Probably not enough cake that day…
Richard and I were to stay that night at the small – and quiet – village of Motherby, and from there it would be the shortest of cycle rides back over the border into the National Park.
As we cycled into a drizzle, Motherby didn’t seem to be getting any closer. The road rose and fell through farmland, not steeply, but enough.
“You alright?” Richard asked.
“Well,” I said, “I’d quite like to be there now. But I’ll be OK if you don’t mind going at my speed.”
My speed by now was slow.
“No. That’s fine.”
Greystoke seemed to be a lovely little village. The green had a large church and a shop on one side, a pub on another side, plus a cycle café and the entrance gates to Greystoke Castle.
Greystoke Castle had been built and destroyed and re-built over time. The Howard family – here for fourteen generations – don’t open their grand home to the public, but do have weddings and other major events. The most well-known person related to Greystoke Castle though was fictional: Tarzan was the son of Viscount Greystoke in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books.
And so up the hill to Motherby.
My friends, Dave and Jacquie, had a guest house there, and were more than used to cyclists. After all, the most popular long-distance cycle route in Britain runs very close to Motherby: the ‘Sea To Sea’ or ‘C2C’. The Sustrans route runs 136 miles from the Cumbrian coast at either Whitehaven or Workington to the North Sea at either Sunderland or Tynemouth. Thousands cycle it every year, and a common end to Day 1 is the Greystoke area, including Dave and Jacquie’s excellent guest house.
By the time Richard and I turned into their yard, we had cycled 54 miles, and my legs could feel them. I was tired and muddy and wet. Jacquie looked me up and down and diagnosed tea and home-made fruitcake. We probably hadn’t had enough cake that day.
Once we were clean we walked the mile to the pub at Penruddock. Over food and a pint of Jennings Cocker Hoop, we talked about the Mountain Rescue Service. Dave and Jacquie had been in the Patterdale Mountain Rescue for thirty years, with Dave as leader for much of that time. They will have helped countless people from the fells in that time, some lost and some hurt. And not just people.
“I remember you telling me about the bull rescued from a ravine by RAF helicopter, the beast in a harness swinging out over Ullswater.”
“We had another animal rescue as good: herding cows out of a river using kayaks. Though I’m not sure health and safety rules would allow that now.”
Human call-outs had been increasing as walkers with mobile phones and sat-nav devices realised too late that a map and compass, plus a knowledge of how to use them, might have been a good idea. But this year, call-outs were down, because visitor numbers in the Lake District generally were low.
There were no other visitors staying with Jacquie and Dave that night, though the following day was different.
“A group of C2C cyclists,” Jacquie said. “We’ll be full.”
Well, we’d left them a little of the home-made fruitcake.
“Tomorrow, Rich,” I said. “we’re going on a bear hunt.”
“Are we going to catch a big one?”
The plan was only partly to go on a bear hunt. This was also going to be Poet’s Day.
We would cycle alongside Ullswater, then up and over Kirkstone Pass, dropping into Ambleside, and out into Great Langdale. Then another up and over to Wordsworth’s Grasmere.
Bears were going to be first though, in the churchyard of the small village of Dacre, tucked away in the north-easterly corner of the National Park.
“What do you mean by bears?” Richard asked.
“Well, I’m not really sure. Best to see them and then make up our minds. If they are bears or not, I mean.”
“Bears. In the Lake District?”
We said our goodbyes to Dave and Jacquie, and our thanks for man-sized cooked breakfasts, and set off down the hill towards Penruddock in, perhaps surprisingly, sunshine. There were meadows either side, and at the bottom of the hill, a tiny stream trickling under the road, the Petteril, close to the start of its wiggly journey to join the river Eden in Carlisle.
“I used to work in Motherby,” I said to Richard, “and my business partner used to call that ‘The Mighty Petteril’.”
Richard looked at the little beck.
“Right,” he said.
“And we once liberated a bucket full of frogs in The Mighty Petteril when our neighbours filled in their pond.”
“I hadn’t realised till now how into animal liberation you are.”
I raised a fist. “Free Willy.” I said.
Beyond little Penruddock, we were confronted by the busy A66 taking traffic to and from Keswick and the west coast of Cumbria. It took a few minutes to get safely over as streams of cars, caravans and lorries drove past, but once over, we were into a network of country lanes. It was very lovely: sun shining, no crowds, no cars, relatively flat cycling, occasional farms and cottages, and hedges with dog roses and honeysuckle bound into them.
There was a possibility I would get us lost, as the map didn’t seem to tally with the lanes, and although we began to come across signs for Dacre, the village didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Until suddenly we were in Dacre, where there were wonderful old stone houses, a whitewashed 18th century inn with narrow, little windows, and a lane leading to where the bears should be – the church, or at least the churchyard.
We parked our bikes in the lane, and I told Richard what I had found out about the Dacre bears on the internet.
Dacre, I had read, has four stone effigies in the churchyard, 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.
From ‘A Lake District Grand Tour’, by Mike Carden
More information on blog posts by Mike Carden at https://mikecarden.co.uk/