The eagle and the pine-cone: the story of Sarah Losh and Newton Arlosh church

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St John the Baptist, Newton Arlosh. (c) Fiona Smith Photography

The newly-restored church of St John the Baptist at Newton Arlosh was consecrated in July 1849: it had previously been a wreck for about 250 years. As John Curwen wrote in 1913 (in a paper that ‘was read on site’), “Under date 1580 we read ‘The chapel of Newton Arlosh did decay ; the door stood open, sheep lay in it. About fifteen years since the roof fell down and the lead was taken away by some of the tenants and converted into salt pans.’

That sentence alone hints at many of the stories of Cumberland’s Solway shore: dissolution of the monasteries, common grazing ‘stints’ on the salt-marshes, production of salt by the monks and tenants of nearby Holme Cultram Abbey …

Curwen [1] continues, ungraciously,“In 1844 the church was restored by Canon Simpson, Miss Losh, and others, and has been since rather unfortunately enlarged.”

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Sarah Losh (1786-1853)

Miss Losh – Sarah Losh (1786-1853) – was an extraordinary woman, intelligent, practical, artistic, attractive, full of intellectual curiosity. She was partly self-taught, partly taught by her uncle and tutors; proficient in Latin and Greek and modern languages, classics, algebra and geometry, and knowledgeable about geology and fossils; she learnt to model in clay, to carve wood and sculpt stone; she was an ‘architect-designer’, an estate-manager, a philanthropist – and apparently widely liked and admired. Her family were friends with the Wordsworths, Coleridge, Southey, and engineers such as George Stephenson; they owned an alkali factory on Tyneside and were involved with the building of the Carlisle-Newcastle railway.

Her life is celebrated in Jenny Uglow’s delightful and authoritative biography, The Pinecone (2)– but Sarah Losh is a woman who should be celebrated even more widely as an example of what a determined woman can do.

Sarah’s family lived at Wreay [pronounced ree-uh] to the south-east of Carlisle but she had relatives who lived further West at Burgh-by-Sands on the Solway, and earlier generations of Loshes or Arloshes had been ‘grangers’ closely associated with Holme Cultram Abbey. Sarah and her sister Katherine and various of their Newcastle aunts and cousins occasionally stayed at the coastal spa of Allonby. Sarah was apparently shocked to see the ‘villagers carting away the stones [of Newton Arlosh church] as if it was a quarry’ (Uglow, p256) and, in her fifties and already proficient in architectural design and construction, she decided to rebuild it.

In 1303 the little port town of Skinburness or Grune, which had originally been built as a base for the army of Edward I to attack the Scots and subsequently was the main market town for the Abbey, was largely destroyed. Curwen writes that “… the town was inundated and swept away, together with the way leading to it, as the records say “by the terrible inroads of the sea and bad weather so that men could not reach it or live in it as they used to do.” The inhabitants then seem to have removed further inland to a hamlet within the territory of Arlosh and to have erected a new town there.”

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Newtown Marsh with Newton Arlosh to the left of the picture (photo: Ann Lingard)

 

This new hamlet, which eventually became known as Newtowne-in-Arlosk , was on slightly raised land, bordered by saltmarsh and the ‘Mosses’, and in 1304 the abbot of Holme Cultram Abbey was given permission (3) to build there a new church, which would also provide a refuge against “the hostile invasions and depredations of the Scots”.

 

This church of St John the Baptist has many similar features to the other fortified churches of the northern Solway Plain, St Michael’s at Burgh-by-Sands and Holme Cultram Abbey.

 

They were to provide an easily-defended building into which the locals – and their animals – could retreat when an attack was imminent: narrow entrances, strong doors, windows high above the ground, thick-walled towers with rooms that could only be reached by a staircase wide enough for a single person, arrow-slits and crenellated battlements.

 

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The left-handed spiral staircase to the tower (C) Fiona Smith Photography

 

The Historic England listing for the renovated St John’s notes various details of the fortification:“Licence to crenellate 11 April 1304, extended and repaired 1844 by Sarah Losh, vestry and restoration 1894. Large blocks of squared red sandstone mixed with cobbles. Extensions of red sandstone all under sandstone slate roofs, except for lead on tower. Square fortified west tower with extremely thick walls. Contemporary 2-bay fortified nave…Tower has original and restored arrow-slit windows. …Upper part of tower is of different stonework and has been restored with battlemented parapet and turret. Nave has narrow hollow-chamfered pointed doorway and arrow-slit windows …”

 

The ‘sandstone slate roof’ is interesting. Sarah used local materials wherever possible in all her buildings, and these heavy ‘flags’ were of Lazonby red sandstone, quarried in the Upper Eden area near Penrith (rather than the red St Bees’ sandstone). However, when you walk up the path towards the church it is the hunched, observant eagle on the roof that strikes you. This eagle – unlike the eagle at Holme Cultram which is poised to fly off towards the sunset – stares out to the East, wings mantled as if over prey.

 

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The interior of St John the Baptist Church (C) Fiona Smith Photography

 

And inside the church are sculpted rams’ heads, and a lectern carved like a palm tree, probably by William Hindson, who had been much involved with the building of the church at Wreay (see below). The pale sandstone rams’ heads are stylised, not representative of the local breeds, and Uglow suggests these were a reference to the Roman coins marked with the head of Jupiter Ammon that had been found in the foundations during the rebuilding (the Egyptian god Amun was often depicted as a man with a ram’s head).

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A carved ram’s head, Newton Arlosh (photo: Ann Lingard)

The church is handsome rather than showy, and comfortingly sturdy, sitting close to the creeks and mud of Newtown Marsh.

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Although it shows signs of Sarah Losh’s ideas and work, St John the Baptist’s church at Newton Arlosh is very modest in comparison with her exuberant and astonishing church of St Mary’s at Wreay.

A great deal has been written about this treasure, by architectural critics such as Nikolaus Pevsener and Simon Jenkins, but Jenny Uglow’s Prologue to The Pinecone gives an immediate impression of Wreay’s St Mary’s:
“Four country roads meet at the village green, shaded by trees, and across the way is the church. It look likes a small Romanesque chapel from northern Italy… The closer you get, the odder it seems. The gargoyles are turtles and dragons. Instead of saints and prophets the window embrasures are carved with ammonites and coral, poppies and wheat, caterpillar and butterfly …”

 

The church was created in 1842 by Sarah Losh in memory of her beloved sister Katherine. Wherever you look inside or out there is carved wood, sculpted stone and richly-glowing glass.

 

You duck down to look into corners, peer behind pillars, stand back to look up, and everywhere are objects that you need to touch and stroke and ponder. It is a geologist’s and zoologist’s delight; many of the animals and plants, whether mimicking fossils, living species or mythical beasts, have hidden meaning and significance.

 

 

Sarah sourced material locally and used local craftsmen; she herself learnt how to sculpt, and carve, and make clay maquettes. Lazonby sandstone, bog oak, oak from her family’s woodlands – and a fascination with the fossils found in the shale bands in Cumbrian coalmines – all contributed to her extraordinary work.

She carved alabaster to make the lotus flowers on the font, and cut thin sheets of the transparent stone to make windows with silhouetted fossil ferns.

St Mary’s church, the well and the gateway, the chapel of rest, the graveyard, even Wreay’s school and school-master’s house, were all designed, worked on, paid for, by Sarah Losh. There is an informative leaflet in the church – but it’s well worth reading about the life of the extraordinary ‘Miss Losh’ in Uglow’s biography.

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And so it is that, in the context of its restorer’s skills and her connections with the Solway and Holme Cultram Abbey, the design of the church of St John the Baptist at Newton Arlosh starts to make perfect sense.

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I am very grateful to the photographer Fiona Smith who twice went to St John’s church in Newton Arlosh to produce these excellent photographs for my blog post; you can see more of her work on Facebook

(1) John Curwen, 1913. The Fortified Church of St. John the Baptist, Newton Arlosh. Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, Series 2, Volume 13, pp113-121
(2) Jenny Uglow, 2012. The Pinecone: the story of Sarah Losh, forgotten Romantic heroine – antiquarian, architect and visionary. Faber and Faber Ltd
(3)  As explained in this Gazeteer, the church might not actually have been built until several decades later, and the Latin permission seems to have been incorrectly translated to also mean a ‘licence to crenellate’.

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