A walk along the most expensive footpath in Cumbria

by Alan Cleaver

View from the other side: Alan takes us on a journey around Irton to see the sights and enjoy the outdoors  photo by Alan Cleaver

View from the other side: Alan takes us on a journey around Irton to see the sights and enjoy the outdoors photo by Alan Cleaver

IF I told you this was a walk along the most expensive footpath in the county, you might be expecting gold-leaf covered pavements but I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.

It is, for the most part, just an ordinary path – albeit through some beautiful countryside – and at times a path in a very poor condition.

It earns its unique place in our county’s history owing to a legal battle fought over the lord of the manor closing the path in 1899.

A court case that lasted two weeks, had dozens of witnesses and cost around £80,000 (or in today’s money an astonishing £8m!).

Worse than that: The jury could not come to a decision, so it was all a pointless exercise.

It began when Irton Hall owner Thomas Brocklebank (by all accounts normally quite a reasonable chap) got fed up of the footpath to the church passing right under his windows. So he built a brick wall.

Now, in England people may never walk a particular footpath, but the moment someone blocks it off there is traditionally hell to pay.

And so it was at Irton. Bootle parish council took up the case and began proceedings.

They probably regretted that decision – not least because the increasing costs meant they had to increase the parish precept to pay for the case.

The parish brought out countless witnesses who described how they had, since time immemorial, walked this path; it was even highlighted as a corpse road or church path. As the Lancashire Evening Post (March 10th, 1899) explained:

“The trial, after lasting a fortnight, although nominally for a much greater principle, was, says a contemporary, to a certain extent practically to determine the existence today of privileges believed to be conferred by a very old custom.

Most of the witnesses for the defence had something to say about the path chiefly in dispute being a ‘church path’ or a ‘corpse road’. Into the merits of the dispute it is not necessary to enter; the aspect now mentioned is simply one of antiquarian interest.

It recalls the days when hearses were unknown; when the coffin was carried shoulder high by relays of men – often by the sons or other male relatives of the deceased – to the church, taking scrupulous care to travel by the corpse road.

To the present time these routes are carefully followed, and the belief has not yet died that serious results to land-owners might follow a deviation, the passing of a corpse over a road making it a public thoroughfare.”

But all this was to no avail. The jury couldn’t decide and – if it’s any consolation – the case probably helped in persuading the government to appoint inspectors to sort out such disputes, rather than leave it in the hands of lawyers and judges.

The path itself now runs from outside Irton Hall’s grounds, so at some point Brocklebank presumably won. It’s perhaps ironic really, because now the Hall is open to the public as an eaterie they would probably welcome the tourist trade of people walking from the church, along the corpse road to Irton Hall for afternoon tea or an evening meal. There is also the delightful Woodland tearooms just round the corner.

The path enters from the main road and is a mixture of wide tracks, trods, ‘edge of fields’ and the occasional old stone gate pillars that hint of a once more glorious time for this path.

It’s clear that the needs of farming and lack of use have pushed this ‘ancient path’ to the edges, which make it an awkward walk – although there’s no doubting the breathtaking views of the Western Fells.

St Paul’s Church itself is delightful. It is largely Victorian but stands on the site of a more ancient church. In the churchyard is the ancient Irton Cross which stands some 10 feet high and is believed to date back to the early 9th Century.

What attracts perhaps the most tourists, though, are the stained glass windows, designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and made by William Morris & Co.

The 20th century archaeologist Mary Fair did much research here and talked about the four ancient paths meeting on the church.

If you follow the corpse road on towards its presumably original St Bees destination, then you will eventually come across something that is at last of age and beauty.

It eventually crosses the River Irt, with a quite remarkable stone bridge crossing it, suggestive of much heavy traffic (including coffins?!) in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The path meets up with the road leading to the A595.

Turn round and head back to Irton Hall or Woodlands tearooms for some refreshment.

Birds eye view: Map of the walk: © Crown copyright 2014 Ordnance Survey Media 089/14

Birds eye view: Map of the walk: © Crown copyright 2014 Ordnance Survey Media 089/14