“You’ll have to turn round in a minute,” says an elderly chap, walking his dog. “The footpath is closed.” He thumbs over his shoulder as his West Highland Terrier jumps up at my legs, demanding a fuss.
“I was hoping to see the view,” I explain, patting the excited Westie.
He shakes his head. “Too dangerous. Subsidence. The footpath is slipping into the river below.” He tugs at the lead. “Come along, Susie.”
They disappear into St Mary’s churchyard, leaving me feeling a little bewildered. It’s been many years since I last saw Ruskin’s View, and it looks like I shan’t be seeing it today.
Moments later, a fence bars my way forward. Draped across it is a huge banner declaring, “Save Ruskin’s View!”
Ruskin’s View first brought me to Kirkby Lonsdale nearly fifteen years ago. I’m so glad it did, for the town is a classic Cumbrian community, full of history, interesting buildings, and stories.
John Ruskin was a writer, philosopher, and art critic, and he walked along this very path in 1875. He was searching for the viewpoint overlooking the River Lune the artist JMW Turner had painted some sixty years earlier.
When Ruskin stepped onto the path ahead of me, high above the River Lune, he was astounded.
‘I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine,’ he declared.
That’s quite a statement, but the view is pretty special. It’s barely changed since Ruskin’s time.
Thankfully, I still have the photo I took when I was last here. Turner captured the sedately sauntering waters of the River Lune as they curve sharply at the foot of the cliffs. Behind it are gentle meadows and farmland and, in the distance, the rugged hills of the Yorkshire Dales.
Luckily for me, I don’t have to turn around and retrace my steps, because the Radical Steps are still open.
These 86 steps are steep, but they don’t appear to be that radical. Actually, the radical reference relates to Dr Francis Pearson, a political man who built these steps in 1820 so he could divert a public path that ran through his garden!
At the time, many locals were against the steps, which is why the radical name stuck.
They’re the perfect way to drop to the banks of the majestic River Lune. I follow a narrow path downstream and spot a heron fishing for some lunch.
It’s a popular stroll around some playing fields and the town’s cricket pitch, to reach the majestic three-arched Devil’s Bridge.
If local folklore is to be believed, the bridge got its name because the Devil agreed to build it in return for something he wanted. Here the river is narrow, rocky, and was a dangerous crossing point. An old woman lived on the river bank, and one night one of her cows crossed over, but she couldn’t coax it back.
So the Devil agreed to build a bridge for the woman in return for the first soul who crossed it.
The woman agreed, and the Devil was true to his word. But the next day, as the woman approached the bridge, she threw a hunk of bread across, and her dog rushed over to catch it. The Devil was highly displeased, but a deal is a deal.
The bridge actually dates from the 12th or 13th century, and its two largest arches are nearly 55-feet wide, which was a fine achievement for the time. Rather than the Devil, it’s believed monks from St Mary’s Abbey in York built the bridge.
The old bridge was too narrow, so the authorities built a new one in 1932 for modern traffic. It means the Devil’s Bridge is a safe space for pedestrians to linger and admire the river views.
On the other side of the river stands the Devil’s Bridge Snack Van. There’s always a queue for their famous bacon butties.
I might not be standing in the queue, but a sign informs me I am now standing in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, despite still being in Cumbria. And if that’s a little confusing, the Lancashire boundary is only 400 metres away!
Crossing back over, I follow Bridge Brow, lined with parked cars belonging to others enjoying the riverside, and turn into Main Street.
Impressive Georgian buildings line the street, although the town’s origins date back to before the Norman times. Drovers taking livestock to markets from the Yorkshire Dales and Cumbria often converged here, on their way to Lancaster.
Kirkby’s centre is dominated by the Market Square and its unusual, Grade II listed, octagonally shaped market cross. Thursdays are market days, and the town’s market charter has allowed them to sell fresh food here since 1227.
There’s an air of familiarity about the place, and not just because I remember it from my last visit. Kirkby Lonsdale’s Market Square has been seen all over the world, thanks to its television and film credentials.
In fact, the BBC caused quite a stir in 2013 when it transformed Kirkby Lonsdale into 1820s Cornwall for some of their adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Jamaica Inn.
Five years later, Hollywood came calling, and the Market Square was turned into a set for the Doolittle film starring Robert Downey Jr and Antonio Banderas. A scene in the film has a giraffe running around the Market Square, knocking over carts and stalls. In reality, a member of the production team rode around on a quad bike knocking into things, and computer graphics added the giraffe in later!
Kirkby Lonsdale has many independent shops, including a traditional sweet shop, gift shops, clothing stores, a general store, boutiques, a bookshop, and cafes and pubs.
There are many reminders that the town has always been a bustling place and a centre of trade. Beside a narrow alleyway, barely wide enough for one person to walk through, is a plaque.
Apparently, this used to be known as Cattle Market Yard, but was changed in 1911 to Salt Pie Lane. An enterprising woman used to make hot salted mutton pies and sell them to the local farmers who came to buy and sell cattle at the market.
When they’d eaten the salty pies, the farmers’ thirst would need quenching, so they’d nip into the nearby pub. The landlord just happened to be a relation of the enterprising pie maker!
Salt Pie Lane brings me into Horse Market, a narrow, if cosy lane of idyllic, quaint cottages, and then to another square called Swine Market.
This is one of the oldest parts of Kirkby Lonsdale, where farmers traded pigs and other animals. The medieval market cross is the town’s original, and was moved here from the Market Square in 1822.
The Swine Market has also appeared on television. David Suchet and Hugh Fraser also trod the cobbles here for a scene in the 1990 Poirot episode called Double Sin.
Soon I’m on the main road through town again, and next to The Sun Inn is a narrow lane leading back to St Mary’s Church.
This impressive building dates from Norman times and is Grade I listed. In the 14th century, the north and south walls were demolished and rebuilt to create a bigger building.
Some columns in the north arcade have an unusual geometric diamond pattern etched around them, similar to columns in Durham Cathedral.
Outside the main entrance is an open stone coffin. Thankfully, it’s empty, but an adjacent plaque explains how it would have been hewn out of stone for a nobleman.
The remains of another noble man lie unobtrusively in St Mary’s grounds.
In a quiet corner of the churchyard, set into the ground, is a simple plaque to Brigadier General Louis John Wyatt.
Few know his name, but he played an amazing role in British history. After the First World War, four unidentified soldiers were retrieved from the battlefields at Ypres, the Somme, Aisne, and Arras, and were taken to a makeshift chapel, where they were covered.
It was then Brigadier Wyatt’s job to pick one of them. Once chosen, he and a colleague placed the remains in a coffin, and they returned it to England for burial.
Brigadier Wyatt chose the unknown soldier who is now in Westminster Abbey and remembered on Armistice Day.
A short distance away lies an unusual object for a churchyard. It’s a two-storey octagonal stone gazebo. Originally, this was part of the neighbouring vicarage gardens and had a pitched roof.
Perched right beside the closed path to Ruskin’s View, and built around the same time JMW Turner painted this amazing landscape, it wouldn’t surprise me if the gazebo was built to fully appreciate the view.
But as I have discovered today, there’s much more to Kirkby Lonsdale than Ruskin’s View. Here’s hoping they raise the money to secure the footpath and open it up again soon.
- Kirkby Lonsdale is one of the few Cumbrian towns mentioned in the Domesday Book. It was called Cherchibi, meaning ‘village with a church’.
- The Royal Hotel used to be called the Rose and Crown, but changed its name after Queen Adelaide visited in 1847.
- Kirkby Lonsdale claims that 99% of its shops are independent retailers.
- The Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery Company launched a new beer called 1822 specifically to help raise funds to save Ruskin’s View.
- Saving Ruskin’s View could cost over two million pounds.
Kirkby Lonsdale lies on the A65, 6 miles east of the M6, Junction 36, and 17 miles north of Lancaster. Daily bus services connect with Kendal and Lancaster.
Want To Know More?
The Information & Gift Shop The Old Bank 29 Main Street Kirkby Lonsdale LA6 2AH
Tel: 015242 97177
Donate to Save Ruskin’s View: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/laura-keeler