The four corners of the original churchyard of St Andrew, Dacre (Cumberland) are guarded by unusual stone figures, most often referred to as bears. The date and purpose of the figures is unknown, although it seems likely that they were originally four corner pinnacles on a tower (possibly the tower of the church, although they may date from before the construction of the church).
The figures are first mentioned in 1704 by Bishop Nicolson who visited Dacre on February the 26th of that year. He writes:
At each corner of the churchyard (which is indifferently well fenced) there stands a Bear and a Ragged Staff, cut in Stone : which looks like some of the Achievements of the Honourable Family which so long resided at the Neighbouring Castle.
The figures are next mentioned in 1776 by William Hutchinson in his Excursion to the Lakes:
In the churchyard at Dacre are four remarkable monuments, being the effigies of bears in stone, about five feet high, sitting on their haunches, and clasping a rude pillar, or ragged staff, on which two of the figures have their heads rested; the other two carry on their backs the figures of a lynx, the one of which is in an attitude as if endeavouring to rid himself of the animal on his shoulders, with head twisted, and paws cast behind. Their position is such, as to form a square, two to the east of the church, and two to the west. There is no traditional account of the occasion on which they were placed there ; and it seems probable they are the remains of the decorations of the monastery to which the the Warwick family were benefactors.
A very comprehensive review of the figures and all published information about them was carried out by the president of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, Richard Saul Ferguson, in Volume XI (1891) of the Transactions of the society. Ferguson, having dismissed the theory that they are representations of the Bear and Ragged Staff, puts forward his own theory that they tell a story about a bear:
North-west corner: The bear is asleep with his head on the top of a pillar, snugged in between his paws so as to be almost concealed : in fact this figure is often supposed to be headless, but it is not so : the head is turned to the bear’s right and doubled down on or between his paws. The long tail is not visible : the bear sits upon
South-west corner: An animal, about the size of a small cat, has sprung upon the bear’s back and is clinging on his left shoulder. The astonished bear has has awoke and lifted up his head, which is turned to one side in attitude of surprise. His long tail comes out between his thigh and body and curls up the pillar.
South-east corner: a most vigorous composition. The bear now fully aroused, takes active measures : his right forepaw is reflexed over his right shoulder, and clutches the little beast, which is painfully elongated, just above where its tail joins on to the small of its back. The bear’s head is turned to his left, and masses of dishevelled mane hang to that side. The tail is invisible, underneath the bear.
North-east corner: The little beast has disappeared down the throat of the bear, who rests his chin on the top of his pillar, while his face presents every sign of intense gratification : his mane has been carefully combed, and his tail curls up between his thigh and belly round his back.
The animal, in each case is a bear, sitting upright on its hind quarters and grasping a short pillar between its four paws. Bear undoubtedly the beast is, though the artist has given him a long tail with a tuft at the end like a lion, and also a good deal of mane.
However, he does not state why he is so convinced it is a bear even though he concedes that the artist has made the creature look more like a lion.
The mystery of the ancient bears is unlikely to ever be resolved and perhaps that is for the best. They are what they are and we can enjoy them as they sit silently guarding Dacre church.