The Corpse Roads of Cumbria by Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park

Located on the Scottish Border in northwestern England, Cumbria was (and still is) a sparsely populated county. One curious byproduct of Cumbria’s low population density was that, through the middle ages, the tiny chapels in outlying thorpes and thwaites did not have license to bury the dead, so bodies had to be transported to larger churches in the region. The paths over which the dead were carried became known as “corpse roads”. And, as I’m sure you can imagine, all sorts of folk-lore and ghost stories have accumulated around the corpse roads.

If that bit of information isn’t enough to get you interested in the book, there is something seriously wrong with you.

The Corpse Roads of Cumbria is a curious little book, being part a collection of folk-lore, funerary customs and ghost stories and part a walker’s guide to a couple of dozen trails in and around the Lake District. Despite this strange marriage, the book works really well. Cleaver and Park have done a brilliant job in pulling together a mix of local history and folk stories while guiding you on the paths from where those very stories originate.

Oddly, The Corpse Roads is a remarkably light and humerous read. While death and the dead are constant themes, the book never really descends into dark morbidity and it is surprising just how funny many of the stories are. My personal favourites are the tale of the wife brought back from the dead when the horse carrying her coffin brushes up against a rowan tree (I won’t spoil the punch-line for you) and the factual account of the villagers who successfully sued to keep their ancient corpse road exactly where it had always been, even though it passed just outside the front window of the local lord’s newly built manor. (Who says medieval peasants didn’t know how to stick it to the man?)

And if you enjoy walking, the detailed maps and descriptions (including nearby pubs 😃) make it easy to find and follow the corpse roads yourself. Given that the point of the roads was to quickly and easily get from one place to another, most of the paths are relatively short and easy. Cleaver and Park even note which paths are wheelchair accessible.

In short, if you have a Halloweeny streak in you and you like a good walk, this is definitely the book for you. If you enjoy reading local history that has been written by people who know how to do their research, this is a book for you. If you’re not much of a walker or you will never have the chance to visit Cumbria, then do the smart thing: trade in your next holiday to Disney World or Thailand and head to the Lake District instead. And bring along this book.

And remember, when you’re walking the corpse road from Wasdale to Eskdale, mind the rowan.

Rowan tree, photo by Karl and Ali CC BY-SA 2.0

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