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The Corpse Way

The tiny village of Keld in Swaledale, Yorkshire is the starting point for a fascinating journey along an ancient track which leads through rugged and wildly beautiful scenery to finish in the peaceful churchyard at Grinton, twelve miles further down the dale.

Keld itself was a Viking settlement, later to develop into an important centre of industry as the Swaledale lead mining industry flourished. But it has long since reverted to its more pastoral self. The village is a high huddle of grey stone cottages enveloped by green tumescent fells. A little distance from the village centre is the start of the old road bearing left off the modern one.

This is the most direct route to Muker, the next village and so on down the dale to Reeth, Grinton and ultimately Richmond. Locally it is called The Corpse Way because, from mediaeval times until the late 16th century the dead made their last journey along it, in wicker coffins, carried on sledges or by relatives to Grinton churchyard. However it was also probably the only road down the dale and used not only by funeral corteges but also by monks and foresters, packmen and pedlars, lead miners and all who had business in the dale.

From the modern road the track descends sharply to a small stream and then rises steeply and stonily up Kisdon or Kisdon Island as it was called in earlier days. This is an unusual hill shaped like a cottage loaf, where the river Swale tucks itself out of sight at the back and indulges in a series of spectacular foaming, roaring falls and cascades.

Our route leads right over the top of Kisdon however, and the stone under out feet soon yields to soft springy turf cropped by the renowned, curly-horned Swaledale ewes. They turn their heads and watch us with inscrutable blue eyes, as we huff and puff up the incline towards them. The Swaledale ewe is a long-woolled, exceptionally hardy breed. Apart from lambing time she is generally left on the moors and allotments to fossick and forage as best she can. She makes excellent use of her poor grazing and utilises what would otherwise be useless rough ground. She is one of the most important cornerstones in the hill farmers’ economy.

As we draw closer, the sheep scatter. We can walk easily now, absorbing the grandeur and beauty of Swaledale; square green fields sprinkled with the gold dust of buttercups; white stone barns in sheltered corners and miles upon miles of dry-stone walling – sometimes straight as a ruler, sometimes winding but all leading upwards to the horizon and the rolling fells beyond.

A little further forward and a great scar in the hillside is exposed. This is where the limestone for these old walls was quarried. Most of the walls belong to the period of field enclosures during the 16-19th centuries. At first, small enclosures were made, randomly, around villages resulting in the irregular, wiggly walled fields. However during the height of the Enclosure Acts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the common land could be enclosed, then the straight walled, rectangular fields were created. For a time the demand for wall stone was insatiable. Now, after years of disuse, nature is covering up the damage inflicted by man’s quarrying. Moss and lichens embed themselves in the fallen stone; grass creeps stealthily over the outcrops and here and there a young ash or birch sapling struggles in the stony soil.

By now we have arrived at Kisdon’s summit, some 1630 feet up and we can see Muker our next destination way down below us. The grassy track winds through narrow stone gateposts and past heaps of spoil, the last remains of the lead industry. As we stride out we feel as though we are on top of the world. Only a distant hazy peak challenges our lofty supremacy. We can look down on Swaledale set out like a jigsaw puzzle. Lapwings swoop and whistle overhead but there is no visible human soul near us. It is not difficult to push back the centuries and imagine the slow funeral procession trudging over Kisdon, perhaps passing lead miners or quarrymen who would stop work and watch silently. We can almost hear the creak of the horse’s harness and the jingle of its bit. But we shake off the past and come down to earth again, almost literally, as the path starts a zigzag descent into Muker and we have much to do to keep our footing.

Muker, sheltering at the foot of Buttertubs Pass is another Viking settlement whose serenity was briefly shattered by the lead mining industry which swelled its population. It is a compact, snug village with a church and school. The church made a great difference to the Upper Dale people when it was built in 1580 for it meant that the funeral processions from Keld and outlying farms no longer had journey all the way to Grinton. Originally the church was built as a chapel-of-ease and was a squat heather thatched building with a rush-strewn earth floor. In the 18th century as the population grew, so considerable alterations were made. There is a beautifully written notice in the church, bearing the legend “Rules relating to the Hearse, May 25 1836” which sets out, in ambiguous terms, the cost and conditions of hiring the hearse to bring a coffin down the Corpse Way. The hearse apparently was a large black box on wheels pulled by a horse. It was sold in an auction in 1939 and destroyed.

The east window in the church is a most attractive and appropriate work of art. The theme is Christ the Good Shepherd and it uses as a back drop the scenery around Muker and Kisdon; the river, the stone walls up the fells, moorland heather and bracken and even a couple of dozen Swaledale sheep.

There was once an Inn in Muker, the Queen’s Head, where, tradition has it, a special collection of funeral mugs was kept in the kitchen for the bearers, thirsty after bringing their burden to the churchyard. We are unable to trace the building and so we continue along the old road to Grinton.

We pick up the track in a narrow walled green lane leading down to riverside fields. These are shut off for hay time and a gay profusion of grasses, vetches and wild flowers nod their heads to each other in the gentle breeze. We pass through three or four of these colourful meadows before we reach the river where a high narrow plank bridge crosses it. Here the Swale is broad, boulder strewn and peaty. The debris of earlier flooding has been caught round the stanchions of the bridge; logs and branches bleached bone white bob and jostle to free themselves.

We cross the bridge, duck and weave through a scratchy thicket of thorn trees and continue the long winding trek down dale. The road is cut into the hillside and from it we have another clear view of the straight white walls, small green pastures and ubiquitous barns which house cattle in the winter and store the carefully-won hay. We pass through Ivelet Head where we make a small detour to see a fine stone bridge, narrow and gracefully arched, but then we march on, resolute, past Shoregill and Dyke Heads and out across Gunnerside pasture. The road has a metalled surface now but in mediaeval days it must have been difficult to travel on. Erosion, rock slides and flooding from the swift flowing becks would have made it heavy going, to say nothing of the wild beasts in the hunting forest. It would have taken at least two days to make the journey and longer in the winter snows.

Eventually we cross the beck and stroll into Gunnerside. This is yet another lead mining centre and numerous miners’ paths or “gruvers’ trods” radiate from the village up Gunnerside Gill to the old mines and smelting mill. From here we can pick out our own “trod” which runs high above the modern road to Lodge Green and the tiny hamlet of Blades – just a neat half circle of cottages looking down to Low Row and the moors beyond. From Blades our way is a switchback walk until we arrive on the hill just outside Feetham. On our right is a small derelict cottage known as The Dead House. This is supposed to have been the place where funeral bearers and mourners left the coffin whilst they slipped down to the Punchbowl Inn at Feetham.

There is a story (told with many variations in different parts of the dale) about a party of bearers who left their coffin in the Dead House whilst they paid a call to the Punchbowl. This party imbibed copiously and lingered longer than anticipated before returning somewhat the worse for wear to pick up the coffin. Before continuing the journey, one of the bearers, a friend of the deceased, maudlin with drink, expressed a wish to look upon the face of his dead friend for one last time. On opening the coffin they found it empty. Much perturbed and not a little scared they returned to the Punchbowl to consider what to do and remained there for the night. When they returned to the Dead House the following morning, they discovered the corpse neatly laid out again in its coffin. The perplexed bearers hurriedly fastened it up and continued the journey saying “nowt to nobody”.

We take a modest breather at the Punchbowl ourselves, before leaving Feetham and its folktales behind to continue over the moor to Peat Head Gate. From there it is onwards to Kearton, a desolate collection of buildings and then our road runs gently down to Healaugh where the ancient Corpse Way becomes the modern main road to Reeth and Grinton.

Reeth is a most attractive village arranged round a spacious green. It developed as a settlement on the edge of the “New Forest”, the hunting forest for the Lords of the Manor of Richmond and became a market for the numerous Forest official and dwellers. From, Reeth it is only a short but for us weary hike to Grinton and the church of St Andrew – the Cathedral of the Dale and our journey’s end. The church is large and beautiful with rich stained glass windows. Parts of it date from the 12th century but alterations and additions have been made over the years. The early church in Grinton was established as a mission station amongst the pagan Dalesmen and was served by monks from Bridlington until the late 13th century when a vicar was appointed. Little is known of the early history of the church but one memorable incident has been recorded by the poor monks who complained to the Pope about the behaviour of the Archdeacon of Richmond. This thoughtless individual made great and excessive demands on the hospitality of the Grinton monks when he descended on them together with 97 horses, 21 hounds and 3 hawks and consumed in one hour as much as would have supported the monks for considerably longer.

And so we take our ease in a far more modest manner, resting our weary feet in a quiet sunny corner of the churchyard. We have travelled the Corpse Way and everywhere we have been reminded of the rich history of the dale, of its hardy people and their everyday lives but above all we carry away a vivid impression of remote, wild and beautiful Swaledale.                                                             

(First published in Yorkshire Life Magazine)