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Britain's Corpse Roads

Updated on May 18, 2016
Eskdale and Wasdale drovers road and the old corpse road
Eskdale and Wasdale drovers road and the old corpse road | Source

Corpse roads

Corpse roads are just that - a route for transporting the dead to their place of burial. Although there were many small churches dotted about the land, they were usually affiliated to a 'mother' church. It was only these 'mother' churches that held the rights to bury the dead.

Over the centuries the same routes became the regular way for the funeral procession to use and so they became known as corpse roads. Many of these roads were found in rural areas and so travelling along them with a coffin was often a very difficult task - especially in severe winter weather.

There are other names for these roads depending on which part of the country you are in. For example 'coffin road', 'coffin line', 'lyke way', 'lych way'. A number of old churches in England still have original wooden 'lych gates' leading into the church grounds and the old meaning of 'lych' was corpse.

In addition, there are still examples of 'coffin stones' that can be seen on some of the old corpse roads. These stones were used for putting the coffin down while the carriers rested. These stones were vital due to the fact that unless a person was rich and transport was used, poor people had to rely on family and friends to carry their loved one to the cemetery.

Over hundreds of years these roads have inspired legends and folklore about strange creatures and of course ghosts.

A Lych gate. This was where the coffin would pass through on its way to the cemetery. The stones in the middle of this one, was for the coffin to be rested while prayers were said.
A Lych gate. This was where the coffin would pass through on its way to the cemetery. The stones in the middle of this one, was for the coffin to be rested while prayers were said. | Source
A corpse road still in use today. This is Rydal Water in Cumbria, Northern England.
A corpse road still in use today. This is Rydal Water in Cumbria, Northern England. | Source
Coffin Stone - these were placed along corpse roads in order for a coffin to be put down to give the carriers a rest.
Coffin Stone - these were placed along corpse roads in order for a coffin to be put down to give the carriers a rest. | Source

Legends and folklore

It has long been believed that spirits, fairies and other supernatural entities travel the earth along specified pathways. In order for them to travel freely the pathways have to be straight - similar to energy or ley lines. In fact some of the corpse roads were called 'ley roads'.

It was usual for these roads to be left clear and homes were never usually built too close to them. It was also believed that fields that had a corpse road running through them would never get crops to grow.

Further beliefs involved preventing the dead from returning to their homes. For example, the coffin would usually be taken feet first, so symbolising the dead walking away from home rather than towards it. In addition, it was widely accepted that spirits could not cross running water. Therefore, the route the corpse road took frequently involved crossing bridges or river stepping stones.

People were also very nervous if a corpse road intersected with cross roads. The area where roads meet already had numerous superstitions and it was widely believed that cross roads were the place where the underworld and physical world met. Adding to the fear was the belief that the devil frequently made appearances at cross roads.

If for some reason the corpse road couldn't be used to carry the deceased, this was deemed to be a bad omen. In centuries past there was nothing that caused greater alarm than the spirits of the dead coming back to haunt family and friends. If the corpse road wasn't or couldn't be used, it was believed that this would enable the spirit of the dead person to return to their home more easily.

Blackdog Hill, Ditchling and Westmeston, East Sussex.
Blackdog Hill, Ditchling and Westmeston, East Sussex. | Source
Appearances of wraiths or spirits were allegedly common along Britain's corpse roads
Appearances of wraiths or spirits were allegedly common along Britain's corpse roads | Source
A markerblackdog hill east sussex england -
Black Dog Walk, Crawley, West Sussex RH10 8HL, UK
get directions

Ghosts of the corpse roads

In addition to the superstitions about corpse roads, there are also many accounts of strange things being witnessed along these routes or very near to them. Many stories also tell of horrible ghouls and wailing wraiths stalking the living who dare to venture onto the corpse roads at night.

Corpse candles are one of the main phenomena people are said to encounter. These are either blue or white light formations that take on various shapes. Most are thought to be either owls or other natural phenomena such as gases. However, many people believed that these lights were the spirits of the dead and seeing one often meant another death was imminent. In addition, some of the accounts recorded stated that these lights had a 'human' shape. Again whether this is due to nighttime conditions and/or suggestion is open for debate.

It was also believed that these corpse lights or corpse candles travelled along the corpse road to a house where a person was dying, it would return by the same route back to the cemetery and go into the ground where the burial would take place. These 'spirit' lights were thought to be evil, appearing at night to lead people into dangerous areas never to return. Yet others believed these lights were the souls of unbaptised children.

One area that has a different kind of phenomena is Blackdog Hill, East Sussex, England. This is an area with an old corpse road that may have ran from Ditchling to St. Martin's Church in Westmeston. The legend here is that the ghosts of black dogs are said to protect the corpse road. One phantom dog in particular that is reported to be headless, haunts both the road and surrounding area.

One corpse road in Wasdale,Cumbria in northern England has a very creepy ghost story. The apparition is a woman tied to a horse. The story related to this spirit states that this woman's son had died but as his body was being transferred along the corpse road the horse bolted and was lost. The woman never recovered and she herself died. While her body was being transported, it is said that this horse also bolted into a snowstorm and was never recovered. Her son's body was eventually found and given burial, but his mother is said to still haunt the corpse road looking for him.

I hope you've enjoyed this tour of the corpse roads and their history. If anyone has any stories they would like to share then let us know in the comments section.

A markerwasdale cumbria england -
Wasdale, Cumbria, UK
get directions

© 2013 Helen Murphy Howell

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  • Buck Remington profile image

    Jon Peloquin 2 years ago

    This was a very interesting piece and full of information

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    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Shanmarie7, many apologies for taking so long to respond, I haven't been around Hub Pages for a couple of months or so but glad you enjoyed the hub!

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    shanmarie 3 years ago

    This was very interesting to read. I've never heard of such roads, but thanks for the introduction.

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Haysenyuan, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub!

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    Haysenyuan 4 years ago

    LOL , Awesome road and story , Thanks for your photos and sharing !

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Graham, how are things with you?

    Lovely to hear from you as always and glad you enjoyed the hub. I really loved doing this hub and when you look at the way people had to live - and died - way back then its not surprising that so many mysterious beliefs surrounded everything in their life and especially on their death! Yes, it's discomforting and gives the jitters and fascinating as well!

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Mel Carriere, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub - and that's great to know you got through the whole hub. It's never easy reading on line!

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    Graham Lee 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

    Hi Helen. Fascinating to say the least. A really well researched and presented hub. It gives the reader a feeling of discomfort, fear, the jitters call it what you will. Yes, you certainly make an impression with this one Helen. Well done.

    Graham.

    voted up and all.

    Graham.

  • Mel Carriere profile image

    Mel Carriere 4 years ago from San Diego California

    Very creepy, but riveting hub. I have never heard about corpse roads before. It sounds like the perfect setting for a horror novel. I hope you are writing one surrounding this interesting subject. Great hub! Rarely do I read one all the way through, but this one grabbed me!

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi ChitrangadaSharan, lovely to hear from you as always and glad that you enjoyed the hub!

    Yes, the beliefs about these corpse roads were very mysterious and I wonder how much of it was due to fear and even older legends being passed down through the families!

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Kitty! Lovely to hear from you and I hope things are going well for you!!

    Glad you enjoyed the hub and yes these spirit lights do have so many names and various legends associated with them. I'm sure most of the stories are nothing more than natural phenomena, perhaps seen in unusual conditions. However, there are stories that are a bit more in depth and do make you think that some of these 'lights' at least might be more than they seem to be!

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Many thanks for all the interesting and lovely comments - it's gratefully appreciated!

    The Dirt Farmer

    Mark Johann

    Denizee

    mollymeadows - that's an interesting observation about Tolkien, I hadn't thought about that!

    Phyllis Doyle

    truthfornow

    jenslibra

    Tom Schumacher - LOL! Sorry about freaking you out! I also agree, what great stories to tell around a fire in winter or around the campfire!

  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 4 years ago from New Delhi, India

    Congratulations for a well deserved, HOTD!

    I must say I got totally involved going through your hub, as if I am seeing it LIVE.

    Very interesting and mysterious---thanks for sharing!

  • Tom Schumacher profile image

    Tom Schumacher 4 years ago from Huntington Beach, CA

    Although interesting subject matter, having read this hub late at night in my darkened office I must admit freaked me out a little bit. This is the kind of story you read to a bunch of friends when huddled around a crackling campfire in the cast of an eerie moonless night making note a “ley road” is just 20 yards away and between us and a flowing waterway. Voted up for fun and interesting!

  • jenslibra profile image

    jenslibra 4 years ago

    I've never heard of the corpse roads before and I appreciate your unique topic. Britain is one of my top places to visit in the future and I'll have to keep these destinations in mind.

  • truthfornow profile image

    truthfornow 4 years ago from New Orleans, LA

    Interesting to read this history. I had never heard of these roads before and enjoyed learning something new. I think I will be avoiding the corpse roads for a while and especially that lych gate. Creepy but great pictures.

  • Phyllis Doyle profile image

    Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

    Very interesting hub and I love the photos. I really enjoyed reading and learning about the corpse roads. Old customs, superstitions, paranormal and spirits of the other world are always favorite subjects of mine. A hearty congratulations for the HOTD award. Well done!

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    Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from the Ether

    AP! AWESOME MAN! Congrats on Hub of the Day. I have to tell you, I have NEVER heard of these legends but wow...this is the most interesting hub I have read in a very long time. Seriously. Also, the corpse candles that you're talking about are also called will 'o the wisps or willow wisps in other legends, and it seems to me they are all the same phenomenon. This phenomenon is also referred to as the American spooklight in our neck of the woods! Very interesting...I'm going to have to look more into these corpse roads. Rock on!

  • mollymeadows profile image

    Mary Strain 4 years ago from The Shire

    This is fascinating stuff. I love learning about old legends and tales. When I first read it, it reminded me of some of the things Tolkien wrote in the Lord of the Rings, and I'm sure he was mining the same old legends --wraiths, corpse lights over a swamp, and ghosts haunting an old burial ground (his "barrow wights.') Up and interesting!

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    Denizee 4 years ago

    Nice piece of writing and so interesting. My father was in the U.S. Army and I lived in Germany for 4 yrs as a child - After I married young my husband joined the Army and I was back in Germany @ the age of 20. We lived in a very small German town that did this exact same thing. The town would close the day of the funeral and everyone road in procession to bury one of their own. Your words put together a very clear read and I felt like I was there witnessing the same again. Kudos on the beautiful photos as well - Voted up!

  • Mark Johann profile image

    Mark Johann 4 years ago from Italy

    I am thinking of a certain phenomenon about St. Elmo's Fire which can been seen like those mentioned in your hub. It is a colorful fire that changes color.

    Your story is creepy and my hair is standing. The information is funny these days but still I believe they exist.

  • The Dirt Farmer profile image

    Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

    Very interesting hub! Enjoyed it tremendously. Congrats on HOTD.

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Many thanks to all of you who have lefts such nice comments and glad you enjoyed the hub. Thank you to:

    Silver Fish

    C. M. Hoisington

    AnnaStephens

    CZCZCZ

    DreamerMeg

    passion4pen

    oldrick

    FlourishAnyway

    cohoyo1

    thumbi7

    ChristinS

    Paradise7 - no mistake my spell checker's on the blink!!!

    KSMcClintock

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    KevinStantonMcClintockMACantab 4 years ago from Stevenage, Herts, UK

    A map would be handy.

  • Paradise7 profile image

    Paradise7 4 years ago from Upstate New York

    Fascinating! Wonderful stories from a time removed from our own. One little thing, I wonder if the word "burial" is spelled differently for a particular reason?

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    Christin Sander 4 years ago from Midwest

    Just saw this was HOTD today - It is definitely deserving so wanted to stop in and say Congrats :)

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    JR Krishna 4 years ago from India

    Very interesting though the lych gate and the stone look creepy.

    Enjoyed reading the hub. Voted up.

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    Candace Nadine Breen 4 years ago from Barrington, Rhode Island

    Awesome!

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

    Entertaining, informative and unusual hub. I truly enjoyed reading this. Voted up and more.

  • oldrick profile image

    Richard Ingate 4 years ago from UK

    Very interesting hub, I had no idea about this. Thank you.

  • passion4pen profile image

    passion4pen 4 years ago from delhi

    Very interesting! I was told about these roads when I was in London - but I thought it was just a rumour! Fascinating to know it's a reality

  • DreamerMeg profile image

    DreamerMeg 4 years ago from Northern Ireland

    Fantastic hub. While I have heard of and seen Lych gates, I never knew about the corpse roads. Having said that, some of the country roads I have seen would probably qualify as corpse roads! Voted up and sharing because some people I know will also be interested.

  • CZCZCZ profile image

    CZCZCZ 4 years ago from Oregon

    This was something I was unaware of. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this hub I always look forward to reading new and interesting hubs such as this.

  • profile image

    AnnaStephens 4 years ago

    Very interesting - I'd never heard of corpse roads before, but they're certainly fuel for the imagination.

  • C. M. Hoisington profile image

    C. M. Hoisington 4 years ago

    Good content, very interesting. I'm curious to hear more of the ghost stories. Fun.

  • Silver Fish profile image

    Silver Fish 4 years ago from Edinburgh Scotland

    Fascinating- well done for Hub of the day. Voted up.

  • Seeker7 profile image
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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi sallybea,

    Many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such an interesting comment. Footsteps are of course one of the classic signs in haunting cases. Most are usually residual energy.

  • sallybea profile image

    Sally Gulbrandsen 4 years ago from Norfolk

    Very interesting Hub. I have always been interested in the paranormal. I grew up in a very old house where I would often hear footsteps walking down the passageway. My poor father would often be called by either me or one of my anxious siblings.

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Eddy, many thanks for stopping by and hope you're enjoying our nice summer weather!

    Glad you enjoyed the hub and I have to say that your beautiful country of Wales was an inspiration for this hub as well!

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Elias Zanetti, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Yes, it is amazing that in the 21st century, many folklore beliefs and superstions are still very much alive.

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Alicia, lovely to hear from you as always and glad you enjoyed the hub.

    Yes, the lych gate was actually a new one for me and had no idea that they were a gateway for the body to be taken through and rested. I think that's what I love about writing - I'm sure your the same - there is always something new to learn!

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Mel, many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such a lovely and interesting comment.

    I agree about people in the past being closer to death. I remember my Gran telling me about how the women in the mining villages when any of the menfolk died down the pit, it was the women who prepared the body for the coffin. The only time the undertaker was used was when the coffin was needed. And yes, haven't times changed beyond recognition, but also in such a short period of time. For much of this history, it was still going on not even 100 years ago!

  • Seeker7 profile image
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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Pearl, lovely to hear from you, hope things are well with you!

    To be honest I had heard of corpse candles and I may have heard about corpse roads but this was many years ago and I had forgotten about them. I was looking for photographs on Wikimedia for another hub and came across one that described this corpse road in the north of England so I had to follow this up. It was very interesting for me writing this hub and so I'm really glad that you did enjoy it - and yes I found it spooky as well!

    I think the ghost lights are probably natural formations. Having said that, there are a number of accounts where people maintain that the lights were human in shape, so that is interesting. Also the 'natural' explantion doesn't account for the black dog ghosts either.

    Many thanks to for the vote up and the pin - it really is appreciated!!

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi AlexK2009, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub!

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Tom, as always lovely to hear from you! Glad that you enjoyed the hub and I have to say I really had great fun working on this one. I'm like you I love history as well as all the old beliefs that people had!

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Kim, many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such a lovely comment! Makes all the work worthwhile!

  • Eiddwen profile image

    Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

    A wonderful read and amazing images too. Voting up and wishing you a great day seeker7.

    Eddy.

  • Elias Zanetti profile image

    Elias Zanetti 4 years ago from Athens, Greece

    A very interesting hub! It is amazing how century old folklore still survives in modern times. Enjoyed the read!

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

    This is a very interesting article, Helen. I'm familiar with the term "lych gate", but I didn't know its significance before reading your hub. I appreciate all your knowledge about the paranormal and history and the great stories that you share!

  • Mel Jay profile image

    Mel Jay 4 years ago from Australia

    What a great hub :) - what is really highlighted for me in your excellent work is that in the old days the living were a lot closer to the dead and the processes around dying than we are in modern Western society. Back then mortality rates were high and most families lost loves ones, especially babies, often. They had to do their own washing, coffining and burying to a certain degree and so they had systems set up for this, such as the coffin roads. It shows me that the older times were a whole different world with a whole different viewpoint. Great reading, up and interesting from me, Cheers, Mel

  • grandmapearl profile image

    Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

    Seeker, I never heard of corpse roads before! What an amazing hub; very informative and spooky--I loved it! There are so many superstitions and beliefs that seem to spring up around anything to do with death. And those ghost lights--are they natural phenomena, or emanations from another dimension that momentarily slip in to our own dimension?

    There's so much we don't know, isn't there!

    Voted this awesome hub Up+++ and pinned. Very good stuff ;) Pearl

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    AlexK2009 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

    very interesting, especially the link to crossroads.

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    Thomas Silvia 4 years ago from Massachusetts

    Hi my friend, very interesting and informative article . I love reading this kind of stuff and this article is so awesome and very well done and researched as well.

    Vote up and more !!!

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    இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу 4 years ago from Niagara Region, Canada

    You always have such interesting hubs and I enjoy reading them all. Always a pleasure Helen!

    Best wishes

    Kim

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay, LOL!! I didn't notice the ad at the bottom - if it works I'll need to try it! Would need to look it up online though, since clicking on ads is of course against the rules and I wouldn't want to lose my huge earnings of £0.02p a week from adsense!!

    Now that's an interesting point you've made about the lych gate - there are many wedding photos that show the bride and groom standing just outside or under the arch. I wonder if they realised what the lych gates were actually for? Many of the lych gates are very pretty and give a nice setting for a wedding photo, maybe newlyweds wouldn't be so keen if they knew the history? Or perhaps, going back to superstitions there might be a reason why married couples chose to go through the lych gate, but I'm like you, I can't see the link at all, but it might be worth trying to find out.

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    Helen Murphy Howell 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi ChristinS, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub. I have to say that old superstitions and folklore really interest me and yes, I find it amazing that in the 21st century many still survive.

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    Rosemary Sadler 4 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    Very interesting and spooky, I wonder how many of these roads I've walked along without realising they were corpse roads and how the atmosphere would seem to change if I had known. Lol

    The story of the woman tied to a horse is strange that the same thing happened to her as her son. Maybe one day her skeleton will be found and given a proper buriel so she can rest too.

    I am puzzled that 'lych' means corpse when weddings used to take place outside the lych gate before entering the church for mass, can't quite link the 2 events but there must be some original connection on enetering the church grounds.

    Excellent article Helen and I am so tempted to click on the ad at the bottom which says '5 veggies to kill stomach fat' Hee hee.

    Voting UP and more

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    Christin Sander 4 years ago from Midwest

    Totally awesome hub and such interesting history. I really enjoyed this hub. It's amazing some of the old superstitions that seem to still live on in various forms today.