Last updated on September 3rd, 2023 at 10:49 pm
We set off with friends David and Cecile (and Hamish the dog) to visit Swaledale’s corpse trail. It is one of their favourite walks and the views are terrific. You may know of Yorkshire’s Swaledale, but I suppose I had better explain what a corpse trail is: so here goes. Once upon a very long ago time, remote and scattered communities often had no convenient consecrated burial ground. A corpse way, corpse road, coffin lane, lych way – they have a variety of names – is a very old track along which they carried their dead to a final resting place, often some distance away. These pathways can still be found, although, unrecorded or forgotten, they are not always obvious. However, some are well known. I was aware of at least one in Dartmoor, there are a couple in the Lake District, the Highlands – and the one in Swaledale used to run from Keld to Grinton, a distance of some 12 miles, before St Mary’s church was built in Muker in 1580.
Of course, there are stories and superstitions associated with corpse roads. The routes can be indirect and isolated, for very good reasons. People were naturally wary of transporting bodies along tracks the deceased knew in life, lest their freed spirits find their way back home, to linger amongst familiar places, and people. A corpse way might also twist and turn. This was intentional, to confuse ghosts that may prefer to travel in straight lines. It is perfectly understandable to feel something as you tread the last journey taken by the departed, all those years ago. A profound sense of sadness and melancholy, perhaps? Anger? Regret? Did you hear a whisper – or was it just the breeze rustling through the grass? A child’s cry – or the evocative call of a curlew? You might even encounter wraiths – especially on bleak days when the light is low. But be mistrustful of corpse lights bobbing ahead or around as you walk. They may be malevolent will o’ the wisps that lead unsuspecting travellers to danger; or they may merely be lost souls trying – so very hard – to find their way.
One feature of corpse roads is the coffin stone, a flat(ish) slab where tired cadaver-carriers might rest their burden along the way. Actually, I can’t help wondering how many families would have been able to afford the luxury of a coffin. It would have been a tough gig in any case, especially in bad weather. And the weather in the Yorkshire Dales can be as bad as bad can be in any part of England. There was no coffin stone along the section of corpse road we took, but there is one farther east along the trail, at Ivelet Bridge. Yet another oddity added to the list of things I want to see before I die.
Anyway, that’s a bit about corpse trails. Swaledale is always worth revisiting and the journey there, by way of Buttertubs, is spectacular, if sometimes treacherous in winter. It was a luxury not to be driving for a change and have a chance to take in the sweeping scenery. Yorkshire in late May 2023 was looking its very best. The May blossom was particularly prolific. Did you know that in medieval times the smell of hawthorn reminded people of the plague, because it is so foul? You do now. Go and sniff some immediately – I’m just going to. Apparently, the flowers produce the chemical trimethylamine, which is one the first chemicals released in decaying animal tissue. Inexplicably, some people consider it unlucky to bring hawthorn into the house.
The artery of Swaledale is the River Swale, one of the fastest rising flood rivers in England, with its source in the fells north of the village of Keld. It then flows generally east, its waters eventually joining the Humber estuary via the rivers Ure and Ouse. The valley of the Swale, Swaledale, is a treat – a patchwork of irregular fields stitched with drystone walls and speckled with stone barns preserved in various stages of decay. It is all so very Yorkshire. Now then. A Bit About Britain has walked there before, and you can read a bit about that, as well as the history, at Swaledale ‘twixt Muker and Keld. One sight I had not experienced, but was looking forward to, was the traditional hay meadows in full bloom with wild flowers. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Britain lost some 97% of its hay meadows, with a hideous impact on biodiversity. I gather that trend has not been reversed.
David and Cecile (and Hamish) took us from Muker up Kisdon Fell, a hill isolated by glaciation from the surrounding high ground, bounded by Swaledale to its east and the valley of the beck, or stream, that trickles through it on the west – Skeb Skeugh. Most of the names in these parts have Norse origins. The route took us along the corpse way, albeit against the traffic that would have come in the opposite direction, from Keld. I heard wheezing – from me, not some ghostly funeral party. It was worth it for the views, sublime in the warmth and light of a late spring day; but, oh my word, it would be bleak in winter.
We came upon an unusual piece of dressed stone that had been set into one of the dry walls. It was inscribed:
“Neil W. Jones aged 40 died here 29 March 2005
A beautiful place
A wonderful man”.
This touching memorial immortalises a day when Neil, on holiday and out for a walk and picnic with his wife Laura, had a heart attack. You can read a bit more about it here.
Hamish was having a lovely time, tail wagging furiously, happily inspecting every rabbit hole. Skirting Keld, David semi-confidently led us off piste over bouncing, tussock-spattered, pathless fields, finally crossing the Swale by Kisdon Force. Here, we settled down on the stones to enjoy our own picnic. (Yes, it was very nice, thank you.) I resisted the temptation to advise the large shirtless guy posing by the falls to follow my example and cover his tummy, but he seemed happy. Perhaps he is contemplating a career on Instagram.
Afterwards, we set off along the dale back to Muker, taking a necessary detour to visit the evocative abandoned ruins of Crackpot Hall – previously mentioned here.
Muker’s meadows were a spectacular, a privilege to see. They simply ooze happy summers and you want to bury your head in them. However, there were fewer insects – including bees – than I expected. Is it already too late for our wildlife? Presumably, if it were economically advantageous to restore traditional meadows, it would happen in a heartbeat. I do wonder, as I get older, not whether mankind will destroy itself, but how: war, famine, pestilence, pollution, AI? Meanwhile, the headlines feature not even joyous news stories, but the latest celebrity crisis, or political malfeasance. We are so lucky to be able to enjoy places like Swaledale, in peace and freedom, while we can.
The walk can be found on the Yorkshire Dales website and I can recommend an ice cream in Muker afterwards.
The writer Icy Sedgwick has something to say about corpse roads. You’ll find her on Twitter, too.