20 – Walking the Lune: Lonsdale

At some time in the Ice Age the Lune emerged from the Gorge [Letter 14] into a wide-spreading landscape, and onto the relict mile-wide bed of a great river that had flowed two million years before. Across which it now curves and meanders. It is like the track of a post-apocalypse tribe wandering on the lost highway of a great civilisation. On the geological map it is a blue line wiggling across a yellow tie.

The Romans, with their thread of road and beads of camps and milestones – still there – followed the valley as their route north. As did the Normans, with their motte and bailey castles – also still there. But at some time the main road migrated west, to what became the A6, through Kendal and Penrith, leaving Lonsdale – the name for the lower Lune valley – to pastoral farmers. And to wealthy incomers: dukes, bankers, industrialists, who amassed large estates and built big houses.


So this landowner can regulate passage along a seven-mile stretch of the river – ‘permission to paddle’ only from November to March, groups only, no individual paddlers, ‘no access or egress is permitted to the river bank’, ‘Paddlers must not stop and play on the river’.

And this bridge, the most elaborate on the whole river, was built for private access to the Hall, while half a mile upstream farmers and villagers had to wade through water at the ford.IMG_6048

Since my cycling days here, the farming villages, like pearls along the thread of the Roman road, have been substantially gentrified, with many houses, even the smallest cottages, done up, and shops and pubs either closed or delicatessened and gastro-ised … But this is so everywhere.

And at some time in the eighteenth century the Lune emerged from the Gorge into consciousness. Or, rather, into our consciousness of ‘Landscape’, as an object to be viewed, and consumed aesthetically; to be located within the shorthand of the Picturesque, the Beautiful and the Sublime. “Examine the face of the country by the rules of picturesque beauty,” William Gilpin commanded in 1768.

So in 1769, Thomas Gray [Letter 21], at Crook o’ Lune, three miles from Lancaster, wrote: “Here, Ingleborough, behind a variety of lesser mountains, makes the back-ground of the prospect: on each hand of the middle distance, rise two sloping hills; the left clothed with thick woods, the right with variegated rock and herbage: between them, in the most fertile of valleys, the Lune serpentizes for many a mile, and comes forth ample and clear, through a well-wooded and richly pastured fore-ground. Every feature which constitutes a perfect landscape of the extensive sort is here not only boldly marked, but in the best position.”

In 1831, ‘L.E.L’, (Letitia Elizabeth Landon), the foremost popular poet of the day, wrote a celebration to accompany an engraving ‘Vale of Lonsdale’.

In 1875, Ruskin wrote: IMG_6083“The valley of the Lune at Kirkby Lonsdale is one of the loveliest scenes in England – therefore, in the world. Whatever moorland hill and sweet river can be, at their best, is gathered here; and chiefly seen from the steep bank which falls to the stream side from the upper part of the town itself. … I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine, or a more priceless possession of true ‘Holy Land.’”

But disengaged, from theorising, and Views, and from my unease at ownership, possession and access, it is glorious walking upstream from Crook o’ Lune, moving through the landscape. (Usually I walk downstream, but this is one stretch where, for the reason below, upstream is the way to walk.) Here, the river winds in wide shining sweeps of freehand curves that I cannot resist in haptic echoes inscribing in the air. Here, the river glitters over shingle as if alive with feeding fish. Here, the river passes dark and slow under me as I scramble through the hanging woods, ancient woodland fragments from lost times, stilled with slowed time and yet alive with the after-vibration of outlaw rides, a place for adventures.

And all the time, seen or unseen, but always there, Ingleborough. As distinctive as Mont St Victoire or Mount Fuji. I can imagine a lifetime painting it. Walking towards it, I see a Cézanne accumulating image after image of it in every nuanced condition of weather and light. A Hokusai depicting it unchanging in picture after picture from different points of view. And, in privileged moments, I see it as it is, Ingleborough.