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15 Oct: The corpse-way

If you have reason to be across the border in Suffolk and on The Causeway in Needham Market, take a moment to consider that you are taking the same journey as those who have given the bridle way its name for ‘causeway’ is a variation of ‘corpse-way’. It harks back to a time when the Black Death haunted Suffolk and it is said to be haunted by a boy (and a girl) in blue.

A 17th century funeral procession for a victim of the plague. CREDIT: Wellcome Collection

Like death itself, Corpse Roads are common in Britain, although you may have to search to find them: Coffin Way, Coffin Road, Bier Way, Lyke or Lych Way, they all bear an echo of their past purpose, to deliver the dead to their final resting place.

Such roads often pass through bleak and desolate places, off the beaten track and away from trade and travel routes, and became attached to folklore and legend with ghostly sightings commonplace – villagers would perform rituals at river crossings and crossroads on the pathways to prevent the spirits of the dead returning.

Because there was a belief that any route to church, particularly one where dead bodies would travel along, was a right of way, landowners were keen that tracks across their land did not become roads for traffic and trade: paths were routed through difficult terrain and marshland, meaning that winter deaths caused extra hardship to coffin bearers: there are tales of coffins sinking in mud along with mourners.

Needham Market used to be part of the hamlet of Barking and until 1901, St Mary’s was the parish church of both Barking cum Darmsden and Needham Market, and The Causeway led between the two which was used for funeral processions (the last in 1914).

The Corpse Way was surely in frequent use when the plague swept through the area in the 17th century, when Needham Market was chained at either end to prevent the spread of disease at the cost of two-thirds of the populace.

Ghosts have, as you might expect, been spotted on Corpse Way, although they have not taken the form of plague-ridden townsfolk – one is a Victorian policeman, the other a lady dressed in blue who keeps ahead of those on the path with her, vanishing when she turns a corner on the lane.

The policeman was, said the witness in the 1980s, so opaque and ‘real’ that the man only realised that something was amiss when he turned for a closer look at the strangely-attired figure, only to realise he was no longer there.


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