The more I visit the Lake District, the more I discover new favourite walks to add to my ever growing list of much favoured destinations. When I had only been a few times, I made sure that on every visit I did a new one as well as my firm favourites. But now after 12 trips, my list is so long that even staying a week doesn’t allow me the time to do everything I want to.
History of Corpse Road
My latest visit in February half-term took me along Corpse Road or Coffin Road as it is also known from Grasmere to Rydal Water. This has been on my list for the last year and after a rainy start, the day brightened just as we left Dove Cottage so it seemed an ideal time to venture forth and follow the route the coffins, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy would have done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Once upon a time Coffin Roads could be found all over the country but over time, some have grown over, some have disappeared and been built on, others have changed names. For example if you find a Kirkfield Way, Bier Road, Burial Road, Coffin Lane, Lyre Way, Lych Way or Procession Way then chances are you’re on an old coffin route. But despite the disappearance of many, some do still exist. People had to be buried in consecrated ground. As the population expanded new chapels and churches were built, but not all had consecrated ground and so therefore burials would need to take place in the Mother Church, often 30 or 40 miles away. This often meant very long, hard walks especially in winter for the coffin bearers and the families of the deceased.
Coffin Road starts along the road just past Dove Cottage and twists and turns above the village with views over the road which skirts the waters edge from Grasmere to Ambleside. On a fine summers day, the path is peaceful and winds its way past cottages and fields, bubbling water, over bridges, through picturesque woodland until you descend down the lane beside Wordsworth’s final house at Rydal Mount. But view this path on a darker, stormy night or on a grey, hard winters day with the winds whipping round the trees and the rain lashing at your face then you might feel the presence of the spirits that haunt this very road.
The coffins came this way on the journey to St Oswalds Church in Grasmere and it was a route often walk by William and Dorothy. They met an old man gathering leeches along the way who featured in one of Williams poems, Resolution and Indepedence. The dead were feared and so were Corpse Roads. Ancient folklore from the medieval times was ingrained in peoples minds. Old superstitions meant that people believed that any road which a corpse was carried over became a public right of way. One of the reasons land owners were not happy if a coffin passed over their land – not simply because of the spirits that might haunt them but also for fear that they would be engulfed by hundreds of people! These old pathways were handed down from generation to generation.
Corpses had to be carried unless they were from a particularly wealthy family, and they could not be put on the ground. Therefore Coffin stones were placed along the route – large boulders which could be used to rest the coffins on. A few survive and at the start of the walk as you start to climb up the hill after passing the barn on your right and the road to White Moss, you will see a large coffin stone by the side of the road.
Superstition about the dead and their spirits was very important and people believed that their deceased would try to find their way home, so measures were taken to prevent this. Bodies were removed from houses feet first and the coffin was also carried in this way, away from the house. The roads followed winding paths, with plenty of twists and turns to confuse the spirits. They were said to be able to fly along a direct route so every effort was made to ensure the safety and protection of the living. But the living also didn’t want the dead wandering the land as lost souls so it was also to help them pass on to the after life. They often went through marshy or boggy ground, through running water, and betwixt and between locations such as going over bridges, stiles and stepping stones. This coffin walk enjoys all of these features.
Start at Dove Cottage and with the house on your left follow the road up the hill, past the cottages and fields on your right.
When you reach a junction with an old stone barn and house on your right, continue to follow the road up the steep hill and pass the coffin stone. Take a moment to look at the beautiful stone barn, the trees in the field and the view behind you.When you reach the top of the hill there is a wooden bench on your left which is a nice little spot to catch your breath and have a drink and you will be glad that the road now levels out straight ahead of you.
On either side of you is water and before you reach the cottages, the water on the left is Where William and Dorothy are said to have met the Leech gatherer who became the inspiration for the poem Resolution and independence.
After you pass the beautiful old cottages on your left, you leave behind the village and find yourself in the peaceful rolling countryside.
As you walk down this path, you will soon hear the thunder of bubbling water as it crashes down the hillside and over rocks. This is a great little spot for a rest or a picnic.
Then continue along the path, with the waterfalls on your left, when you reach Brockstone Cottage on your left, follow the path down to the right and just keep going straight ahead through a gate. This walk offers so many moods – from open views towards Rydal Water, to tree covered rocky paths twisting up the fell side, steep rocky paths which navigate century old tree routes that have pushed the rocks up at angles to challenge the walker to quiet country footpaths.
When the path opens up, you go through a gate and over a small slate bridge into a field (be sure to close the gate!) and to your right there are views over Rydal Water and Loughrigg Fell. The path remains in open fields for sometime, until you come to another gate and you begin the descent down towards Rydal Mount. You will come to cottages either side of the footpath, bare right at the end and this leads you down the hill with Rydal Mount of your right and Rydal Hall on your left. Rydal Mount is well worth a visit.
If you want to continue your walk then follow the road to the bottom of the hill. The church is on your right.
If you turn right along the A591, this will take you back along the road towards Grasmere. If you’re visiting in Spring be sure to make a stop at Doras Field – there is a wooden gate from the main road. Wordsworth’s daughter Dora, died in 1847 and in memory of her he planted hundreds of daffodils on this land – it is quite a spectacle every year. A brief stop at the Badger Bar for a drink or lunch will set you up for the walk back. Be sure to check out the dining room which send you back into Jacobean England and also don’t leave without visiting the toilets and seeing the sinks built into the rocks – why let a giant rock stop you building what you want much to the amusement of my 4 year old. A really lovely quaint old pub with roaring fires and real ales.
Then continue along the road with Rydal Water on your left and eventually you will reach Grasmere.
The walk from Grasmere to Rydal took us about 2.5 hours, but we stopped A LOT for photographs and to play and to admire the views and the path could be walked much quicker. This walk is suitable for families and is not too arduous and there are tranquil stops along the way to sit and just breath and take stock of your surroundings.
This is a history haunted walk – you can almost feel the presence of the spirits even on a sunny day and although at times is hard to imagine what this path was once used for, when you reach mossy overhanging trees, or the wind whistles through the branches, something digs in your ribs and makes you think of those times and those families that walked slowly behind their loved ones.
‘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’
Puck – Midsummer Nights Dream – William Shakespeare