What would Christmas be without our trimming the tree? Some believe that it was Prince Albert who introduced the custom of the Christmas tree to England, while others maintain that they were introduced to England by King George III’s German wife, Queen Charlotte. However, it was only circa 1848, after the London Illustrated News ran the engraving depicting showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating  around the Christmas tree with their children (above) that this tradition caught on with the public.
The painting above, Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree at Windsor in 1850 as painted by James Roberts (1824 – 1867), depicts presents around the tree from Prince Albert. We thought it might prove amusing to see what others had written about the Christmas tree in centuries past.
From Recollections from 1803 to 1837 by Amelia Murray:
“Christmas-trees are now common. In the early part of this century they were seldom seen, but Queen Charlotte always had one dressed up in the room of Madame Berkendorff, her German attendant; it was hung with presents for the children, who were invited to see it, and I well remember the pleasure it was to hunt for one’s own name, which was sure to be attached to one or more of the pretty gifts.”
From 20 Years at Court
The Hon. Eleanor Stanley (maid of honour to Queen Victoria, 1842-1862) to her Mother, Lady Mary Stanley, Windsor Castle, Saturday, Dec. 25th, 1847.
“Dearest Mama,—A merry Xmas, and many happy returns of the day to you and all the family at the dear old Castle. Yesterday evening we were desired, at a quarter to seven, to come down to the Corridor, to get our Gifts; we found all the gentlemen and Mrs. Anson already assembled, and presently the page desired us to go to the Oak-room, where the Queen and Prince already were, standing by a large table covered with a white cloth, in the middle of which was a little fir-tree, in the German fashion, covered with bonbons, gilt walnuts, and little coloured tapers. I send a bonbon as a Christmas box to little Blanche, which I took off the tree. . . . The children had each a little table with their new toys, and were running about in great glee showing them off; Prince Alfred, in a glorious tinsel helmet that almost covered his face, was shooting us all with a new gun, and Princess Alice was making us admire her dolls, etc. They had one Christmas tree among them, like us, but the Queen, Prince, and Duchess had each one, and altogether I never saw anything prettier than the whole arrangement.”
Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck
From The Memoirs of Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck
Cambridge Cottage, January 1, 1848.

“My Dearest Draperchen,  (her former governess, Miss Draper, whom she addressed as ‘Ma chere Draperchen), . . . Our Christmas went off very well. The room was beautifully decorated ; there were four fine trees, and these were connected by wreaths of laurel evergreens and holly.”

by the same author

Cambridge Cottage, January 9, 1849
“The Christmas holidays have been very happily spent by the inmates of Cambridge Cottage, and I have received a number of cadeaux! Our Trees were arranged in the Conservatory, which was hung with festoons of evergreens, from which transparent lamps were suspended. The whole was well lighted up, and looked remarkably pretty, and the three trees were quite covered with bon-bons and fruit.”
Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower

From My Reminiscences By Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower

“At Trentham, Christmas 1854, I find, on turning the pages of that record of my early years, much detail regarding our Christmas gifts and of the Christmas tree; now so general in English homes at Yuletide, but then hardly seen but in a few English houses. Our German tutor claimed to have introduced this pretty custom in this country in our family, the first implanted out of Germany having been erected by him in the hall at Stafford House. Until recently there was always one of these Christmas trees, richly decked, placed in one of the drawing-rooms at Trentham on Christmas Eve; and the household attended to see the illuminations and receive the gifts that were one by one cut off from the lighted boughs. No one was forgotten, from the most honored of the guests down to the kitchen-maids and stable-men. Christmas was worthily maintained in those days at Trentham. Generally after the tree there came a ball for the servants, given in a long gallery overlooking the stable-yard. All took part in the dances, which, with itscountry dances and Highland flings and reels, when the Scotch piper was in great demand, were always most successful festivities.”

From Letters by Lady Harcourt, December 17, 1885

“Yesterday I made an excursion to the city with Hilda Deichmann and her husband to buy things for our Christmas trees. It was most amusing ransacking in all the big wholesale houses, and reminded me of my childish days and similar expeditions to Maiden Lane . . . . . . . . Our shopping was most successful. All the prettiest things come from the German shops. The ginger-bread animals were wonderful,—some horses and dogs with gilt tails and ears most effective. The decorations were really very pretty—the stars and angels quite charming.”

by the same author

To G. K. S., Albert Gate, London, December 24, 1885.

“The sisters and I have been shopping all day getting the last things for the tree, which is to be on the 26th. The streets are most animated, full of people, all carrying parcels, and all with smiling faces. . . We wound up at the Army and Navy Stores, and really had some difficulty in getting in. They had quantities of Christmas trees already decorated, which were being sold as fast as they were brought in.”

Wishing you a memorable Christmas!

On The Shelf: A London Year


A London Year: 365 Days of City Life
in Diaries, Journals and Letters
Edited by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison

Not since Hibbert and Weintraub edited The London Encyclopedia has there been a book that has taken London history and served it up in so enjoyable, usable and entertaining a package. Taking entries from letters, diaries and journals written by over 200 people, from Tudor times to nearly the present, editors Elborough and Rennison break them down by date and offer them up in daily entries covering the 365 days of the year. Often, days have more than one entry and it’s amusing to hear the different voices of diarists who have lived in the same place across the centuries.

By turns chatty, introspective, informative, superfluous, descriptive, evocative and nonsensical, A London Year is a big, doorstop of a book that should be kept at the bed or fireside and dipped into at intervals as a treat. You’ll want to devour it at one sitting, but I urge you to instead savour it’s contents a bit at a time – and then go back to the beginning and start again. Otherwise, the book may prove addictive. This is truly a Christmas present of a book for everyone who loves London, even if that person should happen to be yourself.

Here are just a few entries from A London Year to whet your appetite:

William Bray, Diary, 1757

To Drury Lane Theatre: King Lear by Garrick. Agreed with the barber for shaving me at 6s. a quarter.

Lord Byron, Journal, 1813

Two nights ago I saw the tigers sup at Exeter Change. Such a conversazion! – There was a ‘hippopotamus,’ like Lord Liverpool in the face; and the ‘Ursine Sloth’ hath the very voice and manner of my valet – but the tiger talked too much. The elephant took and gave me my money again – took off my hat – opened a door – trunked a whip – and behaved so well that I wish he was my butler . . . .

Frank Hurley, Diary, 1916

All London is excitement on account of a Zeppelin raid which took place in the small hours of this morning. Four Zeppelins participated and two were brought down. Late at noon, a German seaplane dropped a bomb just in front of Harrods.

Noel Coward, Diaries, 1951

Went to the Tower Pier at six to go on a yacht party up the river. Very grand and enjoyable, particularly coming back and looking at the South Bank, which looks like a dog’s dinner, and the North Bank – floodlit – which with St. Paul’s, Somerset House, The Houses of Parliament, etc., was breathtakingly lovely. Felt tears spring to my eyes when one of the ship’s crew nudged me and said, “How’s this for `London Pride’, eh?'”

Charles Greville, Diary, 1830

I went yesterday to the sale of the late King’s wardrobe, which was numerous enough to fill Monmouth Street, and sufficiently various and splendid for the wardrobe of Drury Lane. He hardly ever gave away anything except his linen, which was distributed every year Theses clothes are the perquisite of his pages, and will fetch a pretty sum. There are all the coats he has ever had for fifty years, 500 whips, canes without number, every sort of uniform, the costumes of all the orders in Europe, splendid furs, pelisses, hunting coats and breeches, and among other things a dozen pair of corduroy breeches he had made to hunt in when Don Miguel was here. His profusion in these articles was unbounded, because he never paid for them, and his memory was so accurate that one of his pages told me he recollected every article of dress, no matter how old, and that they were always liable to be called on to produce some particular coat or other article of apparel of years gone by. It is difficult to say whether in great or little things that man was most odious and contemptible.

Sir Roy Strong, Diary, 1969

I arrived early at 115 Ebury Street . . . . in a flat painted all over in a particularly awful shade of 1940s green. But he did have good pictures by Mathew Smith and Graham Sutherland. It had never crossed my mind what kind of party this was to be but that began rapidly to dawn on me as not a woman appeared and twenty men gradually filled the room. I left as soon as I could decently extricate myself, appalled at the sight, amongst other things, of all those bottles of cosmetics ranked above his dressing table.

Nathaniel Bryceson, Diary, 1846

Old Walker, proprietor of the hotel, 33 Dean Street, Soho, corner of Queen Street, has had his house lately pointed down and painted, and has this day had a square lamp fixed, lit with gas which till now has been a round one with tin top and lit with oil, and which was no doubt the original one put up when the house was built, which is about 160 years. This is an alteration which I am both surprised and displeased at as the house preserved its ancient look so like hotel and tavern of the 17th century. The proprietor thereof is very old both in years and fashion, wearing at all times a black suit with breeches and black stockings, and as I have heard saw Margaret Nicholson attempt to stab George III.

Evelyn Waugh, Letter to Nancy Mitford, 1955

I knew a woman who could not bear to say `W.C.’ for the London postal district because of its indelicate associations and always said `West Central.’

R.D. Blumenfeld, R.D.B.’s Diary, 1900

Yerkes, the projector of the new Charing Cross, Euston, and Hampstead electric underground, said to me that in spite of the opposition which he meets at every turn he proposes to go ahead with it. He has secured the backing of some large American financiers to the extent of $30,000,000, and he predicted to me that a generation hence London will be completely transformed; that people will think nothing of living twenty or more miles from town, owing to electrified trains. He also thinks that the horse omnibus is doomed. Twenty years hence, he says, there will be no horse omnibus in London. Although he is a very shrewd man, I think he is a good deal of a dreamer.

Sydney Smith, Letter to the Countess Grey, 1834

I am better in health, avoiding all fermented liquors, and drinking nothing but London water, with a million insects in every drop. He who drinks a tumbler of London water has literally in his stomach more animated beings than there are men, women and children on the face of the globe.

Dickon Edwards, Diary, 2005

After viewing Mr. Nicholson Senior’s art at the RA, I sit in Borders Books Café, Charing Cross Road. The café is now a Starbucks, so I only use it if the one in Foyles (still an independent family business) is full up. And then, as I do in all Starbucks, I only ever order tea. Tea drinking as a revolutionary act, I like to think. The joke’s on me, as their tea is revolting. Clever, very clever . . . . .

A London Year: 365 Days of City Life
in Diaries, Journals and Letters
Edited by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison
Now available on Amazon


From  Christmas Cards & Their Chief Designers By Gleeson White (1894)

The origin of the Christmas card is, fortunately for its future historians, not lost in the mists of antiquity, that popular hiding place for all sorts of origins; but as clearly fixed as Archbishop Usher’s date of Creation – B.C. 4004 – with more trustworthy evidence to support it. In 1846, Sir Henry Cole (then plain Mr) suggested the idea of a specially designed form of greeting to send to friends at Christmas. Mr J. C. Horley, R.A., acting on the hint, produced a design of a trellis of rustic-work, in the Germanesque style, divided into a centre and two side panels. In the panels are figures representing two of the acts of charity, “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked;” in the centre is a picture of a merry family party, including three generations, grandparents to grandchildren, quaffing draughts of wine.

It was evident that some such individual, whether called buyer or commercial traveller, comes between the manufacturer and the retailer in almost every instance. Not only has this personage to reckon with the taste of shop-keepers, which varies from the best to the worst, with a tendency to the latter, but he has also his own standard to defend. Hence he sells most readily not only those goods the average retail trader is most likely to choose for himself, but a great many others which, since they approve themselves to the vendor, he can recommend with sincerity. It is strange that this needle’s eye, through which so much Applied Art has to pass ere it reaches the public, is not more often recognised as the chief obstacle to its progress. The public should not be held responsible for declining to purchase goods which never came under its eyes; the manufacturer should not be held blameworthy for the poor level of the Art he offers, when, possibly, he has tried and tried in vain to induce his travellers and the trade buyers to support his efforts to produce good designs.

Although 1846 has been so far accepted as the undisputed date of the first card, just before going to press, Mr Jonathan King, the owner of the largest collection, has called my attention to a paragraph in a journal of some standing, where a Mr Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, is said to be the real inventor of the Christmas card, seeing that a year or two before the above date he issued one, with a laughing face, and the motto “A Gude New Year to Ye.” Whether this be the card which is elsewhere said to have been engraved on a copper- plate by a workman, Daniel Aikman, in 1840 or 1841 and published with a Scotch motto, I am unable to prove. Should either of these statements be accurate, although one might, without special pleading, claim that a New Year secular greeting is not quite the same as one marking a religious festival, it would be best to give later inventors equal credit, and assume, what would be probably correct, that neither knew of the doings of the others.

So, too, the statement that engravers’ apprentices of Northumberland or Yorkshire (the stories differ, and one questions if such a class of artists exists in either place in sufficient numbers to found a custom), are in the habit of sending specimens of their own work to friends at Christmas, and have done so for a long period, may or may not be true, but is hardly likely to have been the source whence the card was derived. Equally difficult is it to obtain any details of Messrs Goodall’s cards in 1862 (or 1864, authorities vary,) which were probably the first issued to the ordinary trade. Despite a former sentence crediting Messrs Goodall with the honour of being the first publishers of Christmas cards, (always excepting the Sir Henry Cole card of 1846,) and, notwithstanding the fact that several of their cards, issued in 1864 and 1865, from designs by C. H. Bennett, are reproduced here, it is possible that other candidates might put forward reasonable claims.

It seems probable that ornamented note paper and envelopes appeared just before the cards, that the designs in relief, identical with those on the stationery named, were either simultaneously or very shortly after stamped in the centre of a card, which had its edges coloured or embossed. Certain it is that T. Sulman was very early in the field with relief-decorated paper and cards, and with lithographed designs. Leighton, of Fleet Street, and Mansell, of Red Lion Square, are also amongst the first, while R. Canton, (who started Valentine and Birthday card production in 1840,) and Dean & Sons issued many of their publications with special Christmas mottoes. The innovation of stamping reliefs in two ormore colours is dated to 1858. The introduction of foreign “chromo-lithograph pictures,” to replace those hitherto coloured by hand, or by stencil, is traced to Elliott, of Bucklesbury, in 1850, and to Scheffer and Scheiper, (I have but the phonetic spelling of these names,) in 1851. This item in the preparation of “made-up” Birthday Cards and Valentines had hitherto been very rudely prepared by colouring plain embossed relief with a brush, or stencilling lithographs, afterwards embossed and cut out.


An improvement in these devices is traced to a man whose professional occupation was to colour designs upon linen bands for the Irish trade. These cut out devices were prepared at a cost of 4d. per 1,000, the hands earning about 15s. a week, until Germany sent over more cheaply produced imitations at one-sixteenth of the cost. Thierry, of Fleet Street, known as the father of the Christmas card trade, was, doubtless, the first to introduce the elaborately embossed reliefs which afterwards came over in cart loads. Then they cost 8os. per 100 sheets, now their price has fallen to 10s. the 100 for large quantities. When one remembers that at first—and for many years after- a large majority of the cards, (which, however little they interest us here, helped to spread the fashion), were made up from foreign chromo-lithographs, even by firms of the high standing of Marcus Ward, we find that this importation of foreign embossed relief takes its place as an important commercial factor in the rise of the industry.

With Messrs Marcus Ward & Co., who started the production of Christmas cards as early as 1867, coincidentally with the opening of their London house, however, we come to a very different class of manufacturers. Here is a house, one of the earliest in production, with a record that reaches the highest level of decorative excellence ever touched by the Christmas card. This firm for awhile monopolised the whole of the better-class trade. Beginning with the use of German ” chromos,” usually mounted on card with lithographed borders in gold and colours, of home manufacture, they soon issued reproductions of original designs by artists of repute, and gained a position where they stood without rivals. It was, I believe, owing to the acute perception of one of the partners of this firm, Mr. William H. Ward, that Miss Kate Greenaway was “discovered” as a designer. At the earliest “Black and White” Exhibition at the Dudley Gallery Mr. Ward’s attention was drawn to Miss Greenaway’s work; and recognising that her special talent was in the direction of costume figures and dainty colours, he induced her to design for the firm.

Illustrator Kate Greenaway designed this card entitled “The Merry Dance When Dinner’s Done.”
Christmas card by Kate Greenaway
Christmas card by Kate Greenaway
It is this characteristic which must be reckoned to the honour of Marcus Ward’s cards; not because they employed celebrated artists more freely than other firms—capable designers indeed were commissioned, but their list of well-known painters will not compare in mere numbers for a moment with those of several of their near rivals—but because they saw that an architectural, not a pictorial, aim was the correct one. To talk of architecture in connection with so ephemeral an object as a Christmas card may sound absurd, but, nevertheless, I think all students of decoration must admit that its treatment should be more nearly allied to the surface decoration of buildings than to transcripts of nature, which are, in theory, attempts to imitate the out-look from a window of the building. This latter, usually held to be the aim of the pictorial artist, cannot be employed without degradation upon mechanically-produced reproductions in colour; but the artificial convention — the idea of decorative as distinguished from pictorial art— wherever you find it for stained glass, mosaic, enamel, inlay or colour printing, has another purpose to fulfil, which is more admirably achieved when the limitations of the material are duly observed.
Note: Alternately, the Hyperallergic site has published an article on Creepy Christmas Cards, which you’ll find here.


by Victoria Hinshaw

The Prince of Wales, afterwards King George IV, after Sir William Beechey, circa 1806
George Prince of Wales was only 17 years old when he attended a performance of Florizel and Perdita, a play adapted from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.  In the words of actress Mary Robinson’s biographer, Hester Davenport, the Prince “was looking for a woman to worship,” perhaps HAD been looking already, when he sat in his box at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and “fell in love.” 
As Ms. Davenport points out, this was not Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, but an adaptation by David Garrick, known as Florizel and Perdita, in which Perdita is a sweet and charming maiden. The Prince sent Mary notes addressed to Perdita and signed them Florizel, as though they were the characters in the play. So began his first publicly known affair, the first of many.  
Mary Robinson by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Mary was born Mary Darby in Bristol in November of 1757 or perhaps 1758, which made her a few years older than the prince (b. 1762). Her “disastrous” marriage at age 16 to Thomas Robinson brought her a daughter, Maria Elizabeth (b. 1774), but little financial or emotional support. Eventually, she began to perform on the London stage, often in “trouser roles,” playing young men and displaying her fine figure for all to admire.
Though Prince George did not remain faithful to her for long, Mary was known as Perdita all her life.  While she enjoyed the Prince’s attentions, she was the toast of London, extolled and excoriated in the newspapers, the object of considerable gossip in noble salons, especially among the males.

By the time the fanciful caricature above was published in 1783, the relationship was “quite out of date.” When the Prince quite publicly took up with other females, Mary refused to send back all his letters and other tokens of his fickle adoration. Later she received a not-so-secret payment in exchange for the return of some of them.

In 1781, Mary sat for a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, commissioned by the Prince. In this version of the painting in the Wallace Collection above  (another is in the Royal Collection), Mary holds a miniature of the Prince in her right hand.

Mary had only a brief time in the limelight of the London demi-monde. Only a few year later, she was reported to be “desperately ill.” Various explanations for her condition have been suggested, but the causes of her maladies remain mysterious. In May of 1791, she published a book of poems, “a small but handsomely bound volume with marbeled end papers,” made possible by sums raised by 600 subscribers, including the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, the Duke of Clarence and many other luminaries.

In 2010, Kristine and Victoria, along with Kristine’s daughter, Brooke, visited with Hester Davenport in Windsor, here at the Castle.

Hester Davenport chronicles the reception Mary’s book received. Readers seem to ask, “How was it possible to connect the frivolous woman of 1780s gossip with a writer of pensive odes, elegies and sonnets?” That Mary acquired the title ‘The English Sappho,’ possibly at her own instigation, may have added to the this (seductive) sense of being wooed.

Visiting the burial site of Mary Robinson in Old Windsor with Hester Davenport

Mary lived only a few more years, dying in 1800, having never recovered her health. She had, however, continued to write poetry as well as her memoirs, several novels, plays and feminist essays.  

Mary Robinson as Perdita by John Hoppner, 1782

As an endorsement of the value of her literary work, the painting of Mary Robinson by Hoppner, above, was acquired for the Chawton House Library, where it is displayed prominently. Many works by Mary Robinson are available from their website. Her biography is here.

We all hope that future scholars will pay attention to this fascinating woman and her body of work. In the epilogue of her biography, Hester Davnport writes, “Mary Robinson was dead: the talented actress, spectacular Cyprian, accomplished and industrious  author, committed feminist and radical, charming and witty hostess, spendthrift, devoted daughter and mother, compassionate, sensitive and sometimes spikily difficult woman.  A genius? Perhaps only in her extraordinary versatility, but not undeserving of the ‘One little laurel wreath,’ she craved.”

Mary Darby Robinson (1758? – 1800)
Note: Victoria, Jo Manning and Kristine lost their dear friend Hester Davenport in September 2013. We like to think that she and Perdita are together, drinking tea and catching up on two centuries worth of gossip.



Anyone who knows the Brits knows at least these two things.

1. No one does ceremony as well or for as many events as them.

2. No one assigns specific places to specific events as well as they do.

What else might account for the existence of specific routes known as corpse roads recorded from as early as the medieval era? In fact, some research indicates they might well have been assigned and traveled from a time as far past as the Neolithic period. But more about that later.

These paths were known by a variety of names and whilst many are lost and long forgotten, some are still apparent and even marked by signs. Their names included:

Corpse road                                     Burial road

Coffin road                                       Lyke road or way

Bier road                                           Funeral way

Lych road or way                             Church way

NOTE: Lych is the Old English word for corpse.

Now that we have the “what” out of the way, let us discuss the “why.”

Up until the late 16th to early 17th centuries the larger mother churches in England reserved the right to conduct burials for themselves. And for a very good reason. Burials brought in money to the church’s coffers. As a result, many people who died in rural villages or any distance from a mother church had to be conveyed to these churches for a proper burial. Most of these people were poor. Many did not own a horse or a cart, and if they did, these equipages could not be spared for the long trip to one of these churches. They had work to do at home.

Therefore, more often than not, the dead person had to be carried by men from home or from their home village great distances on foot to be afforded the aforementioned proper burial. Generally the party consisted of eight men who worked in teams of four in a procession that might consist of simply those eight men or might include those members of the family and even friends who could afford to take the time to attend. However, most of the time, the body was conveyed separately over the corpse road whilst the mourners traveled a more direct route.

It is important to remember that quite a few people during these eras could not afford a coffin. Many villages and most mother churches had a coffin that was used to convey a body from home to the church. It would then be left at the church for the next person to use. This multi-use casket could be made of wood or could be made of wicker, a large human-sized wicker basket with two handles on each side. In these cases, bodies were buried in shrouds.

A few logistics when it comes to corpse roads…

Corpse roads could be as short as five or six miles and as long as ten to sixteen miles. The corpse road from Keld to Grinton in Yorkshire, known as the Swaledale Corpse Way is every bit of sixteen miles.

Swaledale Corpse Way – North Yorkshire

Corpse roads were not a strictly British tradition. There were and are corpse roads all over Europe. Most of these, however, are lost to history. As late as the 19th century Ordinance Survey maps in Britain still documented 42 of these funerary ways.

Corpse road in Huntingstile, Grasmere, Cumbria


The directions and locations of corpse roads were determined by a few factors. Some of these factors were practical. Some, frankly, were deeply seated in tradition and superstition.


1. The corpse roads tended to go immediately away from the village. No one wanted a corpse carried by their front door.

2. There was a bit of folklore about corpse roads that declared any road by which a corpse traveled became a public right of way. There is no legal evidence to support this, but even 19th century landowners still posted signs that forbade any funeral processions from crossing their property. This meant large swaths of land were removed from the possible route of a corpse road.

3. There were two schools of thought on the actual path of a corpse road. Some parts of Britain held the belief that spirits of the dead could only travel in a straight line. Therefore routes were planned in a straight line from a particular village to the mother church in order to ensure the spirit traveled with the corpse all the way to the burial ground. They didn’t want him hanging about in fields or worse in taverns along the way because he got lost and couldn’t find his way to his own funeral.

There was also a theory that a coffin sterilized the land along the way it was carried because the dead were forced to walk that path until their soul was purged. Those who believed this made certain the corpse road was a straight route which meant the way passed over whatever terrain was in the way in order to achieve that straight line.

The other school of thought was that since spirits could only travel in a straight line, the corpse road needs must be a meandering path to ensure the spirit did not find its way back home. This accounts for some of the wandering, twisting turning aspects of some corpse roads. As much as one might love the dearly departed, one certainly did not want him showing up at the supper table two weeks after the funeral.

The tradition of the straight line is rooted in those ancient burial routes mentioned at the beginning of this post. Neolithic earthen avenues called cursuses linked burial mounds. In fact,  these routes ran for miles, and as seen especially from the air are straight, or straight in segments, connecting funerary sites. There is even one just outside Stonehenge.

Neolithic cursus to Stonehenge






4. In aid of keeping that straight line route, corpse roads passed over every sort of terrain imaginable with little to no thought as to the effort it might take to haul a corpse over said terrain. A section of the Pennine Way follows the historic corpse road from Garrigill to Kirkland over Alston Moor and over Cross Fell, a height of 893 meters. In the 16th century, one funeral party, overcome by a snowstorm, reputedly abandoned the coffin on the fell for a fortnight.

Cross Fell Corpse Road

5. All corpse roads were set to cross water at some point in the journey. Whether it be a stream, a brook, or a river the path had to take the party carrying the corpse over water. Why? Because spirits supposedly could not cross over water. Once the body crossed water there was no way a spirit could find his or her way back home.

6. Routes often were extended in order to avoid passing over farmers’ fields. This was due to the belief that should a corpse pass across a farmer’s field that field would be soured and never again produce good crops. Anyone traveling in the UK today will often see an unploughed strip of land along the edge of fields wide enough for two men to walk abreast. These strips were left deliberately so that the corpse road could travel along the fields without crossing and souring the land.


As one can perhaps imagine, there are a great many superstitions associated with corpse roads. Some had explanations. Some defied explanation, but they were held steadfastly by those who were raised to believe them. Which accounts for some of the odd quirks associated with traveling and reaching one’s final destination on a corpse road.

1. Throughout the route, the corpse is carried feet first to the graveyard. In other words the body must be carried with the feet pointed away from the departed’s home. Why? To prevent him from finding his or her way home.

2. The coffin was never to be placed on the ground for the coffin-bearers to rest. Why? Apparently there was a chance if the coffin touched the earth the spirit of the departed might wander off. Therefore, flat stones, known as coffin rests or corpse crosses, were established along the corpse road so the bearers might place the coffin there and rest before continuing on their way. This was often where the team of bearers would switch out so as not to tire themselves along the way.

These coffin stones were usually found in lonely places away from any houses or villages. Many had their own legends attached to them. The one found on the corpse road between Keld and Muker in Yorkshire lies on Kisdon Fell just over Ivelet Bridge. It is said to be haunted by the ghost of a headless black dog. No explanation. Just a headless black dog hanging about the coffin rest.

Coffin Rest Grasmere
Lamplugh Coffin Rest

As you can see, the coffin rest came in a variety of styles, but they all served the same purposes – to give the bearers a rest and to keep the departed from wandering off on the way to his or her funeral.



3. The corpse candle is another tradition associated with the corpse road, especially in Wales, the land of my ancestors. This was a mysterious light that supposedly was seen traveling a corpse road the night before a death. The light would be seen traveling from the churchyard to the front door of the person destined to die and then back to the churchyard. This was the spirit of the soon to be departed tracing the route they were about to take.

The light would travel close to the ground and disappear into the ground where the burial was to take place. Some said the lights were the spirits of the dead trying to lead travelers astray. Other legends declared them to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn babies caught between heaven and hell.

4. Crossroads were considered the most dangerous part of a corpse road. According to superstition, crossroads were where the veil between this world and the next and this world and the underworld was at its thinnest. It was believed the devil could appear at a crossroads. Crosses were placed at these intersections (hence the name) to protect travelers from the devil and any wayward spirits who were lost on their way to the graveyard. Other talismans called witch balls were also hung at crossroads. A witch ball consisted of a bottle or enclosed glass vessel which contained threads and charms. The threads were there specifically to ensnare passing spirits thus trapping any evil or negative energy and keeping the way safe for the living.

The final stop

Once the bearers reached the mother church there was one last tradition that marked the end of the corpse road. The bearers would take their burden to a specific door or gate at the church and wait for the clergy to come and assume responsibility for the body. Members of the clergy and their staff would be in charge of making final preparations to the body for burial. Here was also where the community coffin would be left for the next person in need of it.

These doors were often called leper doors and the gate was called the lych gate. (Remember, lych was the Old English word for corpse.) Again these gates might be very simple or quite elaborate. My first encounter with a lych gate was in the village of Kelsale in Suffolk where I lived for three years as a child.

Lychgate Church of St. Peter and St. Mary Kelsale, Suffolk, England

For more about lych gates check out our earlier post on the subject.

Corpse Roads Today

As stated at the beginning of this post, many of these corpse roads are still known and visible today. In fact, hikers include these pathways on their lists of places to hike throughout the UK. There are, in fact, road signs that will direct hikers to these roads when possible. Some of the most popular are:

Ambleside to Grasmere, Cumbria

Black Mountain, Carmarthenshire

Lych Way, Devon

Coffin Route, Outer Hebrides

Buttermere Corpse Road, Cumbria

Kintail, Highland

Garrigill to Cross Fell, Cumbria

Swaledale Corpse Way, North Yorkshire

The obligatory ghost story

Of course there are ghost stories aplenty associated with nearly every corpse road in England. Along the Elksdale Corpse Road there is the story of the family who made the mistake of carrying their departed son on horseback to the mother church. Crossing Burnmoor the mist was thick and eerie. Something spooked the horse which took off with the coffin and body strapped on his back. The party searched and searched but found neither the horse nor the son.

The news of what had happened to her son’s corpse so devastated his mother that she collapsed and died. Low and behold, the funeral party had not learned their lesson. The horse on which they conveyed her body took fright and bolted as well. In their search for her they found the son’s horse, alive, body and coffin still strapped to his back. However, no matter how far and wide they looked they never found the mother or her horse.

To this day there are reports of a ghostly horse with a coffin strapped to its back appearing out of nowhere to frighten the wits out of anyone foolish enough to follow the Elksdale Corpse Road.

Some advice? Don’t hike the corpse roads at night. Even the locals won’t do that. Just in case.

Yorkshire Moors

Now it is that time of night, that the graves all gaping wide, every one lets forth his sprite, in the church-way paths to glide.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

William Shakespeare