. Bede, like Gregory the Great whom Bede quotes on the subject in the Historia, felt that faith brought about by miracles was a stepping stone to a higher, truer faith, and that as a result miracles had their place in his works.

Bede died on Thursday, 26 May 735 (Ascension Day) on the floor of his cell, singing Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit and was buried at Jarrow.  You might like to see my photos of the ruins of the old Jarrow Monastery, the old church and the oldested stained glass window in the world.

Bede was so studious that he worked up right until an hour or two before his death despite his ill-health as can be seen below in this wonderfully evocative painting.

The Venerable Bede translating the Gospel of John on his deathbed. Painting by James Doyle Penrose in 1902.

The Venerable Bede translating the Gospel of John on his deathbed. Painting by James Doyle Penrose in 1902.

Just before he died, Bede composed the following verse which has become known as Bede’s Death Song.  Here it is in its original Northumbrian.

Fore thaem neidfaerae ‖ naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra, ‖ than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae ‖ aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae ‖ godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege ‖ doemid uueorthae.

And translated into modern English…. Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is wiser than the man who considers—before his soul departs hence—what good or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its passing.

Bede became known as Venerable Bede by the 9th century because of his holiness.   According to a legend the epithet was miraculously supplied by angels, thus completing his unfinished epitaph.


Inside the majestic Durham Cathedral

Centuries after his death, the Bishop of Durham sent his men to Jarrow in the middle of the night and dug up the remains of Bede (translated is the ecclesiastical term for it) to the majestic Durham Cathedral most likely in 1020 and it was placed in the same tomb with Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Later Bede’s remains were moved to a shrine in the Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral in 1370.

The shrine was destroyed during the Reformation, but the bones were reburied in the chapel. In 1831 the bones were dug up and then reburied in a new tomb, which is where I found him today although some of his relics can also be found in Glastobury, York and Germany.

I always enjoy visiting Durham and the Cathedral there is one of my very favourites.  In fact American-British travel writer Bill Bryson states it is the most beautiful cathedral in the world.   It is full of shrines and statues, chapels and stained glass windows but my favourite place is always the shrine of the Venerable Bede.


One isn’t normally encouraged to take photos but after having a little chat to the charming lady overseeing the chapel, I was allowed to.  It’s quite something to visit the resting place of the father of English history.  If we had an hour together to chat, I’m sure we would have the most incredible conversation about the past, present and future presuming of course we could understand each other which couldn’t be take for granted if you read An example of how English has changed over 1200 years.


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Original hand-drawn battle plans by Admiral Lord Nelson for the Battle of Trafalgar are discovered.

Incredible a hand-drawn sketch by Admiral Lord Nelson himself showing his plan for victory at Trafalgar has been discovered tucked inside the pages of a scrapbook after nearly 200 years.

They were discovered by historian Martyn Downer in a scrap book book from the 1830s which was recently sold at auction.

It shows his plan for splitting the Royal Navy fleet into three divisions to break and destroy the enemy French and Spanish lines coming out of Cadiz harbour.

Lord Nelson

Painting of Admiral Lord Nelson

The plan even includes lines representing wind direction which give a unique insight into how Nelson intended to attack across the wind to take advantage of increased speed.

The drawing, which has been donated to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, was found alongside an address leaf bearing Nelson’s signature and is dated September 5 1805.  The early date also shows us Nelson had long been plotting on his final great victory long before he ever set foot on HMS Victory.

Admiral Lord Nelson's hand drawn sketch found on the top right of this page in an old scrap book after 200 years.

Admiral Lord Nelson’s hand drawn sketch found on the top right of this page in an old scrap book after 200 years.

The plan is on display today to mark the 214th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar before being placed on permanent exhibition from next spring in the museum’s refurbished Victory Gallery.

You can visit HMS Victory and the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard on our hugely popular day tour from London with Ye Olde England Tours   or alternatively you can look at my HMS Victory and Portsmouth post from a few years ago Day Tour to Portsmouth Historic Dockyards

Nelson was already an assured national treasure before his great victory at Trafalgar which made him an eternal national hero and incidentally brought about a century or more of comparative peace on the waves.

It was September, of 1805, when Horatio Nelson first told someone of his plans for a new kind of naval warfare. The Vice Admiral was his home, at Merton Place in Surrey and taking a walk with his colleague Captain Richard Keats who was then the commanding officer of HMS Superb, a 74-gun battleship.

Until this time naval battles largely consisted of two lines of ships lining up parallel to each other at something like point blank range and blasting each other to smithereens until one side was clearly beaten.   Nelson wanted to change this not just because he saw the chance for a great victory but because navies had got so large it was getting impractical to fight in this way.

On hearing that the French-Spanish combined fleet had put into the port of Cadiz (in Spain), left his home on the 13th of September, 1805, to take command of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. Hoisting his flag aboard HMS Victory, he sailed to join the rest of the ships.

Nelson and his fleet finally got their opportunity to put the new tactics into practice  when Napoleon gave orders to his fleet to leave Cadiz as Emperor Napoleon was mounting a land campaign against Austria and wanted his ships closer to that action.

It was a decision that proved to be disastrous for Napoleon because as soon as they were out of the comparative safety of the harbour, it gave the Royal Navy a chance to strike.

The new plan envisioned that Nelson would position his ships very differently than enemy officers would expect. The British ships would approach the French and Spanish ships in separate columns.

One column of ships (led by Nelson) would be in the windward position, moving as fast as possible using as much sail power as circumstances allowed. They would split the French and Spanish line in the centre, thereby preventing those ships from helping the rest of their fleet.

The other column of British ships, led by Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, would rout the enemy’s rear.


The Battle of Trafalgar

The actual battle unfolded just as Nelson had planned. Smashing through the middle of the French and Spanish line, he cut the fleet in two. Ships in the northern part of the line could not join the battle in the south, where Collingwood was routing the enemy’s rear.

Nelson started the battle with 27 ships of the line and lost none. The combined fleet against him started the battle with 33 ships of the line and lost 18. and more enemy ships were lost following a terrible storm.

The Royal Navy didn’t quite have everything its own way as the wind had rather eased at the commencement of battle and HMS Victory became something of a sitting duck as it led the attack on the enemy fleets and suffered terrible damage.

As Victory came into close contact with the French ship Redoutable, a sniper in her rigging spotted Nelson who as always led from the front and was on the upper deck of HMS Victory. Nelson was mortally wounded by a musket ball in the left chest that caused numerous terrible external and internal injuries that would have been untreatable even in the bed hospital in London.

Nelson was correct when he told Thomas Hard “Hardy, I believe they have done it at last” and died hours later though not before knowing his navy had achieved perhaps the most famous history in naval history.

Spot where Nelson was shot

Freshly placed wreath on the plaque marking the spot where Nelson fell.

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A peek inside possibly the second smallest home in the U.K.

In my line of work I spend a lot of time walking round palaces, great houses and cathedrals but last week I had the opportunity to revisit one of the smallest houses imaginable in the beautiful Lake District in the country of Cumbria.  What makes this house extra special is not just its tiny size but the fact that it is built on a tiny bridge too.


Bridge House in Ambleside

Centuries ago in the small town of Ambleside a bridge was built across Stock Gyhll, gyhll being the local Cumbrian word for the numerous narrow ravines or valleys in this part of the world and a direct descendent of and old Norse word Gill from the times of the Vikings.

Later, larger nearby bridges made this bridge of the little Beck (or stream) almost obsolete and so a decision was taken to build a house upon it in the 17th century, perhaps to avoid land taxes!


You can see right through the house!

Bridge House was first owned by the local Braithwaite family. who lived in nearby Ambleside Hall.   Originally an apple store, its convenient location to nearby water mills meant that it became increasingly useful despite there originally being a doorways on both sides of the house just incase someone needed to cross the bridge.

Bridge House is possibly the most photographed building in the Lake District, and a popular subject for many artists over the years including Turner.

Lewis Pinhorn Wood’s The Cobbler’s Shop on the Bridge


Lewis Pinhorn Wood’s The Cobbler’s Shop on the Bridge

Over the years the building has seen use as a weaving shed, a counting house for the mills, a cobblers and a chairmaker.  At one point it was even the family home for a man, his wife and six children!  Some younger visitors in particular find this hard to comprehend though I myself remember having to share a tiny lower bunkbed with my brother when staying at my Grandparents for several weeks of the year so it is not that much of a stretch to imagine for myself at least.


Downstairs with the Victorian stove which makes things very cosy!

In the 19th century when it became a tea house, a stove was added to Bridge House but by the 1920s, Bridge House was in need of repair work. Fortunately, a group of dedicated local supporters, including William Heelis (who is better known as Beatrix Potter’s husband) recognised this and raised enough money to buy it and the immediate surroundings.


View of the upstairs of the house from the doorway.

The building was then donated to the National Trust to maintain the property and though in the 1940s it was also used as a bric-a-brac and antiques shop, it served as a tourist information centre from 1956.


A room with a view.

It only takes a few minutes to visit Bridge House in Ambleside and a little longer to listen to the great National Trust guide who can give you more information.  As you can kind of see in the photo above, just a minute away is an old water mill on the left and the wheel is still turning today.

Bridge House was very nearly brought down 10 or so years ago when unprecedented rainfall brought the little Beck right up to the base of the house as a roaring torrent.  It would be such a shame to lose this incredibly tiny and quirky old house.   Until then, you can visit it with Ye Olde England Tours




Posted in Cumbria & The Lake District, history, Life, Travel, Ye Olde England Tours | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Murky Moor photos

I’ve been away for a few weeks giving a long tour of parts of north east and north west England and having returned I have found my wordpress to stubbornly refuse to fully function on my iPad or even let me log in on my computer.

As such, I’m forced to do a simple post today as it is the only thing I hope to get posted albeit at my third attempt).

Moors have a foreboding reputation as being lonely and often dangerous places but I like them and the isolation the bring.  Of course even without Hounds of Baskervilles, serial killers and everything else that is associated with moors in a bad way, you always have to be aware of the weather. Whilst nice and sunny days do happen, so too does torrential rain, claustrophobic fogs, freezing winds and plenty of snow.

Numerous bogs and abandoned mines add to the fun but this time I was with a lovely Australian tour and so we merely set ourselves the goal of getting from the east to the west with as few a fatalities as possible!

A moody look to go with the weather and scenery

When we left the valley in the distance it was 14 degrees c / 58f and sunny but here it was down to 8 degrees c / 46f and unknown to us, we were only 45 minutes away from a cloudburst.

A main road over the moors

There aren’t that many places in England when you can just stop on a major road and not see any cars and hear only the wind in the mossy grass and heather.

Looking out over Upper Teesdale

My tourist and I are fans of the British detective show Vera which is often set in nearby locations to make the most of the brooding natural landscapes and that was one of the reasons we were visiting.

Snow poles, so you don’t drive off the road to your demise in the winter

Parts of Teesdale are the only part of the (mainland?) country that has a climate classification of sub-artic which says all you need to know.

Rush hour traffic!

My driving instructor used to always tell me to imagine driving around corners as if the road was blocked by something unexpected such a sheep.  I used to say where I used to go, I always expected sheep like these who appeared around a sharp bend in the road…. here being moved to slightly lower slopes for the winter.

When this happens there is nothing to do but switch off your engine and let them pass in their own time. Fortunately sheep aren’t very aggressive or even particularly bright creatures and they never seem to damage the car and squeeze last you as if you’d been there all along.

Click here to see my 2015 post with the moors in sunshine and a rare dose of hot weather.

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To be on Tenterhooks in Spitalfields

Have you ever heard of the phrase “on tenterhooks”?  It has come to mean being in a state of tension, uneasiness, anxiety, or suspense, and that is because tenterhooks were once very common sights indeed.  Tenterhooks aren’t the big hooks you might see in a meat market or butches but are instead related to the cloth trade.

After a piece of cloth was woven, it still contained oil and dirt from the fleece. A craftsman called a fuller (also called a tucker) cleaned the woollen cloth in a fulling mill, and then had to dry it carefully, to prevent the woollen fabric from shrinking.

To prevent this shrinkage, the fuller would place the wet cloth on a large wooden frame, called a tenter (from Latin tendere, meaning ‘to stretch’), and leave it to dry outdoors.


The lengths of wet cloth were stretched on the tenter using tenterhooks (hooked nails whose long shank was driven into the wood) all around the perimeter of the frame to which the cloth’s edges (selvedges) were fixed, so that as it dried the cloth would retain its shape and size.


Perhaps the final remaining 18th century tenters at a location in Northumberland

Just as today it is common sight to see fields full of solar panels, a century or two ago there would be tentergrounds (or teneter-fields), large open spaces full of tenters, wherever cloth was made, and as a result the word “tenter” is found in place names throughout the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations.


I was reminded of this a little while ago actually on the day I went to see the Aldgate Pump of Death and I found some modern art which I think illustrates two sides of Spitalfields (Whitechapel).

The material itself is of a type and colour that you might find in a sari which demonstrates the multicultural nature of the neighbourhood.  However, having it running down the alleys albeit in a very loose fashion makes me think it is also remembering the history of cloth making and tenterhooks for which it was once famous.


All that affords me the chance to promote my book Straight From The Horses Mouth 🙂 for some of the most famous and fun idioms in the English language.



Straight From The Horse’s Mouth is available from the UK in Kindle format from Amazon here and paperback format here.      American Amazon readers can squirm their way through the book in Kindle format here and in paperback format here.   As well as being available through Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Nook, you can also get in on the action on your favourite Apple product by purchasing the book on iBooks by clicking below!

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