The Lych Way or the Way of the Dead

Lydford Church.

Lydford Church. - Credit: David Phillips

Last time I kind of left you on a cliffhanger with dead bodies being left on the moor at the edge of the shaft into Chaw Gully awaiting burial.

This isn’t the end of the corpse’s story, no nothing so simple, this is Dartmoor in days of old after all!

Prior to 1260 it was the law of the land that all burials had to take place in the local parish church.

As it happens Dartmoor falls into the parish of Lydford, the largest parish in England.

So, unfortunately for Dartmoor dwellers, this meant a trek across some of the most inhospitable land in the country, transporting their dead, either by teams of pall bearers or on the backs of horses or other pack animals.

The routes they used criss-crossing the open moor became known as the Lych Ways or the Ways of the Dead - the Lych Gate that you have at churches, through which coffins pass, is the gate of the dead!

Although these paths are no longer used for the transportation of corpses, they still exist and appear on maps of Dartmoor for the use of walkers.

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They also contain many features of interest to people like myself, students of folklore.

To the north of the moor is a little copse called Coffin Wood, so named as this was used as a transfer station for teams of pall bearers passing on the coffin of the latest deceased.

Some say that on dark stormy nights you can still see flaming torches among the trees as the hand over of one such coffin is re-enacted all these years later.

To the south of the moor lies The Coffin Stone, on the slopes above Dartmeet, opposite Yar Tor.

This was used as a resting place for a coffin while the pall bearers made a handover.

If you visit it today you will see not only is it covered in the initials of some of the pall bearers, but that it is split in two.

This occurred one day when the coffin of a particularly wicked soul was placed upon it and right at that moment a thunderbolt struck the stone splitting it in two and incinerating both coffin and the corpse inside... it would appear that even God didn’t like the deceased!

In 1260, the parishioners of Widecombe in the Moor petitioned the Bishop of Exeter to allow burials in other churchyards, to overcome the inconvenience of transportation, after all they had the space, not for nothing was their church known as the Cathedral of the Moor!

The bishop agreed with them and so the law was changed allowing burials to begin in churches all across the moor.

If you visit Lydford Church today you can still see some of the headstones marking the earliest burials as well as more modern ones.

I have been there many times over the years and on one of the more memorable occasions I was in the company of a South Korean film crew making a documentary about an eccentric Englishman who did ghost hunting... don’t ask why they chose me!

Anyway, long story short, as we walked among the ancient headstones, the director, who spoke no English, spotted some with my surname, Phillips, on.

Before I could refuse or put him straight, he was filming me allegedly communing with my ancestors...

Before I finish with the dead on Dartmoor this week, we must return for another tale from the Warren House Inn.

This features a poor traveller struggling through the snow, one particularly harsh winter many years ago, desperate for a place to shelter for the night and a bite to eat.

As luck would have it, he came across the Warren House and threw himself on the mercy of the landlord.

Unfortunately for the traveller the Inn was full but the landlord took pity on the man and told him there was one small room left as long as he didn’t mind sharing with 'salted down feyther'.

Not understanding what the landlord meant, nor really caring as he was that desperate, the traveller took it and, after a hearty meal, a few pints of ale and a warm by the 'fire that never goes out', he made his way upstairs for some much-needed sleep.

He was shown to a tiny box room which contained a single bed and a large chest, there was little room for anything else!

As he got ready for bed, the man’s attention kept getting drawn to the chest. Finally his curiosity got the better of him and he had to open the lid.

To his horror inside was a corpse, stiff and covered in salt!

Needless to say, he spent a very restless night having nightmares full of dead bodies and the worry that he might suffer a similar fate to the deceased...the next morning he was up early and prepared to get on his way as soon as possible.

When the landlord saw the state of his guest and the haste with which he wanted to depart, he asked what the matter was?

The traveller asked him if he knew there was a dead body in his room! The landlord looked puzzled: “I thought you said you didn’t mind sharing with salted down feyther?”

It was then explained that feyther, in the Devonshire vernacular, meant father and that the poor chap had died a few weeks previously.

They had salted him down to preserve the body, as, due to the harsh wintry conditions, they hadn’t as yet been able to transport him to Lydford Church for burial.

Slightly relieved, the traveller hastily resumed his journey, vowing never to return to the wilds of Dartmoor again!