My husband knows how I collect spooky stories from the South West, so he very kindly forwarded me an article that Devon Live had ran recently – all about Dartmoor’s Corpse Roads.
So firstly, thank you to Devon Live for all the lovely, juicy information (and apologies for repeatedly making fun of your headlines…honestly, it’s because I adore them; who wouldn’t want to read about a Bigfoot sighting at Exeter Station?). And to my long-suffering husband, for pandering to my obsession.
The long, hard road to church
The obligation to attend church is something we struggle to relate to these days. But go back a few centuries and it was taken for granted. You trudged to church on Sundays (at least) or you paid the price in the afterlife. Simple as that.
If you lived in a town or city, this wasn’t difficult. It was a different matter for those that lived out on Dartmoor.
In case you don’t know Dartmoor; it’s vast. Vast and wild and a bit impenetrable. It’s certainly not an area you can stroll across in an afternoon. For the farmers and peasants that lived there, the distance to church was about 15 miles. That’s a lot of walking; through muddy ground, over-flowing streams and gorsy grass.
Carrying the corpses
When loved ones died, they needed to be taken to church too; hence the need for ‘Corpse Roads’. The people of Dartmoor would carry their dead (often in boxes on their shoulders, or wrapped up and placed on a plank) for miles, even in the most adverse weather conditions.
As such, these roads developed a reputation which stayed with them over the years. Morose and silent for the most part (unless the fierce moor-winds picked up), people frequently reported seeing ghosts, pacing up and down along them.
Keeping the dead from the living
But why couldn’t the mourners simply carry the corpse through the towns? At least then, they could have rested for a bit (a pint of ale might have made the task a little less unpleasant!).
The truth is, the people of the towns and villages didn’t want to see the dead. This was especially the case during the era of the plague, when infection was a risk. So, the poor corpse-carriers had to take the long, dangerous route instead.
Walking the corpse path today
Some of the corpse roads survive to this day. A great example is the Lych Way, which runs from Postbridge to Lydford, right across the moor. If you get a chance, it’s great to visit, and imagine just how hard it would have been for people to traipse along it, weighted down by a dead body on their shoulders.
Other evocative names survive from this time – such as Coffin Wood and Corpse Lane. Eek!
Dartmoor’s many hidden paths
There are a few ancient trails running across Dartmoor; with some marked by standing stones and ancient crosses. We’ve not walked many yet (mainly because we have two kids who would moan incessantly if we did), but we’ve followed a few.
When you’re walking along them, you immediately get that sense of going back in time. After all, in places like this, nothing much has changed. Modern life hasn’t made much impact, especially away from the roads. It’s far easier to understand how people once lived; and why they were so superstitious.
Dr Ribero’s Agency of the Supernatural – The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost, is available to buy – you can do so here (US) or here (UK). Likewise, you'll find The Case of the Deadly Doppelganger and The Case of the Hidden Daemon on Amazon too. Oooh, and my forthcoming book, The Hanged Man and the Fortune Teller, will be released this June. Yasss!