If the spirit moves

25th June 2010

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A hundred years ago Mrs Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote a poem which few can recite although a few lines are known by many - ‘One is nearer to God's heart in a garden, than anywhere else on earth'.

But surely if one really wanted to be close to God wouldn’t the nearest place be in a churchyard?

Most churchyards are open to all and in the hands of the most limited of managerial skills, but they seem, in the main to work, and are part of the country’s unsung assets. But are there any special ones? Are there any inspiring today’s poets?

There are an estimated 12,000 Church of England churchyards. Around half already run biodiversity projects, in rural and urban areas, while remaining respectful to their users, particularly family and friends of those buried there.

Over the years the churches’ incumbents have often been enthusiasts of nature – Gilbert White, Reverend C A Johns whose Flowers of the Field ran to 28 editions, Andrew Young and W.Kebble Martin who spent 60 years working on his Concise Flora of Britain. Whilst they wandered their parishes making notes and pressing their collections on returning to their rectories, have any created a special place?

The churchyard conservation organisation Caring for God’s Acre  combines enthusiasm with volunteering to promote the value of our churchyards. It encourages churches to develop awareness through its Cherishing Churchyards Weeks which raise awareness and celebrate the treasures of churchyards. Activities include scything workshops, guided walks and talks, flower identification and storytelling. In September the organisation is organising a conference for lovers of churchyards nationwide to encourage the use of church land for environmental change.

Natural England is intending to give greater status to churchyards in its latest review of wildlife sites and ecological networks and is sponsoring a Sacred Spaces category in our London’s Green Corners Awards this year.

But is the secret the natural, unorganisedness of it all? There are rules and faculties governing what can be done in churchyards to ensure that enthusiastic parishioners are kept under control. Each of the 8000 yew trees given to parishes throughout the country by The Conservation Foundation to celebrate the Millennium should have been granted a faculty from each diocese to allow them to be planted in churchyards. These youngsters, propagated from ancient yews estimated to be at least 2000 years old, are now celebrating their first decade amongst the tombs.

The Foundation is using the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Yews for the Millennium project to encourage the more than 500 churchyards which have yews estimated as being at least 700 years old to ensure that they are the subjects of Tree Protection Orders. At the same time as its campaign to protect ancient yews the Foundation is also involved with another tree synonymous with churchyards. The Great British Elm Experiment is currently providing young elm trees propagated from healthy mature native elms to schools throughout the country to grow and monitor. If these trial plantings prove a success then many churchyards who have lost their elms could see the elm return with the chance of inspiring future Byrons, Grays and Tennysons.

In many urban areas the churchyard is the only ‘green lung' for the community whilst the rural churchyard can often be a haven of biodiversity surrounded by acres of chemical-drenched monoculture. Added together the nation’s churchyards form a major national park. And whilst enthusiasts here and there carry out habitat surveys many churchyards contain unknown amounts of God’s creations and so the Church of England’s own national environmental campaign  is keen to encourage more surveys during this international year of biodiversity.

This article was first published in the June issue of Garden Design Journal.