Friends, Romans and shoppers in Kirkby Lonsdale

PUBLISHED: 10:22 22 March 2012 | UPDATED: 11:26 14 April 2016

St. Mary’s Church

St. Mary’s Church

Kirkby Lonsdale has had many visitors over the centuries and not all of them welcome. Martin Pilkington joins the latest arrivals - sightseers and shoppers

Market Square from New RoadMarket Square from New Road

The solid stone architecture of Kirkby Lonsdale could seem changeless. But closer inspection - and a tour with Blue Badge guide Tess Pike - reveals how it has evolved for centuries, and continues to do so.

‘It’s an ancient settlement, partly because of the river Lune which flows through the town,’ she says. ‘This being a convenient crossing point means we have two special bridges, most famously the Devil’s Bridge and the pack-horse routes which met nearby.

‘The Romans, Vikings and Saxons all came through here.’ Now there are many more peaceful visitors, helping a small market town retain a startling number of high-end shops, pubs and restaurants.

Our tour begins at the market place, the first symbol of change: ‘This isn’t the original. It was created in 1820 from the gardens of what is now the Royal Hotel, but used to be a grand residence called Jackson Hall. And New Road running up the hill was made after a fire that destroyed the Rose and Crown Inn next door to the hall.’

Blue Badge Guides, Tess Pike, and 88-year-old Geroge Harrison at the junction of Main Street and New RoadBlue Badge Guides, Tess Pike, and 88-year-old Geroge Harrison at the junction of Main Street and New Road

At the centre of the square is the monument to his wife built by the Rev Llewellyn-Davis, but several other substantial structures also command attention. Among them are the former Lonsdale Bank and the 1897 Arts and Crafts building now housing Carr and Bleasdale’s store. Far smaller but equally characterful is The Sweet Shop whose owner Judith Entwisle says:

‘This shop has sold sweets since 1907. We’ve had it for 18 years. Reps say people want sweets in bags, but we know they don’t – we have about 200 different jars and we’re doing well.’

Specialist food and drink outlets have blossomed over the last decade. This provision harks back to the town’s past. Tess Pike says: ‘Before transportation improved, towns had to be independent, so Kirkby Lonsdale had a whole host of manufacturers and dealers.’

John Natlacen, of Churchmouse Cheeses on Market Street, says: ‘It wasn’t a foodie place when we came here ten years ago, but the South Lakes and Kirkby in particular have become much more so recently.’ John and his wife fell in love with the town when they honeymooned nearby – he quit his job three weeks later to buy the property and set up his award-winning store.

Blue Badge Guides, Tess Pike,Blue Badge Guides, Tess Pike,

On New Road there’s another place to brighten the eyes of gourmets and dieticians alike, Chocolat, purveyor of malt whiskies as well as fine Belgian chocolates. Owner Jackie Sadler says: ‘We’ve been here for nine years. We sell to locals and, of course, get a boost from tourists in the season, but you also get a lot of people who come specially to the town looking for gifts.’

So the children of St Mary’s First School are spoiled for sweetie choice. Like so much in Kirkby Lonsdale their premises are also developing. ‘We have just added a large covered area for wet weather play, and the classroom facilities have been extended and updated too,’ says head teacher Sarah Oldroyd. The children, via the school council, have a voice in running the place. ‘They have their say on vital matters from new play equipment, to the colour of the new toilets,’ she says.

Some food retailers here bridge old and new. Amanda Gorton, manning Mansergh Hall Farm’s market stall, says: ‘We’re about two miles outside of Kirkby Lonsdale. As a family we’ve been on the farm since the mid-1800s, but my dad diversified 20 years ago. So we now do Galloway and Highland beef, born in Scotland then brought down to us here. The Highland and Galloway are native breeds, slow maturing. It’s the best beef we’ve ever had, richer, full of flavour, entirely grass fed so they don’t get any concentrate and you can tell.’

Smart marketing is not new as Tess shows with a stop at the narrow alley Salt Pie Lane. ‘A lady who lived at Salt Pie Cottage made pies with lots of salt in them - salt makes you thirsty and a relative of hers kept what was the Green Dragon pub, now The Snooty Fox, at the top.’

John Natlacen gave up his job to open Churchmouse CheesesJohn Natlacen gave up his job to open Churchmouse Cheeses

We move on to the picturesque Mill Brow. ‘It’s now very pretty but used to be very industrialised, with many mills,’ Tess tells her tour group. Near Mill Brow we meet up with local historian George Harrison who echoes Tess’s thoughts. ‘That building is now smart apartments, but it used to be a tannery. It would have been a very smelly place'

George’s own story brings together the gustatory past and present. His grandfather Plato Harrison bought a wine and spirits business in 1898, and began making pop too. George retired 25 years ago, and now Plato’s restaurant occupies the building.

Some things don’t change. In Horse Market, Tess indicates a house grander than its neighbours. ‘Notice the beautifully dressed stone, and that it’s far bigger than those next to it? It belonged to a banker.’

One of our last stops is the celebrated Ruskin’s View, where the edge of the churchyard overlooks a magnificent vista of the curving Lune and surrounding hills. ‘Turner Painted the view in 1822 when he was touring the north of England,’ says Tess. ‘He’d been commissioned to produce illustrations for a book. It was sold at auctioneers Bonhams in January, and fetched £217,250.’ Comparing Turner’s vision of the spot and a contemporary view shows it remains, as Ruskin wrote: ‘One of the loveliest scenes in England, and therefore in the world.’

A plaque marking Ruskin’s verdict on the vistaA plaque marking Ruskin’s verdict on the vista

The last major site we visit is St Mary’s Church, as so often a solid record of change: ‘Look at those round arches, Norman originals, and next to them the pointed ones from the later Early English period,’ Tess points out, moving on to the green man nearly invisible on one of the Norman pillars, and the 1619 pulpit. The font rather fittingly offers a fine example of rebirth in keeping with the ever evolving town.

Tess tells us: ‘The original was thrown out in the 19th century and replaced with the new one now in the churchyard. A Norman font was found being used as a cattle trough in Killington, was re-consecrated, and now sits in the church.’

Recycling at its best.

Getting there: It’s just five miles from junction 36 of the M6, on the A65

Ruskin’s View painted by TurnerRuskin’s View painted by Turner

there is a Pay and Display car-park off New Road, and several others further out

Information: you’ll find a small information centre on Main Street
What to do: Join Tess for a guided tour (Tel: 07778 145 156; email:, take a hike or browse the terrific selection of shops - everything from a proper old-fashioned ironmonger to an award-winning butcher.

Refreshments: Spoilt for choice with pubs, restaurants, cafes

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