Sometimes I get to wondering, do things simply happen randomly or do they happen for a reason? Like many other people, no doubt, I’ve been watching “Gentleman Jack”, the dramatised version of The Diaries of Anne Lister, the first series of which has just ended on BBC 1. Many of you will know that I’m no real fan of the BBC and have, in the past, been scathing about some of its dramatic and comedic output, not least because, especially where female writers are concerned, it portrays men as feckless, misogynistic and often stupid human beings. “Gentleman Jack” has its fair share of such men but, unlike a show like Happy Valley https://going-postal.com/2016/03/the-bbc-feminism-and-demonisation-of/ there are characters in “Gentleman Jack”, both male and female, that typify, I would suggest, the people of the times. The cast is of the highest standard and some of the acting is equally as eccentric at times as it is understated at others.
This isn’t about the BBC though, or even about Ann Lister but she must have been at the back of my mind when, after walking along the banks of the river Petterill and through the Wreay Woods Nature Reserve last week we decided to take the short detour into Wreay itself to visit the church. Cumbria is a county of many treasures and not inconsiderable idiosyncrasies. It was also home to some very clever, artistic and far thinking people, especially it seems during the 18th and 19th Centuries. It may surprise some to know that many of these people were women, often single, though not always so. These women have had a lasting influence on the fabric of Cumbria and, on more than one occasion have become household names. I’d never heard of Ann Lister before I watched the television series but, seeing what had been accomplished by Sara Losh at Wreay peaked my interest in how influential and beneficial to their communities some women had been during a period of history supposed to be totally male dominated.
In this series I wanted to introduce you to some of these women, mostly those who have gone “under the radar” a bit, just like Anne Lister. Voila!
Sara, the eldest of four children, was born in Wreay in 1785. Her mother was a local woman and her father was a land owner who also owned a share in an alkali factory in the North East. One of her brothers died young and it is believed the other brother had a mental disability which meant that, on the death of her father she jointly inherited the estate with her sister Katherine. Neither married, so when Katherine died in 1835 Sarah inherited her share. Although there is no written record it is quite likely that Sara may have been romantically involved with an old school friend (surname Thain) who died in 1842 whilst serving as a Major with the British Military in Afghanistan.
Contemporaries of Sara described her as having an intelligence the equal of George Eliot, she was well educated, widely travelled and was fluent in several languages. Her real passion was architectural design and, from the 1820’s onwards, she was responsible for designing and building several interesting, practical and beneficial things, including schools, wells, a school teachers house whose design was based on a Pompeiian villa and, in 1835, a replica of the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bewcastle_Cross as a memorial to her parents, which can be seen in the churchyard. She used her own (inherited) wealth to complete all of these projects.
By 1840 the old chapel at Wreay had fallen into disrepair, Sara offered to donate the land and pay for the construction of a new church so long as she was afforded free reign as far as design was concerned. After some consideration by a faculty of worthies permission was granted to her in 1841. After the project was completed she said that the design for the small but wonderfully formed building was inspired by both “Early Saxon” and “Modified Lombard” styles, a visit will give some idea of what she meant by that. The exterior is striking, with wonderful gargoyles, but the interior of the church, complete with its marble altar, set on brass eagles is a real assault on the visual senses.
There are no overtly Christian symbols, for instance there isn’t a cross of any kind in the church, but evidence of wonder at the creation is everywhere. Local tradesmen were used to good effect carving pillars and angel figures. Animals are everywhere and the stained glass is a wonder in itself. I particularly liked the font, with its almost “arts and crafts” primitive look. This was carved by Sara and her cousin William from a single piece of alabaster. A woman of many and various talents.
The portrait of Sara, which is reproduced above, hangs on the wall of the church to the left side of the door. Although I haven’t been able to find out a great deal about her personal life she strikes me as having been a very confident woman with a rare beauty. I have no doubt that when she came up against intransigence (male or female) or other more natural barriers she made it her business to overcome them, where possible, with a sense of fairness and an understanding of her own place in the world. To the right side of the door as you leave the church is the organ. I don’t know whether it is by design or not, but it’s highly likely that you won’t see either the portrait or the organ as you enter the church. The basilica like apse, with its pillars, altar and wonderful carvings draws the visitors eyes compellingly.
When the church was finished the total bill came to just £1,200 (equivalent to around £124,000 at todays prices). Sara continued to live in Wreay and although I can find no evidence of local works after the church was finished, when she would have been 56, I’m certain that she would not have rested too long on her laurels. In 1850 She designed and had built a simple local stone mausoleum, which is situated in the churchyard, to the memory of her sister in 1850. All in all a remarkable woman with a real feeling for her local community and without the airs and graces that wealth can so often bestow on some people. Sara is buried in the churchyard, sharing a grave with her sister.
For whatever reason, none can be found by me, all of Sara’s papers, journals and drawings were lost or destroyed after her death, whether by accident or design it is impossible to say, so what little we do know about her comes mainly from one source, The Worthies of Cumberland first published by Henry Lonsdale in 1867. Lonsdale was a doctor and political thinker who spent his later years travelling, writing and studying architecture.
A pint can be taken at the local pub in Wreay (The Plough Inn) and the food, although we didn’t try it, is reputed to be more than passable. The walk back from Wreay village to where we parked wasn’t as easy going or as well blessed with scenery as the walk along the river and through the woods and it would probably have made sense to retrace our steps. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. One word of warning, although not apparent when we parked it was obvious when we returned to our car that the secluded parking/picnic area doubles up as a meeting place for people of a certain predilection, to be avoided after dark would be my advice, unless, of course, you like that sort of thing.
Thanks to Wikipedia for filling in some of the gaps.
© Colin Cross 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file