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Burnham Tarn reached via the Old Corpse Road from Wasdale

Burnham Tarn reached via the Old Corpse Road from Wasdale

Corpse Road between Wasdale and Eskdale
Corpse Road between Wasdale and Eskdale

Looking along the Old Corpse Road
Looking along the Old Corpse Road to Haweswater © David Hall Walks

Funerals in the Olden Times

Under the heading “How our Fathers went a Burying”, an interesting tale of the Lake District by Sharpe Tyson has been published in a recent number of Things in General. We give the following extracts from the story.


Old Wilson of Wasdale Head had a son, a fine young man about twenty. One evening he sickened, and like so many of our young folk went into a decline and soon died. He died on a Tuesday and was to be buried on the following Friday, so on the Wednesday the younger brother made a call at very house in Wasdale Head and High Eskdale, and knocking at the door, announced in sepulchral tone, with a nasal twang.”Two are warned from this house to Thomas Wilson’s house on Friday next. We start at ten in the morning, and there will be tea served at t’ Boat, Eskdale, for them as gangs to t’ Kirk.”

At the appointed time a large number of yeomen and farmers, with their wives met at Wilson’s house, where they first went into the room to see the corpse and speak to Old Wilson, then sat for a while in the best room and had a good glass of rum, shaking their heads and talking in a low tone to each other.

“It’s a sad loss to his fadder,” said an old woman in an old fashioned bombazine dress, a black silk handkerchief pinned close up to her neck, and a close black silk bonnet. Everyone here keeps a set of funeral attire ready for use, locked up in an old oak chest in the best room, with a little camphor and marjoram to keep the moths out. It is this which produces that peculiar smell which, if wafted to a dalesman under any circumstances would be suggestive of one of these funeral gatherings. Of all the dales festivals a funeral holds decidedly the highest place – far above weddings, christenings or even sheep clippings. Not to be asked to one would be a mortal offence, and “mourning’s” are considered the best of clothes – far too good for ordinary Sunday wear.

“Yes” replied her neighbour, a sharp featured, high cheek boned woman, similarly arrayed.

“Yes, it’s a gert loss; they appen want a servant lad now. It’ud be a fine place for Joe of t’ Hollins. I hear he talked of hiring next term. It’s a pity the lasses there arn’t more use on the land.”

“Why, Sarah, you see they won’t take kindly to field wark now, and them been sae lang at skule.”

“Ah’ mores’ the sham, I say. I do. Sic feckless wark, sendin lasses to t’ school till they’re thirteen or mabbe fourteen years old, larnin them nothing that ull iver do um ony good, sac mickle reading and writing won’t help a body in a baking o’ haver bread o’ a three week wash. As for pigs and corves, they ken nowt whativer bou them, I’’ warrant, I canna bide sic feckless wark, I can’t. I keep my lasses going til they’ra gaily near as good at hay-time and harvesting as t’lads, they are.”

“Ay, yours are fine lasses; but whist, barn! Here’s Isaac Hartley; he’s been fastening him down.”

And the two women rose, and carefully shook the crumbs of the cake they had been eating from their dresses, and finished the last drops of their glasses of rum and water, as the village carpenter, coming out of the room where the corpse lay, announced that it was time to “lift.”

The coffin was then carried into the fold yard, followed by the assembled friends, who all joined in singing that well known psalm commencing. “All-pee-pull-that-on-earth-do-dwell,” in true funereal tone, though why that should be chosen for a funeral hymn I cannot conceive.

Meanwhile the coffin was being securely fastened on the back of a strong brown horse. One of the party then led it off, followed first by the lad’s father and brothers, then by a long trail of neighbours and friends and was watched over the hill by the old mother. She was not strong enough for so long a climb, being worn out with watching and weeping.

On they went, higher and higher up the fell, till they looked like a long black snake in the distance. At last they reached the top of the moor, which extends for many miles, far past Scaw Fell Pike and on to Borrowdale.

The mourners had to pocket their decorously-held handkerchiefs on leaving the valley, for they found they had enough to do to keep up with the horse, which was a young one, and was proving rather restive under his unusual burden.

The man lading it picks his road well, and keeps it in with a firm hand, till they arrive at a place where the path makes an abrupt turn between two hills, and the strong east wind which is blowing suddenly takes his hat off. He makes a dart to catch it ; the horse, startled by the jerk given to his bridle, and excited more than ever by the wind, started to one side, and before the man could recover his hold of it galloped off as hard as it could over the hill, and was out of sight in no time.

The decorous train of mourners was soon changed into a perfect hunting party, but the chase was fruitless. The horse had spent a year of his colt hood on the moor, and knew it far better than they did; so after running, climbing and shouting until night came on, they had to give it up and return to Wasdale Head with their extraordinary tale.

The neighbours all turned out, and for many a day they scoured the moor, but never saw any trace of the brown horse or its burden.

Many a time did the lad’s old mother climb the fell behind the house as far as she could, and anxiously gaze over the moor, but she never saw a sign of the brown horse.

Time went on, and the snow was on the ground, but still day by day she climbed the hill, til finally she was taken with a severe cold, which, together with her fretting about her boy, soon overcame the poor old body. She grew weaker and weaker, til she also died. Again the messenger went round to “warn” the friends, again the camphorated garments were disinterred from the oak “kists;” and again the funeral feast was provided at Bout.

The Eskdale parson was requested to be at the church at twelve o’clock, and all the friends assembled early in the morning in order to be home before dark.

This time they decided to take the poor old grey mare, and on her firmly secured old Betty’s coffin, and again they climbed the steep hill onto the wild moor. None but strong men joined the party this time, for it was a stormy day, the wind was gusty, and dark packs of cloud on the fell tops betokened snow. With infinite trouble and fighting hard against the wind, they arrived at the place where the horse had made off with the boy.

“Ye mun haud tight, Will, round this corner,” said one of the party, to the man leading the mare.

“No fear,” said he. But he reckoned without his host. Down between those two hills the wind came rushing as through a funnel, driving with it a blinding sheet of snow.

The mare shied, stopped and bolted.

“By gorick, the mare's off,” cried the man, and off she was. They hunted and searched, as best they could, with the snow whirling and eddying round them, til one young man said, “Well, if she’s any sense, she’ll make for t’ tarn; horses left out late always mak for thear.”

So hither they all struggled, now over their knees in a snow drift, and then splash into a half frozen bog. Breathless with this severe exertion, they at length reached the shores of the small lake. An eerie looking place it is, the dead white snow all around making its black waters look all the blacker for the contrast, while the dark leaden looking clouds, resting on the tops of the surrounding mountains, increase the gloom and oppressive feeling of the place, it is as though you were completely shut in, with no chance of escape, not even from above.

Our funeral friends, however, have something else to do than to stop to think of the scene. It is too familiar to them to produce any deeper feeling than a slight shiver, and the remark, “Tisa terrible wild place this in winter.” All their energy is bent on finding the mare,

“Here,“ shouted the young man who had suggested coming to the tarn, “she’s been over here, I can see her hoof marks, the snow has nigh covered em, howiver.”

With these marks to guide them, they push on with renewed vigour. “But hist,” said one. “Here she is. So ho mare; so ho, good lass.”

Very cautiously they approached the animal, which is sheltering under a high rock. But what was their surprise to find that it was not the grey mare with old Betty, but, the long lost, often sought brown horse, almost white with snow, that they had caught. It, poor animal, was half frozen and testified to its joy at again meeting a friend, as best it could. Yes, there it was, the brown horse, and stranger still, there was Thomas’s coffin still attached to its back. The astonishment of the men knew n bounds

“Weel, to think we shud a fund him, just when we had lost his mother. Poor lad, he’s had a lang ride”

“Weel,” remarked another, rather matter of fact member of the party “there’s na use standing here in’t cold. As we canna find auld Betty and t’ mare, we’d best take Thomas to t’ kirk, we’s having a burying this time however.”

So Thomas Wilson rested with his father under the west gable, as his mother had prayed that he might, after a nine month wander over the fells. Not so old Betty. The grey mare was never caught, and still, on stormy nights, shepherds crossing the fells sometimes see in the distance a grey horse of gigantic size, wildly galloping over the moor in the direction of Scaw Fell, bearing on its back a strange and uncanny burden.

Westmorland Gazette 4th June 1879

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