Not too far from me lies a secluded little nature spot called Viridor Wood, a long and pretty woodland where dog walkers roam, families have picnics, foragers pick wild edibles and sometimes, Witches explore. You see, deep within the wood lays the remains of a long and almost forgotten part of Lancashire history and folklore; a corpse road that runs (part way) along a brook by the name of Coffin Lane Brook. Today, this brook is largely hidden in dense barriers of nettles, cleavers and deadly water hemlock (appropriate really that Britain’s most deadly indigenous plant, one that can kill in just a few short hours, should grow so abundantly by the brook of an ancient corpse road).
Bryn Gates in Wigan, Lancashire, rests between the village of Abram and the town of Ashton-In-Makerfield. Prior to the mining industry of the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, Abram, like many other rural or semi rural areas, was left somewhat remote from surrounding towns and cities. This meant that in the event of a local person dying, it could be quite a long journey to the nearest church for burial. This led to the formation of what we now call Coffin lanes (sometimes also known as Coffin, Corpse or and Bier (burial) roads). These were straight, linear routes for funeral processions to the nearest parish church.
Usually, a body would be carefully loaded upon a horse and cart, if this was not possible, the dead would be carefully carried by pallbearers, potentially for many miles!
Along the Coffin roads, it was common for there to be occasional stop markers, such as a cross, stone slab or stile (to rest the coffin on), or Lych gates (if you were early for the service and had to wait outside the church). At these rest sites, mourners would be able to pause for a few moments, catch their breath, say prayers or recite psalms over the coffin that held a loved one, and perform regional funerary rites. These rites often vary from region to region, but could involve raising a glass to the dead with a favourite drink, or ‘turning the coffin’ – superstitious means of supposedly preventing the ghost of the deceased following the mourners home again after the service. This would involve rotating the coffin clockwise and having their feet point towards the church and not home.
Where Coffin lanes and Corpse Roads are becoming a rarity in the U.K, largely due to disuse, it is not uncommon to occasionally spot Lych gates outside of older churches, or see coffin stones/stiles along remote walkways.
And for those of us who know where to find our local Corpse roads, they often serve as a phenomenal liminal place of power. To the Folk Witch (both modern and historic), places such as Corpse roads served as equally as sources of power along with the more commonly used traditional Church or graveyard. However, it’s useful to note that one is less likely to be caught when performing a rite or working at a secluded coffin road then they are in a graveyard. A place where local Vicars, Priests, Vergers and Parish wardens often like to keep a wary eye out for young vandals and Witches. For the Folk Witch, where there is a will there is a way. If we cannot work in a graveyard to commune with the dead, we simply find a cross roads or coffin way…
Folk witches and Cunning folk have been harnessing the energies of liminal spaces such as water ways, church yards, coffin roads, woodlands, bridges and moors for time immemorial. As humans that constantly look to the outside of statistical and social norms, Witches seem to naturally gravitate to the places in nature that are neither hither nor thither. Neither a place of the living or the dead, the places at the forest edge, where water and land meet, or wild and desolate moorlands that are neither completely abandoned or fully inhabited. To the Witch, these are the in-between places where reality can bend and shift ever so slightly, in a way that it can reveal hidden truths, secrets and wisdom to the Witch that seeks them.
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Thank you very much for taking time to read this week’s blog, I hope you enjoyed it and that perhaps it has inspired you to research your own regions folklore and customs around corpse roads and funeral lore!
From the time, mists, and the distance between us, blessings from me to you.