In the village of Wreay, five miles south of Carlisle, with the Lake District to one side and the Pennines to the other, can be found a strange, almost Druidical church adorned throughout with carved pinecones. When Nikolaus Pevsner first came here in 1967 he called the church ‘crazy’ and an ‘amazingly forward-pointing building’ – yet part of its craziness is that it is actually an amazingly backward-looking building. It was constructed from local materials and completed in 1842; it is Victorian but looks Romanesque; Ruskinian in its simplicity, it pre-dates Ruskin by a decade. It is what Jenny Uglow calls in this gem of a book ‘stubbornly individual’. Christianity is replaced by Pantheism. All ancient religions are celebrated here: Greek, Roman, Hindu, Egyptian, Buddhist. The pulpit is a hollow tree trunk; an eagle and a stork hold up the lectern; the candlesticks are lotus-shaped; a single arrow pierces the wall. Instead of telling tales of saints, the windows and carvings describe poppies, caterpillars, butterflies, turtles, snakes and dragons. Strangest of all, the church is the work of one woman, Sarah Losh, who not only conceived and designed it but hand-crafted many of the symbols herself.
Sarah’s church, Uglow suggests, is a work of mourning, a way of ‘pinning down the dead’. The pinecone is a symbol of regeneration, and the loved ones who are remembered here – Sarah’s adored sister Katharine; her parents; her old friend Major William Thain, killed by an arrow on the