Wreay, Cumbria – St Mary

A trip outside the Diocese of Newcastle for the next couple of churches. St Mary’s Wreay is just south of Carlisle – NY435489 – and has an excellent church website. I have now learned to embed – be impressed! I read Jenny Uglow’s book “The Pinecone; the story of Sarah Losh, forgotten Romantic heroine – antiquarian, architect and visionary”. Julie, who reads lots of book blogs, came and explored with me.

DSC05614DSC05594The first church in the village is recorded in 1319 and in post-Reformation times there was a building which served both as a chapel and a schoolhouse. It was consecrated in 1739, but by the time of Queen Victoria it was dilapidated. Sarah Losh (1785-1853) designed and paid for a new church – it cost her £1007 and was a memorial to her sister Catherine and to their parents. The church leaflet describes it as “a highly original work – the product of the exuberant imagination of one who was a passionate devotee of architecture”. It is wonderful.


DSC05617DSC05616DSC05615Starting outside, we have a simple church in the shape of a Roman basilica – Sarah and Catherine had made a Grand Tour of Europe in 1817. There is a lot of creation imagery all over the church – wonderful crocodile – and these arrows make a marvellous fence. The arrow is a symbol of death, and may also be an allusion to the death of a family friend, Major William Thain, a local hero who fought at Waterloo and was killed in the Afghan war of 1842 – he is supposed to have sent Sarah a pinecone before he died (I hope she doesn’t mind being referred to by her Christian name, she would probably have been the village Lady known to all (including the Vicar) as “Miss Losh”).


DSC05566The west door has the arrow theme on the outside and wonderful carving inside – apparently Sarah’s gardener did the wood-carving (and she paid for the local stone mason, Mr Hindson, to go to Italy or a few months to improve his skills). I should have taken a close-up photo of the wood carving round the door. It is a vine and gourd from the book of Jonah (chapter 4) and you can see the worm chewing the gourd. I’ll go back and get a better photo. There is “A Journey in Faith” book using the symbolism – but even they can’t come up with a convincing theological explanation as to “why the gourd”.

DSC05597DSC05567The pinecone is back – a symbol of resurrection, a dead seed from which new life comes. 1 Corinthians 15.22 “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”. This one is at the top of the steps which lead from the Narthex (posh name for the raised rear portion of the church), down into the body of the church. The font, placed in the Narthex next to the door, is said to have been carved by Sarah herself. Many symbols of new life – wheat seeds, dragonfly, butterfly, grapes, pine tree, pomegranate, melon and a dove with an olive leaf.

DSC05601Looking east, it is a very small church. There is so much to look at. Symbols of creation – day and night, the owl and cockerel. Symbols of water, plants and the air. So many birds and animals. The church leaflet says “You could call it Sarah Losh’s ‘Benedicite’ – all ye works of the Lord, praise ye the Lord … . Possibly it is something of a tribute to the memory of William Wordsworth, the great Lakeland poet of nature, whom Sarah’s father entertained more than once at his house at Woodside, and who may have been a ‘teenage idol’ of the sisters.” Most churches have an eagle – this one has a pelican too. The pelican, as we know, being a symbol of the death of Christ – the mother piercing her breast to feed her young on her blood.



DSC05583DSC05582DSC05572The pulpit is a lump of bog oak – I remember dad telling us about bog oak (the earliest stages of fossilisation of wood … my brother and I thought it should go with toilet paper) – and a palm tree candle-holder. The oak is about 1,000 years old. “Journey in faith” makes the link with Isaiah 11.1-9 “a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse”, the new life of Christ springing out of the old.


In the sanctuary the altar is a slab of green marble from Italy, supported by two brass eagles. The apse is surrounded by an arcade of fourteen pillars, the spaces between them forming thirteen seats. Above them are the emblems of the Twelve Apostles, with the Lamb emblem of Christ in the centre. Supporting the chancel arch are a carved man (pictured) and a carved woman – we have had creation throughout the church, here is the pinnacle of creation.


DSC05570The Chancel arch itself – the dome separating the earth and the heavens – is flanked by archangels, and has palm trees and seven ages (representing paradise).

Outside – head rather reeling, but wondering what I’d missed – I walked across the grass to the Mausoleum and the replica of the Bewcastle Cross (put up in memory of Sarah and Catherine’s parents – incidentally one church publication says Catherine, the other says Katherine). Bewcastle is a parish north of the Wall, just into Cumbria, which has this Saxon cross. We have friends in Bewcastle – hello Paul et al – who we had visited the day before we came to Wreay (but cake, once again, took precedence over the church). When I return to Bewcastle I’ll do the cross symbolism. Catherine and Sarah are buried in this Mausoleum – may they rest in peace. Thank you for a wonderful church.


DSC05610DSC05612And talking of cake … we continued south and found a lovely cafe at The Pot Place in Plumpton (NY487370). Between the M6 and the West Coast Main line, so you can watch the trains and eat …


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One Response to Wreay, Cumbria – St Mary

  1. Mr Michael Statham says:

    Dear Peter
    In 2017 I published a little book about the use of Penarth alabaster. The book mentions Cumberland alabaster but at the time of writing I was unaware of its use by Sarah Losh at Wreay. The book sold well but is now out of print. However, if you would like a copy I can send you a low resolution digital copy gratis.

    I am trying to write an update of the book and will certainly mention Wreay, but I would really like to include a photo of Sarah’s font. Could you possibly let me have a photo of it with your permission to use it? I know there are other objects in the church made from Cumbrian alabaster which I would also be interested in.

    As I live in south Wales I cannot easily get up to Cumbria these days to photograph it myself, much as I would like to.

    Best wishes

    Michael Statham

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