Visit the bears at Dacre.
“Bears in the Lake District?” you may ask. Read the story of a cycle ride to explore the mystery of Dacre’s bears.
Dacre church lies between Penrith and Ullswater, and just opposite the Horse and Farrier Inn in the middle of the small village. Extraordinarily, the churchyard has four stone effigies, one in each corner of the original churchyard. They are ancient, and nobody yet seems to have come up with an explanation. In the 19th century the vicar decided that the four carvings were bears.
The first shows the bear asleep with his head on a pillar. The second shows the bear with a small cat or a lynx having jumped on its back. The third has the bear struggling to shake off the cat. While the fourth has the bear with a smile on its face, having eaten the cat.
Inside the gate, the first bear, about three foot high, was obvious on our left. Obvious in the sense that there was a carving, not that it was a bear. The second was to the right, and this one was definitely a creature of some sort.
“What do you reckon, Rich? Bears?”
A voice came from the gate. A man was leaning on it.
“There’s a theory,” he said, “that they’re lions. Roman lions. Or even before that. Not bears at all.”
“You’re from here?”
“Aye. Saw you cycle up. Where’re you from?”
“Cockermouth? I always think you’re a bit cut off in Cockermouth.”
Richard and I exchanged a look. Dacre didn’t seem to be the epicentre of excitement, but there you are.
“So,” I said, “do you think they’re bears or lions?”
He shrugged. “You can see better with t’other two on far side of church.”
We walked around the church, with a glimpse through trees to Dacre Castle, another pele tower, and a twin of one that is part of Dalemain House half a mile away. This must have been a vulnerable area to Scottish raids.
We found the next bear / lion, and this did clearly have a cat or some small creature on its shoulder, while with the other effigy you could make out a face better. This one might also have had a tail.
“They don’t look like lions or bears to me,” Richard said. “More like sloths.”
“Sloths! A new theory. I like that one.”
The inside of the church was wonderful and clearly much loved, both by the locals and by visitors on a bear hunt. I could see why: it had a Norman tower, 13th century stone arches, and a carved knight on a tomb, plus wall-plaques dedicated to the parish’s gentry over centuries, particularly the Hasell family of Dalemain House and Dacre Castle. There had been a monastery here in Anglian times as well, and there were the remains of Viking crosses, including a stone carving of Adam and Eve.
Not everything was ancient though. An intricately etched window by Sir Lawrence Whistler illustrated a view over Dalemain House and towards Ullswater, just a few miles beyond. I also liked the colourful, stained glass window in honour of politician Willie Whitelaw – Margaret Thatcher’s ‘everybody needs a Willie’.
In fact, the church had such a long history that the bears / lions could really have come from any period. I picked up leaflets to read later, and we left, really with no more clue than the 19th century vicar and his bears theory. Unless of course they were sloths.
The bears at Dacre links: