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There are several reasons why you may want to visit Kirkby Lonsdale. Not least, because it’s a fine old Cumbrian market town, with a lovely church, St Mary’s, and, beyond that, Ruskin’s View – a panorama allegedly described by the Victorian polymath, without a trace of hyperbole, as “One of the loveliest views in England, therefore in the world”. But forget all that for a moment, because we’re going to talk about a bridge: the Devil’s Bridge, no less.
I don’t know how many Devils’ Bridges there are in the UK – or even the world – probably dozens; there is certainly a famous one near Aberystwyth. The one at Kirby is a superb example of a medieval bridge with three graceful arches spanning the River Lune and the dramatic rocks below. It has been variously and confusingly declared as belonging to the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries; however, Historic England (and they should know) say the existing structure dates from the 15th or early 16th century – which is old enough, for a bridge. There are records showing that a bridge was repaired here in 1365, though, and it is also logical to assume that there would have been a crossing point over the Lune somewhere in the vicinity of Kirkby Lonsdale before the Conquest. It is generally claimed the later medieval bridge was constructed by St Mary’s Abbey in York, but I also read somewhere that monks from Furness Abbey built it. Perhaps they both did, a joint venture, maybe to assist with the wool trade.
In any event, being judged too narrow for modern use (it is about 12’ wide – roughly 3.5 metres), the Devil’s Bridge was given a brand new replacement in 1932. The new bridge is called Stanley. You’re perhaps thinking this is an odd name for a bridge and that it looks more like a Basil – or something else entirely. Well, the Mayor of Kirkby Lonsdale at the time was called Oliver Stanley and the people who name bridges for a living, rejecting ‘Oliver’, settled on Stanley. So, Stanley Bridge now takes the traffic along the A65 between Kendal and Skipton, by-passing the old bridge just to the south.
Still, the old Devil’s Bridge remains a very popular attraction. There are some pleasant walks nearby and, in summer, you’ll find people swimming, sometimes even scuba-diving, in the river beneath. Unfortunately, the bridge has also been used for ‘tombstoning’ – jumping off the bridge into the deep waters about 40 feet below, which can, and has been, fatal. It is forbidden to jump from Devil’s Bridge…the penalties can be severe.
By far the biggest fans of Kirkby Lonsdale’s Devil’s Bridge, though, are bikers; they simply love the place. And when I say ‘bikers’, I’m not talking Lycra, shades and Shimano; I mean brake horsepower and leather.
During weekdays, bikers – also known as ‘riders’, ‘motorcyclists’ – and other things – are usually solitary organisms. Some even lead secret lives as car drivers or pedestrians from Monday to Friday, keeping their fairings polished and ready for action as it were, but well-hidden under tarpaulins. At weekends, they venture out, one at a time; and then they group together in packs, a type of social unit sometimes referred to as ‘a rideout’. Bikers have been known to mate for life and it’s not unusual to see a happy pair riding together – probably more often once the young have left the garage. It is thought that female bikers tend to be slightly smaller than males (but not always) and have oddly curved arms sticking out at right-angles in front of their bodies; otherwise male and female look pretty much the same.
So at weekends, on highways and bye-ways across the land, small vrumvrums* of bikers form up together and converge on sacred meeting places. Once there, ritual intercourse takes place, often involving hundreds of individual bikers simultaneously and resulting in an enormous climactic revving of engines. Scientists have been unable to work out how they conglomerate in this way, but believe it is based on a primitive form of communication known as ‘making an arrangement’. However, the pack will also follow a dominant alpha male. Bikers’ sensory powers are thought, by bikers themselves, to be scarily acute, though only the most mature are able to cooperate fully with other species sharing the same habitat. This means you will often spot riders who, like White Van Driverman, are seemingly exempt from the same laws that govern other highway creatures; and what a real treat that can be. Rogue behaviour suggestive of a curious desire to reach out and touch other vehicles by following or passing too close, or by overtaking and pulling in with insufficient space, has been explained by the theory that a faulty gene renders some bikers blissfully unaware of other road users – much like the motorist that fails to ‘think bike’.
The Devil’s Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale is a well-known rallying point for biker tribes from across the north of England, and even further afield. And a wondrous, colourful, throbbing, sight they are on a peaceful Sunday. Bikers are particularly attracted to testosterone, burgers, tea and coffee, all of which are amply available here; but what makes this site especially alluring is the local bye-law that says only bikes can park at the bridge on Sundays and Bank Holidays. So there they all are, happily comparing notes on crash helmets, brake horsepower, leather, torque, sprockets, pensions etc. And leather; don’t forget the leather.
Now you want to know why it’s called the Devil’s Bridge, don’t you? Are you sitting comfortably? There once was an old woman who owned a cow. The cow saw some nice, fresh, juicy grass on the other side of the nearby river and, the water being shallow, wandered over to eat it all up. Later, the old woman came searching for her cow. By this time it had rained and she was unable to cross the foaming, treacherous, torrent. Quick as you like, the Devil appeared and generously offered to build the old woman a bridge; all he asked in return was to possess the soul of the first living being to cross it. A small price, surely? The old woman agreed and the bridge was duly built. On completion, our canny heroine brought along her pet dog and threw a tasty canine-morsel across the bridge. Fido promptly trotted over to gulp up the snack, to the fury of the Devil. Apparently, dogs don’t have souls. Is that true? It must be – unless the story is a complete fabrication. I still don’t understand why the Devil, who I hitherto imagined to be fairly powerful and resourceful, didn’t just knock the bridge down when he failed to get his own way.
Incidentally, ’tis said there are various bits of masonry scattered about that the Lord of the Underworld dropped during his construction projects, including the Great Stone of Fourstones. It’s interesting that our superstitious ancestors often attributed the existence of structures or objects they did not understand to the Devil, rather to God or some other generally more amenable deity.
* What is the collective noun for a group of bikers? A triumph, perhaps? But that might offend those that ride BMWs, Nortons, Harleys, Hondas etc. Answers on a pinhead, please*.
* In retrospect, I realise the answer to the question is, of course, ‘a pack’ –