John Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era. He was also an art patron, watercolourist, prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, myth, education and political economy. For the last quarter-century of his life, he lived at Brantwood – a house he designed on the shores of Lake Coniston.
Despite this, one of his favourite places was outside the Lake District on what is now the Cumbria-Yorkshire border, some thirty miles east of Coniston. Kirkby Lonsdale is the most picturesque of the small towns that lie on the River Lune, which flows through this beautiful, limestone scenery, to emerge into the Irish Sea near Lancaster.
In 1875, Ruskin, standing on the escarpment above the River Lune by Kirkby Lonsdale’s St Mary’s church, described it as ‘one of the loveliest views in England, and therefore the world’. Ruskin was fulfilling a long-held ambition; to see the view that the English artist, Turner, had painted in 1822, about which the critic had said ‘I do not know in all my country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine.’
The modern guidebook says the scene ‘presents a gentle panorama of river, meadow, woods, and hills.’
The valley inspiring this praise was that of the River Lune, which flows through the gentle valleys carved over millions of years in the native limestone – once the bed of a tropical sea, and flows out into the Irish Sea beyond Lancaster.
Kirby Lonsdale is famous for both its beauty and its history. Devil’s Bridge, which used to be the place of the primary road between Westmorland and the West Riding of Yorkshire, is the most photographed (and painted) part of the river.
From St Mary’s Church and nearby Ruskin’s View, we can take the eighty-sxi (uneven) ‘Radical Steps’ down to join the river path, and there we will find a surprise…
After a short distance, we encounter a band of colour on the side of the path.
On closer inspection, the band of colour turns out to be painted pebbles, done by the local children and their families to say thank you to the NHS and others who have been providing the vital care during the Covid-19 epidemic.
The stones are themed in different ways. One set even portrays a train – an ingenious use of pebbles!
The artistic line continues for a way along the riverbank.
The hand of both adult and child is reflected in the lovely painted stones. Left purely for our enjoyment….and, possibly, reflection.
After a while, the line of stones ends, but we are tipped off by passing walkers that it continues in small sections in the streets of the town… Fortunately there is an alternative to the Radical Steps; one that will bring us directly into the Main Street.
Turning back towards the river, we pick up the trail of the painted pebbles, again.
I can’t help thinking that both Turner and Ruskin would have been proud of the good people of Kirkby Lonsdale for this lovely gesture…about which I can find no official announcement!
©️Stephen Tanham 2020