Today on greydogtales – where to take your dead bodies, some traditional songs and some cool photographs. We’ll explain. If you grow up between the North Sea and the North York Moors, you have thoughts. We’ve written about some of those thoughts before, especially in connection with the sea and the whale-roads. But the moors have their roads as well, long stretches of bleakness where the sky clings to the land, punctuated by steep drops down into forgotten dales. Imagination and a good gear-box will take you many places.
Last time we revealed the new Folk-Horror Revival book Corpse Roads, and before we wander off into related matters, we should probably remind people what a corpse road is. There are plenty of other resources on the subject, but in brief, it was the route by which small and isolated communities took their dead to a consecrated burial place. Coffin-road and course-road are the same thing. Similar tracks are the German geisterwege (ghost road) and totenwege, and the Dutch doodwegen (death road).
There were two main reasons for such processions. The first was that a collection of farms and outlying homesteads had no church at all in their vicinity. The other was that only one local church was able to provide full burial rites. In either case, the corpse road developed over years or centuries as the route for that last journey.
Some were little more than worn tracks, others were paved and cleared enough that a cart could be used to convey the dead. In cases where a cart couldn’t be used, the corpse road might have large stones every so often on which the coffin could be rested and the bearers could have a quick cigarette or a swig of fortifying drink.
Anyhow, on Tuesday we mentioned the Lyke Wake Dirge, which is where we are heading today. This is a song deeply rooted in the Yorkshire of our childhood. Unlike many re-inventions of the Victorian period, it’s generally agreed that this dirge is a genuine relic of earlier days. Versions are known from at least the 1600s, and it may even be a Christianised version of folk ritual. It’s essentially about the passage of the soul from life to death, and the consequences of your actions.
The Lyke Wake Dirge
- THIS ae nighte, this ae nighte,
—Refrain: Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
—Refrain: And Christe receive thy saule.
- When thou from hence away art past
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last
- If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Sit thee down and put them on;
- If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane.
- From Whinny-muir when thou may’st pass,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
- From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
- If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
- If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
- This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
—Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
—And Christe receive thy saule.
‘Lyke’ is the corpse, as in lychgate, a sort of covered entrance to a churchyard where in older times the corpse was rested before proceeding to the grave. You can also see it in the Northern European term leichenweg (corpseway), ‘leichen’ coming from the Saxon word for corpse. For fantasy and games fans, lich comes from the same root.
The meaning of ‘fire and fleet and candle-lighte’ is debated. It seems most likely that it refers to the basics of home or hospitality – either hearth, floor and light, or possibly hearth, salt and light (taking fleet as a mistaken corruption of selt/salt). The other interpretation, that fleet is a mis-spelling of sleet, doesn’t quite fit. ‘Whinnies’, by the way, are thorns.
There are a number of melodious recordings of the dirge set to music, but we prefer the direct version by The Young Tradition:
What isn’t certain is whether or not the Lyke Wake Walk, which crosses the moors from Osmotherley in the west to Ravenscar on the Yorkshire coast, actually follows any of the moors corpse roads. The walk was created in the fifties, but it does join up many ancient paths.
We live nearer the Dales nowadays, and the nearest definite corpse road is probably the Old Course Road in Calderdale, a track which winds around the Heptonstall hillside. Some of this one is paved, and would take a coffin-cart.
There are other good examples of corpse roads across Dartmoor and in Cumbria and the Lake District. It so happens that we know a great site which has covered the Mardale corpse road, and as it’s not your usual folk-lore or weird fiction site, we’ll give you the lowdown.
Alen McFadzean is a walker of extraordinary energy and adventurousness, seeing as we think a stroll across the relatively flat Baildon Moor with the longdogs is quite enough nowadays. His website, Because They’re There, covers many of his long-distance adventures, and some of the photographs are stunning.
We’re with him today though because of his excellent post on the Mardale to Shap corpse road in the Lake District. Not only has he posted superb shots of the route, but his article also considers the corpse road history and concept, so it’s well worth a look. Alen has allowed to use a few photos here, but you’ll find many more, and lots about the subject, in the article here:
For more on the theme and Dartmoor, you can do worse than visit the Legendary Dartmoor site, here:
And because we can, we end with a bit more music pertinent to the subject, a beautiful song by the folk group Show of Hands.
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