The Lune valley, stretching up from Morecambe Bay and Lancaster into the Yorkshire Dales, is a little-noticed gem of Northern England, and one of its best facets is the town of Kirkby Lonsdale.
Kirkby stands on the western side of the valley, where the Lune leaves the bucolic green hills of Lancashire and heads towards the harder grandeur of the Middleton and Howgill fells.
It’s an area, dotted with grand houses, that I was once told by a member of staff of the Prince of Wales is known in some circles as the Cumbrian Cotswolds, and the town boasts some high-class shopping, eating and drinking.
But it also rewards exploration with a neatly-kept centre mainly built at least 100 years ago and often far older, with stories to tell, and this walk of less than two miles will give you a taste.
A word of warning, though: After heavy rain, the River Lune rises high enough to flood the second half of the route under a dangerous torrent, and only the first half of this walk is possible.
Church of St Mary
The route starts at the Parish Church of St Mary, a fine building with origins going back to the 12th century, standing in a graveyard large enough to be both the start and finish of the route with some of the best kept until last.
Although there is a lot of pay and display parking in the centre, I tend to drive a little further on the B6254 signposted to Old Town and Old Hutton, where you can usually find unlimited and free spaces on the right.
It will add perhaps a quarter-mile to your walk, but also takes you underneath the unusual architectural joke that supports the porch at the Orange Tree pub.
Walk through the ornate gates to the churchyard, passing the war memorial on your right and turn past a holly tree onto a narrow path that heads straight towards a fine rectory, by a tall monument to five women who died in a fire at the Rose and Crown Inn, in 1820.
Small Flat Gravestone
A little further on, look carefully to your right and you will see a small flat stone marking the grave of Brigadier General Louis Wyatt.
It’s an unexpectedly modest monument that makes no mention of the striking mark this World War One officer left on the history of the nation for which he fought.
Many thousands of those who died in more than four years of conflict from 1914 to 1918 had no known grave and it was decided in 1920 to mark their sacrifice with a single tomb in Westminster Abbey, containing the remains of a serviceman “known only to God”.
He would be buried with great ceremony and represent, for the families who could never have a grave to visit, those thousands of lost combatants.
Four unrecognisable bodies were exhumed, one from each of the great battlefields of northern France, the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Aisne.
They were laid out in a makeshift chapel, each covered with a union flag, and just after midnight on 8th November 1920, General Wyatt chose one.
With the help of a Colonel, he placed it in a coffin and screwed down the lid. Three days later the coffin was buried in the Abbey.
Since then many millions of people have paid their respects to the man whose poor, battered remains were chosen by the officer whose own grave here is so simply marked.
Walk back to the church, around the west end and turn left, heading not for either of the entrances marked by large iron gates but for the far corner and an almost hidden way onto a cobbled path that wriggles through into a small square.
You are now in one of the oldest parts of Kirkby Lonsdale, an area at the back of the fine buildings of Main Street, and this is Swine Market, as the name suggests the place where pigs and other animals were once traded and probably slaughtered as well.
It must have once been a noisy and smelly place, but the cottages and houses around are now converted into desirable homes and on the busiest days this is a quiet corner, with a real feeling of history.
Walk straight on across Mill Brow and you will find yourself in another important part of any medieval town, Horse Market.
Where the lane bends to the left, turn right into Salt Pie Lane and emerge a few moments later in Kirkby’s busy and colourful Main Street, bustling with shoppers and in this picture decked with flags to celebrate the relaxation of a Covid lockdown.
Turn left, and you will find the town’s current Market Place. On Thursdays up to 30 stalls will fill the space, but the rest of the week it is a well-used car park.
It may though have a slightly familiar look if you saw the recent movie Dolittle, about the explorer who could talk to the animals. This square stood in for a Cornish town centre when the 2020 movie was filmed.
While the Swine Market dates back several centuries at least, the stone structure in the centre of this market is even younger than the elegant Georgian square around it, having been built in 1905 by the vicar, Reverend J Lewellyn Davies, in memory of his wife.
Walk to the far corner of the square, and find Jingling Lane, leading to the east. (If you are in need, there are public conveniences here).
Follow the lane and head right at the junction onto a path that goes under a road, eventually emerging close to the town’s cricket pitch and heading for Kirkby’s best-known attraction, Devil’s Bridge.
The magnificent three-arched bridge is said to date back to the 12th or 13th century and is a remarkable construction for its age.
Ancient bridges across Europe often carry the same name, perhaps because those who first saw them believed only Satan could have built such a structure.
This one actually has what is said to be the imprint of the Devil’s hand, on one of the central parapet stones.
It said to have been left as he built the bridge in a single night, his part of a deal with a local farming lady that would give Satan the soul of the first living being to cross it.
As Satan completed the task and claimed his reward, the lady threw a bun across the bridge, and a dog chased across after it, paying off the deal although not with the price the demon expected.
Today on a fine weekend the car park on the far side of the bridge is a magnet for motorcyclists from across the north of England, and has a van providing hot drinks and snacks.
The next half mile or so of the walk is magical in fine weather, but impassable if the river is in flood. At the town end of the bridge, on the upstream side, is a path leading along the western bank of the Lune.
It passes the cricket pitch again, and a football ground, with the bluff on which Kirkby stands gradually closing in until it rises steeply to your left.
Ignore a turning signposted Town Centre and press on until you turn the corner to the bottom of Radical Steps.
The 86 stone steps back up to St Mary’s churchyard were built in 1819 by a man called Francis Pearson, who lived nearby and allegedly wanted to divert the local people who walked across his land, probably on their way to church.
He was apparently a man of Radical political views, hence the name locals gave his unpopular creation.
There are several landings on the way up to catch your breath, which could be taken away again when you reach the top and turn to the right to see the vista called Ruskin’s View.
The view is dominated in the near distance by the River Lune, sweeping across the valley it has created over millennia, carving its way down from the higher fells to the north. Those hills frame the valley, needing only a clear sky with a few clouds to complete the scene.
The artist JMW Turner painted the landscape in 1822, seeing it as a perfect balance of hills, valley, woodland and pasture.
Writing in 1875, John Ruskin, the Victorian writer and philosopher, said he thought it ‘one of the loveliest views in England, therefore in the world’.
Some might argue the view of the Lune valley from Scots Jean’s hill, overlooking Sedbergh, is slightly better, but it’s a fine point!
- Kirkby Lonsdale has an information centre in the Old Bank in Main Street, and even offers videos of re-enactments of local events.