There is a sinister pathway that winds its sombre way across the northern wastes of Dartmoor, it is known as the ‘Way of the Dead’, the ‘Corpse Way‘, or the Lych Way. Its roots are firmly set deep in the days when every person on the moor was expected to attend their church for services and burials. That may not seem any different to the rest of the country in medieval times, except for some of them it involved a trudge of about 12 miles and in bad weather this would increase to roughly 17 miles.
In the 1200’s colonisation of Dartmoor started by the founding of the Ancient Tenements which was mainly along the West and East Dart valleys and their tributaries. These early farmsteads were in effect freeholds and providing the King’s hunting was not ‘hindered’ there was no problem. The map below shows the sites of the tenements.
So what have these early farms to do with the Lych Way? Simply that it was the inhabitants from many of these tenements that were expected to travel to Lydford to bury their dead and attend services. Why, because the tenements were within the bounds of the Forest of Dartmoor and therefore were in the parish of Lydford, which was where the parish church was located. In 1260 the tenement dwellers became fed up with this onerous journey and so partitioned the Bishop of Exeter, Walter Bronescombe, for permission to attend the church at Widecombe which was a lot closer. The bishop duly granted their request which one would have thought would have seen the demise of the Lych Way. However, this was not the case as the people were still expected to attend the Forest and Stannary courts that were held at Lydford and this continued until the demise of the courts in the 1800’s. In addition, in the 15th and 16th centuries the new farms that developed in the south of the area were not given dispensation to use Widecombe church so they still had to trudge across the moor. The map below shows the route of the Lych Way:
One really atmospheric way of walking the Lych Way is to do it on a summer’s night and as the night slowly draws its mantle of darkness over the moor you can easily imagine the slow creaking noise of an old cart as it trundles the corpse to Lydford church. In parts, especially the section from Conies Down to Sandy Ford the sunken holloway can be discerned with wheel ruts still visible. The aerial photograph below shows the section of the path from Travellers Ford to Sandy Ford and clearly shows the track winding across between the two valleys of the Cowsic and the Spriddle Lake where it went on to Coffin Wood.
At one time on a large boulder above Traveller’s Ford there was a small brass cross whose purpose was unknown but it may have been a modern memorial to mark the Lych Way path below. As you can imagine there is/was a plethora of letterboxes to be found along the Lych Way, most of them depicting coffins, skeletons and other such morbid subjects, as show in one of my favourites below
One would have thought that with the nature of the Lych Way there would be scores of tales of ghosts and hauntings but surprisingly enough there is but one tale about ghostly funeral processions and monks.
I have recently received an email from Steve who sent me a YouTube link for a group called ‘Show of Hands’ singing their song; The Lych Way. You can see a live version of the song – HERE and their website – HERE