1 The Walk
In mid-March the Cumbrian skies are sometimes a clear, cutting blue. At noon, the sun holds a faint touch of warmth, but it is cold, half a season behind the southern counties. Snowdrops are still out and wild daffodils just in bud. Sitting on the low wall with its rounded arches, around the enclosure of family graves, on a March day in 1850, Sarah Losh could feel snow in the breeze as she listened to the children’s voices from the school across the road that she and her sister Katharine had built long ago. From here Sarah could survey her kingdom. At her back was her church and in front of her the broad green oval on the slope of the hill was ringed with her works. The buildings with their ancient forms looked now like part of the landscape, as if they had always been here. On the brow of the hill, she could see the wall of the new cemetery that she had given to the village, the mortuary chapel, standing out against the skyline, and the sexton’s cottage beside it. Then the road dipped back to the churchyard, past the little dame school down to the cottages and the blacksmith’s shop and the Plough Inn, before plunging towards the river Petteril in the valley.
Her first task, when she began to plan her church, had been to move the lane that cut across the north of the churchyard to the other side, so that it circled the whole domain. The process was slow, following set customs. First she had to gain the agreement of the Twelve Men of Wreay, the landowners and farmers who had run village affairs since the Restoration, using the rents of parish land to pay the schoolmaster, administering local charities and acting as guardians of the poor. Every Candlemas Eve, before the quarter day that falls on 2 February, they met at the Plough at six in the evening to conduct their business, then paid a shilling for their supper of bread, cheese, oatcake, butter and ale, lit their churchwarden pipes and filled their tankards before they told tales, sang ballads and recited poetry. They were ‘the Township’, and convivial or not, they took their role seriously. In notes and petitions in the early eighteenth century the men asked for the schoolmaster to be made a deacon so that he could administer baptisms and visit the sick.1 Sarah’s great-grandfather, William Losh, was one of the signatories to this petition, and in the year of her birth the list of the Twelve Men included both her grandfather and her father.
The vicar, William Gaskin, who had lived with her family before his marriage, when he was a young curate, had recorded the meetings of the Twelve Men in his leather-bound notebook since 1786, when she was born. In her own notes describing the building of the church Sarah explained that the plot of land on which it stood was ‘anciently part of the common belonging to the Township’ and when Wreay Common was enclosed in 1778, ‘this was hedged in to form a cow grassing’ for the parish clerk. The original church on the common was a long, low building dating back to the time of Edward II: in 1319 the bishop allowed a chaplain here.2 The district was known as the Chapelry of Wreay, a sub-parish of St Mary’s abbey in Carlisle, and villagers always referred to the church simply as ‘the chapel’. In 1739 it was reconsecrated as St Mary’s of Wreay and since 1750 burials had been allowed here, relieving the families of the arduous custom of carrying the corpse to the mother church in Carlisle.
When Sarah persuaded the Twelve Men to hand the land over to her in 1836, their action, she said, enabled her ‘to improve the appearance of the place by planting it with evergreens and also to rebuild, with a little additional space, the wall of the chapel yard, which had almost wholly disappeared’. It seemed a reasonable and modest exchange, a gracious act by a local benefactor. But more was to come. ‘June twentieth, 1836’, the minutes declared in a looping hand, ‘Resolved unanimously that leave be granted to Miss Losh to divert the Road to the West end of the Chapel yard’. But moving the road, although no one noted this at the time, also left her room to build a new church.
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For many years the villagers remembered Sarah in her black cloak and bonnet, walking from the church to her home at Woodside, a good mile away. At the brow of the hill, where she could lean on the gate to the sexton’s cottage, Wreay lay behind her in a sheltered curve on the side of the ridge that blocked the view to the west. To the east, though, the view suddenly widened: across the valleys of the Petteril and the Eden, the long shoulders of the Pennines sloped northwards from the heights of Cross Fell, still covered in snow, towards Carrock Fell, the small town of Brampton and the Newcastle road. She knew the name of every field she passed, for she owned them all, over six hundred acres on both sides of the road, as far as the hamlets of Brisco and Upperby, almost up to Carlisle.
The old road, known as Waygates, ran straight as an arrow. Before the enclosures of the late eighteenth century – from which the Loshes gained considerably – this had been a track across common land, crossing others at right angles with no need to circle awkwardly round private property. It was unusually wide, so that haycarts could pass, avoiding ruts and boggy patches. One half of it was paved and the other half was left as common. Canon Hall, the vicar of Wreay in the early twentieth century, remembered this wide margin as ‘a wild tangle of gorse, sallows, brambles, honeysuckle, and dog roses, with meadow sweet, peppermint, orchids, and other flowers below’. In spring there were violets and dog’s mercury, in autumn it was red with haws and hips, and in winter the snow lay deep and frozen.
The road ran past the farms of Wood House and Low Hurst, then down through a small wood, across the beck and up the hill to Woodside. The old house, set at right angles to the road, stood on a spur of land with views to all points of the compass. The effect of an airy plateau was strengthened by the way the grass was banked up to the top of the wall so that the road was hidden and the eye passed straight across to the fields and trees of the West Park: on a clear day you could see the Caldbeck Fells and the back of Saddleback, northern sentinel of the Lakes. Across the hidden ditch of the ha-ha, the view stretched across the pond and clumps of trees in the North Park to the hazy land of the borders; to the east lay the Pennines, and to the south Woodside’s windows gazed across terraced lawns to the heights of Cross Fell.
A leisurely walk on the Woodside lawns, from William Hutchinson’s History of Cumberland
, published in 1794, when Sarah was eight.
The Loshes had lived at Woodside for generations and her grandfather John had turned the old house into a Georgian mansion, with sweeping lawns and open views. A sundial stood in the garden, marked ‘1757’, two years after his marriage. When her parents John and Isabella married in 1785, her grandparents moved to a house in Fisher Street in Carlisle, leaving Woodside to them. Sarah was born on New Year’s Day 1786, and baptised six days later in St Cuthbert’s, Carlisle. This was where all the family worshipped when they were in the city, where her parents had married and where her grandparents were buried within a week of each other in April 1789 – Catherine dying first and the Squire tumbling after.
Sarah was three when her grandfather died, but stories abounded of this huge, rumbustious man, twenty stone or more, with a roaring voice and bellowing laugh, fair-haired and red-faced, known as the Big Black Squire after the black stallion he rode. The Loshes were not among the grandest landowners but they were friends with all the powerful local families: the Blamires of Thackwood, a few miles away; the Hudlestons of Hutton John to the south; the Aglionbys of Nunnery; and the three branches of the Howard family, at Greystoke Castle, Corby and Naworth. They knew the Christians of Cockermouth and the magnates of the coast, like the Curwens of Workington Hall, who combined collieries with farming, the Senhouses of Netherhall, who had developed the fishing village of Maryport into a thriving port, and the Spedding families of Whitehaven and Bassenthwaite. Beyond this the marriages of the Squire’s sisters brought connections with other well-known local names which would be marked in the margins of Sarah’s life: Parkers, Bells and Wilsons.3
The Squire married pretty, charming Catherine Liddell, a woman less than half his size. She came from Burgh-by-Sands – or ‘Bruff’ in local speech – where the flat lands and creeks at the mouth of the Eden merged into the misty wastes of the Solway Firth. They were a sociable couple and they and their children were great favourites in Carlisle society. John was born in 1757, the eldest of nine children, eight boys and a girl, Margaret. The Loshes had their share of family tragedies: one of a pair of twins died within a week and their second son, William, died aged ten, after a fall from a tree while bird-nesting. Then just before John married, his brother Joseph, a young dragoons officer, died in Gloucester: there were lasting rumours of a duel, but his violent fever seems to have stemmed not from wounds but from heatstroke in the fierce July sun. Three years later Margaret’s twin brother Robert collapsed in Newcastle when he was nineteen, after a walking match ‘which, however, he won’.4 These shadows hovered over Sarah’s childhood. But when she was growing up her aunt Margaret and her uncles James and George, still in their twenties, and another William, who was fourteen when she was born, were vibrantly alive.
Their world was far from cut off in the late 1780s, however much their family friend Kitty Senhouse might lament that travel was so difficult: ‘The mail being overturn’d does not surprise one as I believe accidents often happen to it unknown to anyone but those who have the misfortune of sharing in them – for the obvious reason that if it was known nobody would be foolhardy enough to trust so dangerous a conveyance.’5 The Loshes had a house in London and business interests in Newcastle and Edinburgh and their sons travelled the world. The Squire was interested in new scientific ideas and friendly with the intellectuals of the cathedral close. His plans for his sons followed a standard pattern for the landed gentry: the eldest, John, would inherit the land; the next, James, would go into the church; the third – the ill-fated Joseph – into the army. The younger sons, Robert, George and William, would make their way in trade. As far as that was concerned, there were already good openings in Newcastle. Their mother Catherine had useful family connections with the Liddells of Ravensworth, powerful coal owners and merchants who were prominent in the politics of the Tyne.
John and his brothers had a radical, adventurous streak and looked far beyond Carlisle. All were talented linguists, studying abroad in France and Germany and the Low Countries, lovers of literature, filling the old house with books. They were born into a new age of improvement, science, law, industry and reform. Like many Cumbrians of their generation, their futures lay on the quays of Newcastle as much as in the markets of Carlisle.
Cumberland, from the Lyson brothers’ Magna Britannia
After his father died, John was head of the family, technically responsible for his younger brothers – although in the event it was James, the second son, who worried about their lives and sorted out their problems. Until they were sixteen James and John were both taught at home by the curate William Gaskin, whom James summed up as a man of ‘considerable powers of mind’, who had studied law and was a good classical scholar, despite being uncouth in his manners and abrupt in his speech.6 From Wreay they went to be tutored by John Dawson, a brilliant, self-taught doctor and mathematician who took private pupils at Sedbergh, on the edge of the Yorkshire dales. Dawson’s story became part of local lore: the poor boy from Garsdale in Yorkshire who walked to Edinburgh with his savings sewn into his coat to train as a doctor and eventually became a noted tutor at Cambridge, studying the orbit of the moon and correcting calculations of the distance of the earth from the sun. Mathematics, Dawson showed, could describe the world and open new vistas.
Both John and James Losh went on to Cambridge. James took his degree in 1786, the year of Sarah’s birth. He began, as planned, by studying for the church but at Cambridge he became an admirer of Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian and avowed republican; no longer eligible for the church, he enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the Bar. His home, though, was still Woodside, and in his twenties, when Sarah and Katharine were girls, he cut a striking Rousseau-esque figure, distinctly at odds with the farmers around him, elegantly dressed, his dark, shining hair hanging over his shoulders. George and William went to school briefly at Hawkshead, where William lodged with Anne Tyson at the same time as William Wordsworth and his younger brothers John and Christopher, and the Spedding brothers.7 George, always confrontational or ‘disputacious’ as James called him, was destined for commerce and studied in France and Germany, while William went to college in Erfurt in the centre of Germany, where he met and became a lifelong friend of the great naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. The two brothers spent time in Sweden, a centre of new discoveries in chemistry and, with Russia, one of Newcastle’s great trading partners for timber, tar and bar-iron. George also went to Russia, astounding the locals by walking out without a topcoat, and both brothers travelled to Italy, perhaps taking their sister Margaret with them.8
George Losh, looking fine in his green silk waistcoat – the only known portrait of any of the four surviving Losh brothers as dashing young men.
Sarah’s father, John, was carefree, ‘handsome in person, and highly generous, fond of the beautiful in woman as well as art and nature’, as Henry Lonsdale tactfully put it.9 A gregarious soul, he was ‘studious to please everybody, and as ready to entertain a peasant as a peer … cock of the walk, and one of the most popular of men’. In the girls’ childhood he was seen at all county gatherings, riding a black mare as highly strung as his father’s, and was known for his love of country sports, following the hounds, wrestling and cock-fighting. Her mother, Isabella, was ten years his junior, only eighteen when they married. Small and elegant, with a classical profile, she was easy-going, affectionate and impulsive, fiercely defensive of her family, her husband and her children. She was not a local girl but came from Callerton Hall, near Newcastle. Her family, like the Loshes, cherished their history and stuck to their radical principles: one forebear, Thomas Bonner, had held out as a Puritan mayor in royalist Newcastle in 1649, and Cromwell, who was deeply unpopular in the region, was reputed to have hidden in the Hall. By contrast, when Isabella’s brother, Robert Bonner, inherited his uncle’s estate of Warwick Hall, east of Carlisle, and changed his name to Warwick in 1792, he moved into a devoutly Catholic enclave. The Warwicks were Catholics and Jacobites, like their neighbours, the Howards of Corby Castle: if Cromwell stayed at Callerton, Bonnie Prince Charlie slept at Warwick Hall. Woodside itself was the birthplace of Christopher Robinson, a Catholic priest who preached in defiance of the laws of Elizabeth I and was hanged, drawn and quartered in Carlisle in 1597. Tolerance and religious liberty, Sarah came to believe, were the only ways forward.
The Losh babies came fast. When Sarah was one her new brother John died at the age of five weeks; a year later, in early February 1788, Katharine was born, and last of all Joseph, the longed-for male heir. The children shared the nursery, looked after by their nurse and their mother. The girls thrived, began to read, took trips to Carlisle, paid calls on neighbours, visited their Losh and Warwick relations, and went to dancing lessons in Dalston a few miles away.10 But Joseph was slow, and it was soon clear that something was wrong with him: he grew up to be severely backward, so much so that he could never look after himself and had to be cared for all his life. The hope of Woodside lay, after all, with the girls.
Copyright © 2012 by Jenny Uglow
Jenny Uglow’s books include prizewinning biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell and William Hogarth. The Lunar Men, published in 2002, was described by Richard Holmes as “an extraordinarily gripping account,” while Nature’s Engraver won the National Arts Writers Award for 2007. A Gambling Man was short-listed for the 2010 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Uglow grew up in Cumbria and now lives in Canterbury, England.