A modern day visitor might speculate on the origins and inspiration for the caves carved out of the rich red sandstone that come in sight as they stroll along the path from Little Salkeld above the beautiful River Eden.
We know a little about Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Lacy, the man responsible for these quirky features, but sadly his motives are undocumented.
The third child but eldest son of Richard, Sheriff of Newcastle, and Dorothy, of Cumberland's Dacre lineage, Samuel was born on February 18th 1766, in Pilgrim street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He inherited at a young age, taking lucrative ownership of land on Tyneside and this wealth allowed him the luxury of purchasing property on the banks of the Eden.
When his mother remarried it was to Timothy Fetherstonhaugh and they took up residence in the grand family house at Kirkoswald called The College, handily placed to visit Samuel who was just a few miles away.
Samuel's commission in the Cumberland Militia brought little excitement other than the thrill of quelling an occasional riot so he had time aplenty to dream up plans for his new estate, now christened Eden Lacy. He modernised and improved Salkeld Hall, a rambling sandstone country house, constructing a whole new facade in the process. More interesting than the Hall itself was the accompanying land which provided both the inspiration and opportunity for Samuel's wilder developments.
Set in farmland above the River Eden, the stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters had stood proudly for over three thousand years when they came into Samuel's possession. To this day all manner of myths and legends surround this prehistoric site, the best remembered of which in Samuel's day was that the stones were originally a coven of witches, turned to stone by a Scottish wizard as they danced wildly on the Sabbath day.
William Wordsworth found their familial presence disturbing as he called on them to speak in his poem 'The Monument Commonly Called Long Meg and Her Daughters.' With typical pride in his native Cumbria he claimed that in all of the world they were second only to Stonehenge in noteworthiness.
Samuel however felt he could match them and set about establishing his own creation.
The resulting Lacy's Caves were literally carved under Samuel's direction out of the sandstone river bank and presented as a romantic folly where his guests could be entertained. Surrounded by richly planted ornamental gardens the caves have been likened to cathedrals, perhaps displaying a spiritual purpose, a statement in opposition to the rationalist spirit that overwhelmed the age. Lacy even employed a pseudo-hermit to reinforce this romantic authenticity.
Samuel's feelings towards the ancient standing stones appear to have been mixed. Local tales tell of his decision to demolish the circle by detonating gunpowder beneath the stones. As the work commenced, a violent thunder storm began. This spooked the labourers, who were no doubt familiar with the stones' aura, acting as a supernatural warning against the act of vandalism they were about to undertake. They downed tools and departed with some haste and thereafter Lacy had a change of heart.
Perhaps the incident heightened his respect for the stones for he was later to commission notable artist Jacob Thompson to paint them into a bucolic scene. His 1832 work 'The Druids Cutting Down the Mistletoe' shows figures at work in a wooded clearing with Long Meg and Her Daughters clearly visible in the distance. The painting and other works by Thompson can be seen in the Penrith Museum. It provides an evocative example of how artists' and patrons' tastes for picturesque scenery and prehistoric antiquities were represented at that time.