Kirkby Lonsdale is a small town and civil parish in the South Lakeland district of Cumbria, England, on the River Lune. Historically within Westmorland, it is situated 13 miles (21 km) south east of Kendal along the A65. Notable buildings include St Mary’s Church, a Norman structure with fine carved columns. The view of the River Lune from the churchyard is known as Ruskin’s View; it was praised by John Ruskin as “One of the lovliest views in England” and painted by J. M. W. Turner. Early signs of occupation in the area are indicated by the presence of a Neolithic stone circle on Casterton Fell and remains of Celtic settlements at Barbon, Middleton and Hutton Roof.
During the Roman occupation, a Roman road followed the course of the river Lune, linking the forts at Low Borrow Bridge (near Tebay) and Over Burrow (south of Kirkby Lonsdale). A Roman milestone unearthed in 1836 and described as ‘the best in the country’ was re-erected on a hill near Hawkin Hall (SD 623 859), close to where it was found.
Kirkby Lonsdale developed at a crossing point over the River Lune where several drovers and packhorse routes converged and is one of the few Cumbrian towns mentioned in the Domesday Book, where it is described as Cherchibi (village with a church). The earlier church was wholly rebuilt by the Normans, who also erected an artificial mound or motte on nearby glebe land. A wooden tower or ‘keep’ would have been built on the top, and the stronghold used as a base to administer power and control over the surrounding area. In later years, the mound was used for cockfighting, hence the current name of Cockpit Hill. In 1093, Ivo de Taillebois (the Baron of Kendal), gifted the church at Kirkby Lonsdale to St Mary’s Abbey in York, who held it until the Dissolution. Thereafter, the Abbey and all its possessions including St Mary’s Church at Kirkby Lonsdale were granted to Trinity College, Cambridge who retain patronage to this day.
In 1227, the town gained a market charter and the right to hold an annual fair every September. Every week, stallholders would gather on Market Street to sell their wares, with horse traders in the Horsemarket and pig sellers in Swinemarket. Thursdays were, as now, the scene of great activity as people flocked into the town to buy all manner of goods and merchandise. By the early 19th century, the old market area was becoming too congested for adequate trade, so a new marketplace was built in 1822. The weekly market and daily throughput of drovers and packhorse carriers created a bustling town with a surprisingly large number of inns and ale houses to cater for thirsty travellers – some 29 in total, of which eight still function as licensed premises.
The steep incline of Mill Brow with its fast-flowing (now culverted) stream was the ‘industrial heart’ of Kirkby Lonsdale, with several mills utilising water to power processes such as grinding corn, bark and bone, carding wool, manufacturing snuff, making bobbins, fulling cloth and sawing timber.
Today, Kirkby Lonsdale bustles with activity, hosting not only a weekly market but a great array of local events. Alongside traditional butcher, baker, cheese maker, ironmonger and scented-soap makers, the town is quietly developing a reputation for quality local food and home decor!
The centre is a pleasing mix of elegant 18th-century buildings and stone cottages huddled around cobbled courtyards and narrow alleyways with evocative names such as Salt Pie Lane and Jingling Lane.
The town is noted for the Devil’s Bridge over the River Lune, dating from around 1370 and constructed of well masoned fine gritstone. It consists of three spans, the western two measuring 54.75 feet (16.69 m) each and the eastern one 29 feet (8.8 m). The piers are hexagonal, measuring 60 feet (18 m) round. A great flood will easily reach the base of the arches and run over the tops of the cutwaters. In common with many bridges of the same name, legend holds that the Devil appeared to an old woman, promising to build a bridge in exchange for the first soul to cross over it. When the bridge was finished the woman threw bread over the bridge and her dog chased after it, thereby outwitting the Devil. Several large stones in the surrounding area, including the Great Stone of Fourstones, are ascribed to the Devil’s purse-strings bursting open as he ferried masonry to build it. The spot is famous as a motorcycle enthusiasts’ meeting place; this happens every Sunday at Devil’s Bridge.
The section of river underneath Devil’s Bridge is also popular with scuba divers, because of the relatively easy access and egress, deep rock pools (approximately 5 metres during a low swell) and good visibility.
On any given Sunday you will find a car park set aside for motorcycles only, full of enthusiasts and their machines, enjoying a brew and butty from the nearby refreshment van. Well worth a ride out.