“Now it is the time of night,
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide.”
Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As Halloween approaches what better time to reflect on Dartmoor’s corpse roads and the superstitions that are firmly attached to them. There are several names that describe roads and tracks along which the dead were carried to their final resting places; corpse roads/ways, lych ways/paths, coffin road, spirit roads and more descriptive the church paths/roads. These routes can normally be found running from remote settlements to their associated mother church. Timewise many of these corpse roads date back to Medieval times however it could be argued that the concept of carry the dead along specific routes dates back to prehistoric times as suggested by the many stone rows and avenues that can be found, especially on Dartmoor
In the case of Dartmoor the Lych Way is probably the most famous of corpse roads and is closely followed by its later replacement, the Widecombe Church Way. Both routes connected the remote moorland settlements better known as the ancient tenements to their respective mother churches. As with all upland areas the corpse roads transversed some rough and rugged terrain often over great distances. In the case of Dartmoor’s Lych Way the distance would have been around twelve miles in good weather but this would have been extended to some seventeen miles during times of storm and tempest.
It is therefore no surprise that as these routes carried the dead numerous superstitions and ghostly hauntings should be attached to them. Probably the most common is that the dead would travel from their graves along the corpse road to their previous ‘earthly homes’. In effect these routes could be considered as ‘flight paths’ for the spirits which would always use the exact path each time they went on ‘glide about’. As you can imagine, on the eve of Halloween the corpse roads resemble/ed the M25 on a Friday evening with all the deceased trying to make their way home. Therefore for many people it was once (and in some cases still is) believed that after dark these corpse roads were to be avoided at all costs. The other important factor was that in no way should the route be obstructed in fear of a spirit being unable to freely travel. Should this happen then the dire consequence was that the soul of the departed would be stranded and unable to return to its place of eternal rest. It was also considered an invitation for supernatural activity should a field ever be ploughed over which a corpse road ran.
Great pains were once taken to ensure that once the deceased had been taken on it’s final journey along the ‘glory road’ that the spirit should be prevented from returning home. To ensure that the ghost of ‘Aunt Mabel’ never paid an unwelcome visit many of the corpse roads were deliberately routed over streams and rivers due the the belief that spirits cannot cross flowing water. Dartmoor’s Lych Way demonstrates this admirably as it crosses between eight and nine (depending on which route is taken) main water courses. Other measures once taken were aimed at confusing the spirit, one way of accomplishing this would be to carry the corpse with its feet pointing away from the home. This would ensure that should the spirit ever wish to haunt its old home it could not recognise the return route. Another theory was that on reaching the graveyard the corpse must be carried sunwise around a cross three times, again to confuse the spirit as to which way was home. This was once a firmly held belief at Manaton where the corpses were carried around its granite cross in such a manner. If the route of a corpse road passed through a crossroads then once again this would prevent any returning spirit with a confusion of directions.
It is not only the souls of the departed that are said to journey along the old corpse roads, on occasions other unearthly entities such as spectral animals such as the Wisht Hounds, piskies and Satan are reputed to use them. With regards to the famous folk song and tradition of Uncle Tom Cobley and his Grey Mare, there is one theory that the roots of this tale lie in the spectral grey horse haunting a corpse road. There is no shortage of ghostly apparitions appearing along Dartmoor’s corpse ways with sightings of supernatural funeral processions, lost souls haunting certain places, spectral dogs and other animals and not to mention encounters with the lord of darkness himself. Another apparition that is sometimes seen wafting down the corpse road are Corpse Candles, these are the spectral lights that were supposed to visit houses where somebody was about to meet their maker. Their journey would begin from the churchyard where relatives of the dying were buried, travel to their home and return to the grave along the route on which the coffin was to be carried.
Although the majority of corpse roads now lie deserted it is still possible to find tell-tale remnants of their existence. As many of these roads transversed rough moorland terrain there was always the need for those carrying the coffin to take the occasional rests, especially during a steep ascent. It was essential that there was a convenient rock or boulder on which to rest the coffin, especially if the ground was wet or covered in snow. Over time these routes would have been used on a regular basis and so such resting places became commonplace stop-overs. Probably the most famous example of such a place on Dartmoor is the Coffin Stone which still sits along the old Widecombe Church Way.
Old place and field names often reveal clues as to the existence of corpse roads, such Dartmoor examples being; the Coffin Mill, Coffin Stone, Coffin Wood, Church Ford, Church Lane, Church Path, Church Way Field, Corpse Lane, and possibly Deadman’s Corner.