Sarah and her beloved sister Katherine were children of the Regency era in which women were brought up to know their own minds.
Their Uncle James was an advocate for the education of women and, when their mother died young, he needed no encouragement to inspire them with his radical, republican philosophy. Taken to Bath and Newcastle and Bristol to broaden their minds, the two of them ended up classical scholars of incomparable excellence. Always seeking to widen her horizons and deepen her knowledge, Sarah was later swept up in the fossil-hunting craze that swept the country in the 1820s.
Raised at Woodside, near Wreay, as young women of wealth and status they dressed with confidence, almost flashily. With fortunes built on industry and hearts full of romantic ideals, they straddled Thomas Carlyle's Sign of the Times which bemoaned the triumph of the 'mechanical and profitable' over the 'beautiful and good'.
In spite of owning most of the village, Georgian conventions meant that Sarah could never become one of the 12 Men of Wreay who made up the local council of the day. However, they left their mark in other, more lasting ways. With the advantage that comes from great wealth and local influence, Sarah and Katherine were always philanthropical. They built a new school for the village, funding the work, designing the building and personally overseeing its construction.
The arrival of Richard Jackson as parish priest spurred Sarah to thinking about the rude village church, thoughts that would lead to her remarkable legacy.
In 1835 Katherine died, just two years after dear Uncle James. Sarah, inconsolable, never quite moved out of mourning, yet began to build, first a mortuary chapel and Sexton's cottage, both at the entry to the new graveyard on land she gave to the north of the village, on the road to Woodside. Then, her inspiration reinforced by further tragedy, her designs turned more and more to the church. This time the sad news came from a distant corner of the Empire. Sarah had been sent a pine cone from Afghanistan by a friend Major William Thain. She had planted the seeds from the cone and raised a Khelat Pine, little expecting that the tree would act as a memorial to William himself. Then news reached Woodside that William had been killed by an arrow during the retreat from Kabul.
The church for which Sarah found inspiration in tragedy has to be seen to be comprehended. Much has been written and said about it and its creator:
'unique in the history of the architectural crafts'
'one of the most interesting buildings in England'
'it reflects in stone and wood the love of God for all creation'
'an individual genius, a Charlotte Bronte of wood and stone'
Nikolaus Pevsner, accepted as the highest court in the land when it comes to judgements on church architecture, calls it 'the best in church architecture during the years of Queen Victoria'.
There is too little space here to describe its beauty and the visual delights that adorn every part of the church, inside and out. The symbolism captured in the multitude of feature draws on Christian, pre-Christian, pagan and personal references. Wood, glass, paint and stone compete for attention. Plants and animals, real, imaginary and heavenly, peer back from every vantage point. Visit in the early morning light of a clear day or whet your tastebuds here.
Sarah's philanthropy endured all through the building of her church and beyond. She subscribed to every cause of the unemployed, unfortunate, poor and destitute, supporting Hesket and Harraby schools, the infirmary and the cause of the blind. In the savage winter of 1814 she provided 14 wagons of coal for the people of Upperby.
Further commemorations to Katherine followed, with Sarah tasking cousin William Septimus to mark the spring at Katherine's Well, just off the road to Southwaite. The well, a cool haven where horses could be watered, was restored in 2015 after storms felled a tree, shattering its stonework.
On 29 March 1853 Sarah breathed her last, dying of dysentery after collapsing in cold weather. She was buried alongside dear sister Katherine, 'parted in life, in death united.'
Sadly she burnt many of her papers, letters and notebooks but some survived long enough to be read and recalled by her relatives.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti enjoyed the patronage of Sarah's relative Alice Boyd. Writing to his mother he said that Sarah 'must have been a really great genius and should be better known. Her practical as well as inventive powers were extraordinary.' Her genius, expressed in the stunning design of Wreay church, was surely the precursor for Ruskin and Morris' Arts and Crafts movement.