Weird Suffolk: Needham Market Corpse Way

A 17th century funeral procession for a victim of the plague. Picture: WELLCOME COLLECTION

A 17th century funeral procession for a victim of the plague. Picture: WELLCOME COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

If you have reason to be 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 – look out for the boy (and the girl) in blue.

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, just as the dead are covered on their final journey to the churchyard, so the names are covered to prevent fear from the living.

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.

The routes to church were fiercely guarded by the churches themselves which were as keen to own the souls of the dead as they were those of the living, burial fees paying no small role in their desire to keep a steady flow of corpses on the corpse roads.

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).

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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.

To this day, Chainhouse Road recalls the chains that ran across the east end of the town while Chainbridge on the west of Needham Market is a reminder of when townspeople would put vinegar-soaked money – to repel germs – out which would be taken in payment for food from those outside the chains.

Rumour has it that grass grew on the streets and the dead were buried in the fields near the Lion Inn, close to the bottom of Bridge Street where the sick houses and airing houses were provided on high ground for those lucky enough to survive the plague.

Decimated by disease, the town famous for wool combing never truly recovered from its brush with the black death.

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. Weird Suffolk has ascertained that the town’s police station was where The Causeway met the High Street and that our ghostly gentlemen could be either PC John Baker, Sergeant Reeve or Inspector Samuel Reeve. Sadly, no ghost was available for comment to confirm or deny our research.

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