As The Wraith Flies: Corpse Roads

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

As the crow flies, so do wraiths and spirits.

They travel in straight lines; obstacles make things more difficult to negotiate, and a wraith can not travel over water. Stiles, it seems – the little gate-contraptions one must mount and then descend – they can stop a ghost dead in its tracks.

The stories and superstitions which have risen around the journeys of the dead are Tolkienesque. But they arise from the practicalities of Mediaeval Europe.

With the 11th century came a wave of building of new churches. Certainly England’s population was growing, and places of worship began to spring up to serve new communities.

But the old churches still needed to feel powerful.

And they came up with an ingenious way to retain supremacy. They retained burial rites. No matter where you were  -even if you lived next door to one of the new churches – when you had crossed the Styx, you must make a final journey to one of the original places of worship to be buried.

But the dead travel straight. Flying along, close to the ground.

And so tracks were laid, from the new churches to the old. They avoided obstacles and took the most direct route; they would go over a mountain or across a bog, not around them. And these tracks – which farmers were forbidden from ploughing – were called Corpse Roads.

Thus, Blockley in Gloucestershire was the parent church of two nearby hamlets: Stretton-on-Fosse, and Aston Magna. The hamlet villages were mere chapels, and so a corpse road ran between them and St Peter and Paul, Blockley.

It must be allowed that British corpse roads have been known to meander. Nevertheless, roads such as these became inextricably tangled with a mediaeval belief that ghosts and fairies moved through the physical landscape along special routes. And around and along the corpse roads stories gathered thick.

Remember Puck, in Midsummer Night’s Dream?

“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.”

On Dartmoor a corpse road travels across the wild landscape to Lydford Church, close by Devil’s Tor. And many a fanciful bystander has watched phantom processions making their way along them to the final resting place, it’s said.

Which made living next to a corpse road very much an acquired taste. There were those who did: an old woman at Fryup in Yorkshire was well-known for keeping watch on St Mark’s Eve. Because then, the ghosts of the past were secondary in importance to those of the future. On St Mark’s Eve, you might, if you had second sight, watch shadows of those who would die in the year to come walk the Corpse Road in eerie anticipation.

The very thought of all those low-flying spectral travellers forever restlessly hovering above these strange old paths is haunting. It’s as well many of them cross streams to deter the more restless spirits.

For the dead travel straight.

Straight as the crow flies.


27 thoughts on “As The Wraith Flies: Corpse Roads

    1. Lots of the corpse roads do wind a bit, Sidey. The one above is not dead straight. But generally, they try to put as little between the corpse and its destination as possible.

  1. I was visiting Dartmouth only last year but I never learned about corpse roads. Maybe that explains why the ponies are so tame. They are used to travelers, ghostly and otherwise.

    1. You will know those barren moorlands, Malcolm. You’re right: everything up there is hardy, to matters of the living at least. Who knows if they are as hardy to the matters of the dead?

    1. Who knows, Col? I was particularly fascinated to read that the remains of wooden causeways across marshes were thought to have been used as early corpse roads. Reminds me of Tolkein’s Dead Marshes.

  2. Very fascinating Kate. Long Lane is a road associated with church-going – providing the route for the residents of of East Finchley to St.Mary-at-Finchley in Church End on a Sunday… Needless to say, until Holy Trinity was built in 1846 I presume the dead of East Finchley had to make their way along my road too. Now the area is a haven for the dead with two of London’s largest cemeteries (opened in the 1850’s) located just a few field lengths away on either side of my road!

  3. Ooh. I love this one, Kate. The thought that spirits, both alive and dead, travel these roads. How that whets my imagination. It sort of fits with what I’ve been writing for the past year.

  4. Oh, no thank you. I don’t think I want to live anywhere near a Corpse Road. I have never heard of such a thing, but I’m fascinated. Fascinated to read of such a thing, but not intrigued enough to imagine witnessing the dead for the coming year! I’m not particularly prescient, but I do have a strong imagination that gets in the way of logic!

  5. I can well believe that “living next to a corpse road [is] very much an acquired taste.”

    Do you suppose that some castle moats were designed to keep the wraiths and spirits away?

  6. It isn’t quite related, but the whole time I read this I thought of Jem from “To Kill A Mockingbird” warding off hot steams with Angel bright, life-in-death; get off the road, don’t suck my breath.

  7. That is the reason for the prevalence of zigzag bridges in China too! You can bet I would avoid the corpse paths like the plague 🙂

    1. If we think of Ley lines as being ancient British Trackways I suppose they might be seen as one and the same by Alfred Watkins, Chris. I looked in his book on the entry on churches and could find no reference to corpse roads, though I know many have compared the two types of road since Watkins’ time.

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