Pete jumps in the way-back-when machine to follow one of Dartmoor’s ways of the dead.
This article originally appeared in Issue 98 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers have full access to all current and previous Singletrack content as part of their subscription.
Words and pictures by Pete Scullion.
From the off, the difficulty that would have been involved in moving a corpse-laden coffin to Lydford is hammered home. Past the youth hostel, the hill climbs steeply over rough, broken ground – and we climb too. Quartzite boulders snatch and grab at wheels while the dirt between them seems to offer little in the way of traction, despite the lack of moisture. As tyres scrabble for grip, lungs suck in the warm Devon air and expel it again in a similar fashion.
As we approach the summit of this first pitch, we are greeted by what can only be described as the most thickset animal I have ever laid eyes on. A man with a thick Devon accent sends advice to us two on our gaunt, in comparison, ponies, as his beast and its dinner plate-sized hooves easily negotiate what we found so arduous. “That, sir, is a fine steed,” I offer to the man on point. A proud smile and a nod of approval precedes: “Oh she’s a big girl alright.”
Once atop the broken climb we take a minute to enjoy the assembled Dartmoor ponies before heading through the felled plantation along a graded, sunken path. Before long, the original route of the coffin road shows itself. Under Bellever Tor our first stone row marks the way across the clipped grass, back into the cool darkness of the forest. This is our first true taste of what the Lich Way would have been like. Yellowed grass trampled thin by successive footfalls, flanked on either side by tall grass, rustling in the breeze, sitting atop thick tussocks.
Back into the woods again, the tall pines shade us from the warm spring sun that seems considerably stronger here than it does in my usual haunt of rural Stirlingshire. Soon, we cross a fire road and it’s clear that the Forestry Commission doesn’t have the same superstitions as those of the residents of medieval Dartmoor, as a ranger with mandatory collie dog in tow passes without a second thought. A sharp right turn and the path, sunken again, makes its way down to another intersection. The trees leave us for good and the real test begins.
Thou shalt not pass.
In the late medieval period, when the Catholic church’s power dictated life from the arrival of a newborn to the journey to final rest, Britain’s population was expanding rapidly. (Bear with me – this is still a story about riding bikes, but we need the history bit first.) With that rapid growth came a similar increase in church construction. Older church minsters had long since relied on tithes and mortuaries for their income and associated power. Over time, bishops felt their power waning and reacted by connecting the outlying villages and churches to their ‘mother’ church by way of what was known as a corpse road. Holding the only licence to bury the dead in the area secured mortuaries their pay and snatched back power for the monks and bishops.
In order to avoid these routes being used by traders or drovers, the ‘ways of the dead’ would more often than not pass inhospitable terrain – and this is why they are now of interest to mountain bikers, because inhospitable terrain often means fun and remote trails. While it was believed the spirit would travel in a straight line from the home of the deceased to the church, the physical entity would need to be carried by the family and neighbours overland.
What was already a disagreeable task on the open uplands through the summer months, was made even more complex by way of superstition. It was believed that by crossing running water, by way of wet feet or stepping stones, or even by lifting the coffin over a stile, the spirit would be unable to return to haunt the living. As a result, rivers, streams and other obstacles were deliberately sought out. Blocking stones were often placed at strategic points to keep the spirit on its path to the burial site. Roads were (obviously) not as widespread in the 13th century as they are now, but intersections still occurred, and on these routes they were seen as dangerous boundaries between this world and the next. Coffin roads deliberately crossed remote ground to avoid intersections, where it was held that spirit guardians would protect the living and keep the Devil from becoming manifest.
Many coffin roads of old that have not been popularised by walkers, literature, or adopted as rights of way, have been reclaimed by nature over the last eight centuries. Plenty still exist, however, and they cross some of the most beautiful, as well as bleak, parts of Britain’s countryside. In Scotland, the Isle of Harris sports a coffin road that spans the island along a low mountain pass. This route, though, is the exception to the rule as it only delivered coffins to the east coast because that was the only place the earth on the island was deep enough to bury a casket.
Elsewhere north of the border, the traditional routes can be seen in places like Loch Lochy, just north of Fort William, where residents of Invergarry would haul their dead over the shoulder of Ben Tee or around the western slopes of Meall a’Choire Ghlais to the now-submerged sixth century church. Back in England, the residents of the ancient settlement of Haweswater in the north-west Lake District had the unenviable task of taking their coffins up and over the steep western flank of the water onto Swindale Common, before beginning the long trudge to the chapel in Keld. More often than not, any markers that lined the routes have been lifted for house or wall construction, or long since lost to Mother Nature.
Old into new.
But my chosen coffin road for this adventure is at the other end of the country. It’s the Lich Way, crossing the lower third of Dartmoor’s National Park. At the time, villages within what is now the National Park would have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Parish of Lydford, which was enormous, covering some 50,000 acres (200 square km). It brought the head of St Petrock’s church in the village vast wealth and the village was taxed at a similar level to London during the reign of Edward the Confessor, proving the centre’s importance at the time.
The Lich Way starts in the ancient settlement of Bellever, which is still a village nowadays and sits on the edge of a plantation forest that seems almost at odds with the treeless expanse of Dartmoor. From here, it extends north and west towards Lydford, and south and east towards Widecombe-in-the-Moor. In 1260, and after a complaint to the Bishop of Exeter, the more northern settlements were allowed to take their coffins to the latter settlement, rather than making the 12-mile onerous slog across the moor. However, newer, more southerly settlements still had to march to Lydford, while Bellever’s residents would still need to attend forest and stannary (local legislative) courts via the same route.
The only cover afforded by the tors lining the Lich Way are the large slabs of rock that sit high above the otherwise featureless moorland. This 12-mile trip would have been a full day of incessant slogging, even with dry conditions underfoot and the sun overhead. Come winter, this route would have likely been impassable with the arrival of snow.
Joining me to retrace the passage of the dead, on a bright spring day and on two wheels rather than two feet, is Dartmoor local and veteran racer, Tony Williams. Tony has guided and coached countless people in these hills, and knows the area well. As we set off on the ‘Way of the Dead’, Tony recounts the story of the Bridge of the Hairy Hands – a fairly unique tale that seems quite incredulous as Tony tells the story, a broad grin across his face.
The bridge is reputed to be haunted by a pair of hairy hands, which originally belonged to a hard-working but unfortunate tin miner who inadvertently blew himself up while sneaking out of the dynamite store after an illicit lunch break. Dismembered by the blast, his hands are said to have landed in the stream which flows beneath the Moretonhampstead to Princetown road, and on dark misty nights they have been seen to grab hold of the steering wheels of passing vehicles as they cross the bridge, forcing the vehicles and their unfortunate occupants into the water – sometimes to their death.
Out onto the open moor, Tony mentions at the last windblown hawthorn that “we won’t see many of them for a while”. He’s right. Short stumps mark the route across the featureless farmland here, with a keen eye needed to keep on the right track. Above Powdermills, we reach the remains of another Dartmoor classic: the abandoned tin mine and workings. In the old wheelhouse, we stop for a bite to eat and put the world to rights before cracking on. Down the old mine track, we’ll be climbing for some time and not on anything but the aforementioned clipped grass.
As Longaford Tor keeps us on the right track, the phrase of the ride makes its first appearance. “Imagine carrying a coffin over here…”, followed by shakes of the head. Even where the path is relatively well trodden, the going is anything but smooth. Closer to the tor, the rocks become more prominent, and while they offer more places to rest a casket, it’s tougher going on bike and body.
As the path tops out, Dartmoor presents itself. The gradual rise of the hills indicates what is to come. Despite the numerous fast, cruisy descents, the elevation change is that of a constant gain until the start of the long drop off the Merrivale Range into the Tavy Valley. As Tony and I play cat and mouse down towards the foot of Lydford Tor, startled dunlins take flight in small murmurations as we’re almost on top of them, making this fast, open blast that little bit more exciting. Erratic boulders of the right shape and angle make for some ad hoc airtime as we meet the first of our spirit blocks: moving water, in the form of the West Dart River.
Cowsic River provides our second barrier beneath Lydford Tor, before the climb to Conies Down Tor. The descents here are as fast as the rider is willing to go. Deathgrip the bars and you can keep it wide open – so long as you can dodge the rocks littered about the moor. Once on the right shoulder of the laughter-inducing Cocks Hill, the final barrier before the particularly bleak part of the ride is complete. The River Walkham sits in less of a hollow compared to the two previous streams and would have been less of a burden with a corpse-laden wooden box atop your shoulders. That said, by now we’ve been pedalling non-stop for almost seven miles, neither rider willing to concede any ground to the other.
From White Barrow the view over the rolling hills further west is magnificent, and on a clear day I’m sure the sea would be visible from up here. To the north and west lies Lydford, obscured by the hills north of Nattor Down, where on certain days the red flags of the MOD firing range can be seen flying. Venture out when the flags are up and you might not need a casket to take you to the cemetery with some of the ordinance flying about these parts.
After dispatching the fast, loose and dusty descent into the Tavy Valley, the feeling here is very different. Steep valley sides contrast with the expanse of the open moor. A bimble along the lanes connecting up the bridleways gives us more time to put the world to rights, before hauling ourselves over Kingsett Down and into the final cruise into Lydford.
As we make the church walls, flowers bright and vibrant against the cold grey of the Norman edifice, the complaints coming from our legs drive home the point that people once carried coffins along the same route. Happily I would be jumping into a four-wheeled cart with the power of one hundred horses after my ride, not walking home and not retracing my journey complete with all the hazards of peasant life in medieval England and the trials of the British winter.
The Castle Inn, my resting place for the night, sits with the Norman castle between itself and the church. This warped, ancient building would have no doubt played host to wealthier mourners and those attending the courts of the 16th century. Back then, ale, food and lodgings would have been the main trade of the inn, and little has changed in the last eight hundred years. What has changed, undoubtedly, is the atmosphere. My imagination brings me Tolkienesque scenes from Frodo’s encounter with Strider at the Prancing Pony, that have now been replaced by a more charming version of Hot Fuzz. Warmth is the reception from the open fire, the hot food and the comfy bed as my legs creak as much as the old, tarred rafters.
Dartmoor’s Way of the Dead starts at the youth hostel in Bellever, which sits about a mile south of the B3212 outside Postbridge. The best place to park is in Bellever Forest FC site, just south of the hostel. The route is signposted throughout, but once on the open moor a map will help you stay on track should you miss one of the short marker posts. The route is approximately 12 miles from Bellever to Lydford. Once you are in the Tavy Valley, the route is less obvious, as the bridleway follows a D-road for a short while. Make sure to check the live firing timetable on the UK Government website to avoid being turned into jam by a 105mm Howitzer shell. The route is easily retraceable for those looking for a longer ride, or you could take two cars. The Castle Inn is the best place to stay should you need an overnight stop.