The Pinecone : a Visit to St Mary’s Church, Wreay in Cumbria

Earlier this year I read Jenny Uglow’s latest book “The Pinecone : the story of Sarah Losh, forgotten Romantic heroine – antiquarian, architect and visionary”. I had heard Jenny speaking about the book at the 2012 Ilkley Literature Festival. Sarah Losh’s life and her work are almost totally unknown.

Pinecone book

The village of Wreay lies five miles south of Carlisle. Four country roads meet at the village green, shaded by trees, and across the way is the church. It looks like a small Romanesque chapel from northern Italy. What is it doing in this northern village, with the mountains of the Lake District to the west and the Pennines to the east?”

St Mary's Wreay

This is the premise for the book [on the back cover] and it’s a fascinating tale.  Jenny Uglow first sets the scene by telling the story of Sarah Losh’s antecedents who made money in Newcastle from alkali works and later from iron works and the railways. Sarah was born in 1786 and her sister Katharine, with whom she was especially close, in 1788. Their parents died in 1799 [their mother] and 1814 [their father]. The sisters were brought up in the countryside south of Carlisle but as adults they made several tours on the Continent including to Italy. This must be where Sarah received her inspiration. For women at the time they were very highly educated.

Mortuary Chapel

The Mortuary Chapel Across the Field from the Church

Following the death of their father and their travels on the Continent the Losh sisters returned home and began to make improvements to their home and estate and to the village of Wreay itself including the building of a school. But Katherine fell ill and died in 1835 and Sarah was inconsolable. She then directed her efforts to building a Mortuary Chapel modelled on one she had seen at St Piran in Cornwall.

Peep inside the church

Then Sarah began work on the new church 1835. It was completed in 1845. She declared that it was to be “Not in the Gothick style” but based on a Romanesque design and it is a masterpiece and very obviously the work of one person – the untrained architect and designer – Sarah Losh.

Sarah Losh portrait

Sarah Losh

I can’t go into all the details of both the interior and exterior decoration of the building. It’s a perfect gem – earning four stars in Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Churches “This is one of the most eccentric small churches in England … unlike almost all the works in this book, Wreay appears to have been the creation of a single original mind … The Arts and Crafts Movement took half a century to catch up with her.”


The Mausoleum


Dedicated to Katherine Losh

There is a Mausoleum dedicated to her sister and an exact replica of the Bewcastle Cross (the original of which stands by Hadrian’s Wall) alongside the church. The Loshes, including Sarah and Katherine, are buried in a grave enclosure nearby.

Bewcastle Cross

The Bewcastle Cross

Mausoleum and cross and school

The Mausoleum and Cross with the School across the road

Losh sisters' grave

“IN VITA DIVISAE, IN MORTE CONJUNCTAE” – Parted in life, in death united”

I’m lucky to have a friend who lives not far from Wreay. I visited her in Carlisle last year. So last Thursday I took to the Leeds-Settle-Carlisle Line again to visit Wreay Church with June and her husband, David. We were lucky to arrive whilst a group were being shown round and had the good fortune to have access along with them to the small Mausoleum dedicated to Katherine.

Church door

The Ornate Church Door

East end with apse

The East End, with Apse


The Altar

Alabaster font

The Alabaster Font – Carved by Sarah

A pinecone

One of Many Pinecones

So, why the Pinecone? Because it is an ancient symbol of regeneration, fertility and inner enlightenment. It is a promise of rebirth.


Dickens on the train and Dickens in the shop – a visit to my neighbour

Members of my online reading group are scattered far and wide around the world. I have been lucky enough to meet many of them here in the UK and also when I’ve been on holiday abroad. My nearest group ‘neighbour’ lives in Carlisle about 100 miles away and luckily we have the famous Leeds-Settle-Carlisle line to assist us in our efforts to meet up every so often.  On Thursday I made the trip north. As you can imagine it’s a full day trip – but well worth it just to visit Carlisle but the added bonus of meeting up with a friend makes it doubly so. I was lucky in other respects as well.  The weather could not have been better, blue skies and sunshine showed the scenery at its best – you could even see snow on the Lakeland peaks in the distance.

All the trains ran to time, although on parts of the journey the L-S-C train moves very slowly. During all this time with just the odd glance out of the window I was engaged reading Claire Tomalin’s ‘Dickens: a life”.

We met up at the station and went straight for tea/coffee at John Watt’s. Watt’s is primarily a Coffee Shop but I was pleased to note that they serve loose tea by the pot. Having just checked the website again I notice that they are tea blenders as well as coffee roasters. The over riding smell in the shop/cafe is roasting coffee and although I don’t drink it I have no objection at all to the smell. Teas and coffees are only half the game – they sell every kind of tea and coffee requisite accessory imaginable plus high class chocolates of all kinds. I couldn’t resist asking where the Christmas decorations had been hung – there didn’t appear to be any free space at all.

We visited two bookshops. Handily placed was The Oxfam Bookshop (most towns have one now) just two doors down from Watt’s. And then we moved on to Carlisle’s piece de resistance for bibliophiles The Bookcase. It’s a many-roomed shop filled to overflowing with books. The owners are up to date with secondhand book prices but we found lots of the old orange Penguins in pretty good to excellent condition for just a couple of pounds each. I bought an unread copy of Monica Dickens’ ‘My Turn to Make the Tea’. (The copy on the far left of the picture.)

My friend and her husband have not long lived in Cumbria. They moved over from Northumberland in 2010. I was taken back to their new home for a lovely lunch and inspection of house and garden. Suddenly it was time to head to the nearby quaint old station at Armathwaite where we said our ‘Goodbyes’ and I headed back to Leeds arriving with just one remaining chapter of the life to read.