Readers of The Pinecone novel make pilgrimage to the St Mary's Church in Wreay

PUBLISHED: 17:38 07 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:19 20 February 2013

The St Mary’s Church, Wreay

The St Mary’s Church, Wreay

The biography of a remarkable Victorian woman has set history lovers flocking to a remote church. Barbara Waite joined them

Four country roads meet at a village green and, in the shade of trees, stands a church. Nothing too unusual in that, but the tiny ornamented chapel built in 1842 seems like a Romanesque church from northern Italy.

A closer inspection reveals gargoyles that are, in fact, carved turtles and dragons, and instead of saints and prophets, the window recesses are carved with ammonites and coral, poppies and wheat, caterpillars and butterflies.

Strange stained glass windows throw light across the hollow tree trunk pulpit made from bog oak and an eagle and stork hold up a lectern and reading desk. Pinecones, an ancient symbol of rebirth, are everywhere and even form the door handle.

This church in Wreay pronounced rhea just five miles south of Carlisle. It dazzled Dante Gabriel Rossetti when he visited in 1869. He praised the architect as a forgotten genius. That genius was Sarah Losh.

Until the arrival of Carlisle author Jenny Uglows book, The Pinecone, the woman who designed and paid for the church would probably have remained in obscurity.

Born into an old Cumbrian family, Sarah was heiress to an industrial fortune. Her uncle James was a friend of William Wordsworth and of Mary Shelleys father William Godwin. It meant Sarah and her sister Katherine had an enlightened upbringing, and were strong-willed, well-travelled and ferociously intelligent.

Her church foreshadowed the Arts and Crafts movement by half a century. Craftsmen were sourced locally and Sarah even carved the altar candlesticks and floating water lilies in the font herself.

Unusually, the church has a portrait of Sarah a recent gift on the wall by the entrance door and visitors can see the Losh burial ground outside near the mausoleum she created for her beloved sister and a copy of the Bewcastle Cross put up in memory of her parents.

The book shows her always linking the past with an eye to the future. Jenny Uglows excellent biography vividly brings to life this colourful and imaginative woman while showing the stresses and strains of ordinary life.

Great changes were everywhere. The railway came, fortunes were won and lost, weavers struggled to earn a living and the poor stayed hungry. As well as architecture, trees were a passion for her. When a close family friend died fighting in Afghanistan, seed from a pinecone he had sent her was planted in his memory beside the burial ground at Wreay. Although the tree no longer survives, the stone pinecone on his memorial has stood the test of time and there is another reminder on the church door.

He is believed to have been killed by an arrow wound and Sarah designed ironwork arrows into the frame as part of her slightly macabre tribute.

Jenny Uglows book is published by Faber and Faber, 20

How to get there

The visitors book reveals the church is attracting people from far and wide. To see it for yourself, Wreay is just off the A6 south of junction 42 on the M6. Its on a small country road, narrow in places, but its worth the trip and there are refreshments available nearby.

Wreay flag

The village of Wreay is an attractive community with several stories to tell. It once had a makeshift flagpole which was so badly put together it couldnt fly a flag! To remedy this, they adapted the pole, but they had the flag of St George only used on a couple of days a year. They decided to design their own. A sunshine yellow cross on a green for nature background was chosen and a local businessman had six made at a subsidiary company in Australia.

Another director was part of a four-man team retracing the footsteps of South Pole discoverer Roald Amundsen, and he took the flag with him. It is one of very few in the world to have been displayed there. It carries the official stamp marking the event and hangs in the village pub and is flown on special occasions

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