Having found my little excursion to Barton to be a great success, I was confident that another side trip to Dacre would be worthwhile.
My main route back to Penrith was along a direct road to the north-east, pointing like a finger from Ullswater’s northern end. The turn-off for Barton had been to the east, with the Dacre leg to the west. The contour lines on the map around Dacre were slightly off-putting, but by now I’d decided that any side-trip was both manageable and worthwhile, especially with time to spare.
As with the jaunt to Barton, as soon as I turned off the main road towards Dacre, all was quiet and remote. I passed a sleepy farmhouse or two, but little else until I found myself looking down a rather steep hill. I paused at this point, with the incline giving me only one initial concern: coming back up the same way. But by now I was committed to Dacre, and I knew I’d regret not paying the village a visit. With that, I set off again, determined to enjoy the whizz downhill despite the sting in its tail.
The bottom of the hill brought me to a modest, attractive stone-built bridge which took the road curving over Dacre Beck. Once over the bridge, it was a short spin up a slight incline to Dacre itself. I pressed on, looking around the various cottages and other buildings until I found my destination: the tower of St Andrew’s Church.
I parked up my bicycle near the gate, and entered the churchyard to have a closer look. It’s a pretty church, dating back to the 12th century, set in a churchyard on multiple levels which hug the natural contours. Sheep graze in adjacent fields and, as usual, I seemed to have the place to myself.
While the church was rather attractive, it was a little unremarkable, so having given the building a circuit, I was heading back to my bike when I glanced back to take a photograph. As I lifted the viewfinder to my eye, I was startled by the sudden sound of the bells striking one o’clock. Even more startled as the clock on the tower said it was only five to…
Having snapped the church, I made for the gate again. This time I noticed that perhaps I wasn’t alone after all. Besides a couple of squirrels I’d seen scampering about, I noticed one or two stone columns, each one about the height of a child, looking very old and weather-worn. I didn’t know what to make of them at the time, but I could discern that they were some sort of crude animal.
Much later I read about these figures: they are the infamous ‘Dacre bears’ – or possibly lions – which stand, the four of them, at each corner of the original churchyard. They’re thought to be medieval, are of red sandstone, and are Grade II listed – but that’s about all that is known of them for sure.
As I left the churchyard, it turned out that the bears were not the only treat Dacre had hidden in plain sight. I sat for a minute on a bench marking the coronation of the Queen under a large tree. Studying the map, I noticed the word castle, in the Ordnance Survey’s own stylised font.
As usual, this was enough to pique my interest, so I scoffed some flapjack and headed off to look for it. I started down a farm track which specified no cycling. I got off and pushed, deciding I’d give it a minute or two to see if this castle materialised before turning back.
I soon encountered a ewe with two lambs sat lazily in the middle of the track. I edged closer and allowed them to get up slowly and saunter over to a patch of shade. To my right, suddenly, was a very large building. Dacre Castle! At 2-3 storeys high and roughly cubic in shape, it’s admittedly not the vast size one would expect from a castle, but it has all the box-ticking features: (empty) moat; towers/turrets; crenellations.
In checking my terminology, I stumbled upon something that sounds rather like a steampunk James Bond that I’d never heard of before: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Licence_to_crenellate.
Dacre Castle is now a private home so, short of taking too many photographs of someone’s house, I was happy enough to have merely found the thing after seeing it on a map. I’d have easily missed it. Satisfied, I pushed off, back through Dacre, down the road to the old bridge, and back up the steep hill I’d whizzed down earlier.
This, of course, brought my bicycle and I back onto the main road for Penrith, and I was left with fewer and fewer options for procrastinating and prolonging the end of my journey home.
The country house of Dalemain stood alongside the road, but I’d seemingly chosen the only day/afternoon/hour of the week that it’s closed to shoot past. Unfortunately-named Stainton had only an alpaca centre(!) to distract me, but I was able to resist its charms.
I paused by the village hall at the only bench I could find to stop and catch up on my journal. From there it was just a brief zip under the dual carriageway which had irked me on my way out of Penrith earlier in the week, and then I suddenly found myself on familiar roads, meaning I was just a mile or so from my destination.
As I got settled under the awning of Penrith station and opened up my Guardian, I heard the first few drops of rain falling – the showers that had been threatening my ride ever since Barton. I’d managed to avoid them all morning, and now all I had to do was sit and wait for my train home, my mind filled with memories of a lovely few days exploring the Lakes.