Caring for a Churchyard

As always, we cut and raked Geldeston Churchyard twice this year: on 16-17 August and again on 1 November when it only took us a day to complete the job.

God’s Garden

“The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth —
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.”

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Familiar words, these lines come from “God’s Garden”, written by Dorothy Frances Gurney in 1913.

It is now half a century since the church in Geldeston reached agreement with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust to manage part of the churchyard as a traditional meadow, where wildflowers are encouraged to grow, each year adorning graves that no longer have other visitors.

Not long afterwards, a team from the local Women’s Institute surveyed all the gravestones in the old churchyard. It took them several months to decipher dozens of headstones, dating from 1682 to 1979: they not only wrote down names and dates, but also words of dedication and remembrance. Those lists will soon be restored to their rightful place in the church porch, so that local people and visitors can find the last resting place of their friends, relatives and ancestors. And while Mary Metcalfe, Mrs Pitkin and others, led by Mrs Anne Bickmore, recorded the words on the gravestones, Mrs Mary Tuppen sat quietly by, observing all the birds and animals that flew and moved around the churchyard, and recorded over two dozen types of wildflower blooming there.

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Conservation is an active process. Were we to let things go, our churchyard would eventually look like the graves among the trees in Gillingham next to the abandoned, ivy-clad tower of All Saints’ Church. If you walk past St Mary’s Church and its well-tended churchyard towards the War Memorial and look through the trees to your right you will see Gillingham’s second church tower, a dramatic and unsettling sight.

Things had not gone that far in October 2018 when we once again began to observe a proper conservation regime in the churchyard at Geldeston. Already, however, small elm suckers from the hedge had begun to sprout up among the graves next to the War Memorial. In spring 2019 everyone could see the benefit of our work. For we did not just cut the vegetation, but raked off all the clippings so that they did not stifle the bulbs and more delicate flowers beneath.

We are lucky in Geldeston to have experienced and well-equipped volunteers like Mr Peter Etheridge and Mr Lennie Pigney to keep the grass under control, and several helpers to rake up the cuttings once the churchyard has been strimmed. This is not the short back and sides of the “cemetery cut” that some may prefer. Yet we not only discourage the nettles, sowthistles and Alexanders from taking over: this approach offers a haven for now rarely seen flowers, and the bees and other insects that delight to visit them.

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We shall not cut and rake the churchyard this year until the summer. Instead, from spring onwards we allow a succession of flowers to bloom and seed. Later we hope to see several volunteer strimmers and we shall need many helpers to rake up after them and cart the grass and stems to our burning pile on the glebe.

JC

The photograph above shows the churchyard of St Margaret of Antioch,
Cley-next-the-Sea (photo, David North, Norfolk Wildlife Trust)