The old market town of Kirkby Lonsdale is a lovely place in which to base yourself while seeing the sights of south-east Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales National Park. With its splendid riverside location, its narrow lanes and its elegant cottages and townhouses dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it’s also a great place to explore in its own right.
The town and the surrounding area have a long history. There are Bronze Age remains and traces of Iron Age settlements just to the east of the town; a Roman road, linking the forts at Low Borrow Bridge and Over Burrow, followed the course of the River Lune; and the town itself is one of only a handful of places in what is now Cumbria that is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
The oldest building is the Norman church of St Mary’s, but even this stands on or close to the site of an earlier Saxon church. A visit reveals three sturdy columns in the north aisle featuring diamond patterns – similar to those in Durham Cathedral – that are thought to have been carved at the beginning of the twelfth century. In the churchyard is a memorial to five women who were “hurried into eternity” after a blaze at the Rose and Crown Inn in 1820.
Close to the church is Ruskin’s View. Painted by JMW Turner in the 1820s, the same spot was visited later in the century by the Victorian art critic and social theorist John Ruskin who proclaimed it to be “one of the loveliest views in England, therefore in the world”. From Ruskin’s View, a popular river walk heads downstream after descending the 86 Radical Steps, so-called because of the liberal views of Dr Francis Pearson, who had them built in 1830. The path continues along the banks of the River Lune to Devil’s Bridge, a medieval construction that towers a massive 45ft over the dark waters below. Local legend tells that the bridge was built by the Devil. He’s said to have appeared to an old woman who needed to cross the river, and offered to build it for her in return for the soul of the first living creature to cross. When she returned the next day, the bridge was completed, and the Devil waited eagerly for her to cross. First though, she pulled a bun from her bag and threw it across the bridge. Her dog ran after it, thwarting the Devil’s evil intentions.
More stories from Kirkby Lonsdale’s past are brought to life at The Vault in the Tourist Information Centre on the town’s Main Street. Visitors choose from a set of safety deposit boxes in a strong room at the back of the building, a former bank, and then discover the story behind the objects revealed using film and audio technology.
In recent years, Kirkby Lonsdale has developed an enviable reputation for the quality of its restaurants, cafés and inns, with several establishments receiving awards for their food offerings. It also has a good range of independent shops, an increasingly rare thing in the twenty-first century.