River Lune, Kirkby Lonsdale – underneath the Devil’s Bridge

“At Kirkby Lonsdale that afternoon, a hot wind ruffled the blanket of Virginia creeper on the walls of the Royal Hotel by the town square…I swam down past the town parkland, then in faster water that surged through giant dark–grey boulders towards the stone–arched devil’s bridge.”

Two bikers scoff bacon butties on the dry–stone wall, their beards ruffled slightly by a light breeze. Grabbing the rucksacks from the boot of the car, we walk past them and their heavy metal steeds, catching a waft of grease from the nearby catering van as we stroll over Devil’s Bridge.

Roger’s swim here is one of the most evocative in all of Waterlog. The Hells Angels lining the banks. The ‘daring young men on flying machines’ stripped to the waist and jumping from the well–worn parapet of the medieval bridge. 

Today, the few bikers here confine themselves to the car park and grassy hills above the Lune. There are no jumpers. Two years ago, a 22–year–old fell to his death while attempting a dive off of Devil’s Bridge. A bench in his memory overlooks the small copse which stretches down to the water’s edge. Bye–laws prohibit anyone tombstoning, but it seems to continue when the authorities aren’t watching.

I had no plans to dive myself anyway, my skills still very much in the novice category when it comes to high–tailing it into the depths. Just peering over the low sided wall gives me a swirl of vertigo. Jumping from such great heights fills me with a deep terror I doubt I’ll ever overcome in this life time.

Instead, I loop under the bridge, across a gravel island and assess my swimming options with my Uncle Dave and his friend Jim, who joined me in Jura last September. A ‘No Bathing’ sign upstream is off–putting, but the water here is too shallow and speedy for anything more than a white–water bath anyhow.

20 metres or so further on, I pick out a small lump of rock, the riverbed within sight under the orangey surface before shelving into black. I strip off, pull on my neoprene boots and wade in. I give thanks for the foot protection as I step on a slice of rock and stifle a yelp. My bare foot would surely have suffered a nasty slice.

This large, deep pool downstream from Devil’s Bridge moves at a languid pace compared to the torrent further up towards Kirkby Lonsdale. And so I lower my shoulders under and push off into a slow breast stroke and head out, looping around in circles. Every time I go to drop my feet I find myself out of my depth, even when I’m just a couple of feet from shallow water. I can see why diving here would appeal so much, even if jumping from the top requires a level of accuracy surely only professionals are blessed with.

A single black headed gull suns itself on a rock as I complete my final circuit and make for the starchy embrace of my towel, a wren zipping across my line of sight while I pull on my clothes clumsily, almost falling backwards into the river on more than one occasion.

More bikers have begun arriving, but none swim. I am the only one to take to the Lune this morning. The joie de vivre Roger found may well return on a hotter summer’s day, as warm weekends become more finite. But today the river is peaceful, a perfect wild swimming spot with a hint of tragedy in the air.

Images courtesy of Dave Parkin

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