August 2nd, 2013
What a magical feeling when some people who were, just a moment ago, simply ‘people’ in a photograph I took (the group in the background below), make me stop and have an encounter with them – on this occasion initiated by a request to take a family portrait. ”You do know what you’re sitting on?” I said. “Yes. The place they rested the coffins”. We engaged in chat as one does. It emerged they were three generations of an adult family – mother, children and one grandchild, who had come back to the place they used to holiday as children to commemorate the recent death of their father. “A walk down memory lane”, as they put it.
The Coffin Route: Ambleside – Rydal – Grasmere
I felt that was as apt a description as it ever would be as I walked along the Coffin Route between Ambleside and Grasmere – one of several in this area. These routes were used from the 13th century (or possibly earlier) on Sundays in all weathers for churchgoers to descend from their farms in the valleys to their nearest parish church. This Coffin Route led to St. Oswald’s church in Grasmere – the only parish church in the area, until a small chapel was built in what is now Ambleside in the 16th century. Even then, the trek still had to be taken to St. Oswald’s to mark births, deaths, and marriages, and it remained the only church with a graveyard. It is not until the construction of the Turnpike Road in the 19th century that piety became less of an arduous task. Along the routes are large flat stones upon which the coffin bearers rested their load, on what would have been a difficult trek on uneven terrain.
A stone coffins were rested upon
St. Oswald’s, Grasmere
Imagining the scene, John M. Carnie writes in ‘At Lakeland’s Heart‘:
Unless the weather be particularly fierce these will not have been silent and lifeless lines [of people], but small clusters full of laughter, chatter, movement, as the week’s events are related, gossip exchanged, even some business done. For most, it is the only opportunity to socialise, and, resenting the imposed trek, they make the most of it.
I appreciated the route for its mundanity, and I thought of all the people who would have walked it across the centuries – young and old, happy and grieving, reflecting on the week past or remembering the life of another.
Every encounter I have along the way is an opportunity for passers by to become the characters they are in my story – their lives opening out into mine and mine into theirs. We became a part of each other’s summer on that St. Swithin’s Day, as the tales were picked up and carried onwards.
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Sarah Thomas is Penguin's Wayfarer and she'll be walking and writing for us all summer. Follow her journey here!