On the cover
Let an ancient road carry you into a mysterious otherworld buried deep among the fells of the Lake District...
Looking over Haweswater towards High Street in the Lakes’ far eastern fells. Our Corpse Road feature starts on
SCANNING THE SHINY black veneer of Haweswater from the slopes on its eastern shore, it’s hard to imagine a hamlet nestling at the head of the dale. Tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Lake District, the last traces of Mardale Green were swallowed by the reservoir over 80 years ago. It’s only when the waters recede in times of drought that a skeletal pattern of dry stone walls is exposed. Yet etched into the hillside, there’s a visible and lasting legacy of the community that had scraped out an existence here for hundreds of years.
It’s marked on the map – a line of long green dashes snaking across the open fell beneath a discreet label, almost lost among the flock of intriguing names strewn about Mardale Common. With all eyes drawn towards the mesmerising ridgelines of High Street – the fell on the far side of the dale – you’d be forgiven for letting the macabre history of the Old Corpse Road slip unnoticed beneath your feet.
Of course, as the aptly named ‘ High Street’ so subtly gives away, this isn’t the only ancient way traversing these parts. A Roman road rides across the faraway fells, while unforgiving passes into neighbouring valleys carry well-worn packhorse routes. But unlike the others – passages of conquest and commerce – the blunt purpose of the Old Corpse Road was a sombre one.
In a time when isolated communities couldn’t bury their dead locally, corpse roads (also known as coffi n routes and lyke ways) conveyed a funeral procession to the consecrated grounds
of a mother church. Though a chapel had existed at Mardale Green since the 12th century, it was not until 1729 that burial rights were granted here. Until that time, the dead were wrapped in a simple shroud and carried the five gruelling miles to the graveyard of the abbey church at Shap.
The corpse road was redundant long before the controversial Haweswater Reservoir was envisaged by the Manchester Corporation. With the deconsecration and dismantling of the Holy Trinity Church at Mardale Green in 1935, ninetyseven bodies were exhumed from the cemetery, and it was fitting that they should be reinterred with their ancestors at Shap. Meanwhile, the ritual road over the fells had for some time endured as a quiet back way, tramped only by shepherds and the occasional traveller. Today, it still opens a door to a secretive corner of the Lakes.
A sketchy path from the car park at Mardale Head skirts above the reservoir, skulking beneath the new road on its way to the foot of the Old Corpse Road. Announced by a weathered signpost, the neatly hewn trail twists up and across the hillside above the foamy cascades tumbling down Rowantreethwaite Beck. Weaving up onto the fell along its terraced contours, the track eases the strain of a sharp ascent, as it did for the cadavercaddying processions that once plied this road. Though before it begins to level out, there are a few craggy cleaves to negotiate fi rst. Taking a breather by the roofless shell of an old shepherd’s hut, it’s only natural to take stock of the journey so far and glance back over the dale towards the brooding bulk of High Street, capped by a snowy pall.
Ahead lies the unknown of the open fell – an empty expanse except for the waning trail of the Old Corpse Road. It’s impossible to imagine how arduous this trip must have been for the grieving families of Mardale. The ground is at times boggy underfoot and the featureless terrain unnerving. In winter, tears must have mingled with the sleet and snow. With a sense of relief, the road reaches its summit at over 1600 feet and the greener pastures of Swindale creep into view.
The gentle descent of the corpse road into the valley below takes a sweeping arc down to the farm at Swindale Head, fording a few small becks as it goes. It doesn’t linger for long though, proceeding northeast on a direct course to the abbey at Shap. But we’re leaving it here and turning south into the shadowy amphitheatre at the very head of the dale. As it approaches the seemingly impassable wall of
rock rearing up in front, the path climbs a band of glacial moraine and veers up to the left, where it wriggles out of danger by means of a cunning escape route into a hanging valley.
Like the early oceangoing explorers who believed the world was flat, you don’t know what to expect when you venture over the horizon. Emerging into the bleak wilderness of Mosedale, it feels like you’ve arrived in an otherworldly place. There’s something uncanny about it. Except where a tentative excavation has nibbled away into the fellside, the bare slopes seem perfectly smooth, as if shaped on a potter’s wheel. An eerie silence pervades the still air, and on the slopes above us, a wary herd of red deer stalks the land.
As the trail curves slightly above the beck, the low outline of Mosedale Cottage materialises from the swirling mists. It’s rare to fi nd a bothy like this in the Lakes – or indeed anywhere remote and inhospitable enough to warrant a sturdy shelter from the elements. It’s a lonely spot to spend a night. One of only three bothies in the national park, the cottage is maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association. Feeling like an abandoned outpost on the frontier of the Wild West, the former quarry building is worth a mosey round before pressing on.
Wading further into Mosedale, the track becomes indistinct and spongy. Somewhere up ahead is the gate we’re aiming for in the fence line straddling the pass. Reaching the cusp of the dale, the path crosses the watershed, and as the clouds part, Brownhowe Bottom is revealed below. Dropping down to a sheepfold beneath the source of the River Sprint, we meet a well-made track coming up from Long sled dale. From here, a final slog over the Gatescarth Pass will deliver us back to Mardale Head. What I’d give for there still to be a cosy inn awaiting us at the bottom.
The people of Mardale may be long gone, but their corpse road is still here. Perhaps it’s a bittersweet irony that a way built for the dead should survive the ravages of time and outlive the community that built it. In a way, it’s a fitting memorial to the people who shed blood, sweat and tears to carve a route through the fells so they could lay their dead to rest. Think about them the next time you tread this way.
NOVEMBER 2016 TAKING THE SCENIC ROUTE Mardale’s Old Corpse Road offers the best vantage point for a view of the spectacular ridge projecting from the summit of High Street.
AN EAGLE’S DOMAIN Until April this year, Haweswater was the swooping ground of England’s only golden eagle, which disappeared and is sadly feared dead. NOVEMBER 2016
qINTO THE WILD A ring of fearsome crags holds court over Swindale Head, barring the way to those who enter.