On the cover

Let an an­cient road carry you into a mys­te­ri­ous oth­er­world buried deep among the fells of the Lake Dis­trict...

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - News - PHOTO: TOM BAI­LEY

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.

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