Sunday, 8 February 2015

Back in the day...

Haweswater
There are many places on the internet where you can find lists of the kit and equipment needed for fell walking - none better than the information provided by Mountain Rescue – but what if you had no choice?  What if you absolutely had to hike over the high fells but you didn’t have the correct waterproofs or several layers of the latest high tech thermals to protect you?  And what if, on top of all of that you had to manhandle a very large, very heavy box and/ or a truculent horse and cart?

Our recent research has often had me ensconced in nice warm libraries while Steve freezes outdoors taking pics – trust me, I LOVE the libraries part, but it’s a lot of fun when we get out on the fells together to get up close and personal with some of the stuff I’ve been reading about. 

Fairy Steps nr Silverdale
We’ve been uncovering old trade routes recently and, more interestingly, old coffin routes.  If a community didn’t have a church, they had to carry their dead to the nearest consecrated ground and that’s how coffin trails, or corpse roads as they’re also known, came to be.  Some of them are obvious and clearly labelled – such as the one we tackled this week near Haweswater – but some are hidden away and require a little more effort to track down.  There are also some, like the fairy steps near Silverdale, that make you wonder how they ever managed it.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to know where public footpaths and rights of way came from, how were they established in the first place?  Who were the first people to walk along them?  Why do they exist here and not there? Why did more than one person think it was a good idea to walk that particular route?

Obviously the answer to all those questions is never going to be straightforward – many began as communication routes between farms, others were old trade routes, some were built by the Romans, whereas others have symbolic significance or are shrouded in folklore and myth.  Whatever their origins one thing always strikes me when I’m standing on one; back in the day, folks would have walked these routes in all sorts of weather, without the protection of the many layers of expensive thermals and high tech waterproofs we have today.


The Old Corpse Road
At best routes would have been marked on rudimentary maps, but more often than not passed down from generation to generation simply by walking them – that they still exist today is testimony to how important they were back then.  There are many stories of people losing their way, surviving by sheltering in caves, falling from crags after getting lost in bad weather or just simply never returning.

You don't have to sit in a library to learn about the fells - next time you're up there take a closer look at your map, or study the hills around you while you're enjoying your coffee, and spare a thought for the poor folks through hstory who had to go up there whatever the weather, long before Gore-Tex was ever invented.

Tarmac road? Luxury!