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.