How renovating a churchyard brought a village together

St Mary’s Church in Lowdham has one of the largest rural church yards in Nottinghamshire. Janice Yelland-Sutcliffe, a member of the church, writes about a renovation and environmental project in the churchyard and adjoining field and how this has brought together people from across the community.More than 100 people have taken part in work on the renovation so far at St Mary’s, with support from the Woodland Trust, Nottingham Wildlife Trust and funding from Tesco Groundwork among others. 

“Two or three years ago, I began to realise that there was a need in our church to connect more with the community in line with what was being encouraged by the Diocese and Deanery.  In addition to this, St Mary’s churchyard being one of the largest rural churchyards in Nottinghamshire had received feedback that the top churchyard was neglected – I think in part because it is so big and difficult to manage.

“At the same time I was considering what was the future for me and how I could support the church and community.  I left work in 2010 to care full time for my daughter and in 2012 finally completed a MSc in Education for Sustainability. By 2014 I needed to do something to get out of the house. Sustainability and the environment are my passion and being involved with the church and on the Parochial Church Council (PCC), I thought with my experience and expertise I could help get a grip on the churchyard.

“We had an open day and a couple of discussion forums and there was a lot of interest in the history of the church, and the feeling that if the church cared for the churchyard, then the community felt cared for. We have a ‘front of house’ churchyard, a back churchyard, a field and a beck and a little coppice. There was a big enough space to do things, so we began to think about educational opportunities as well.

“We set to on the work with the sense of really wanting to honour what God has given us and what we are stewards of. The vicar was fantastic, the PCC was behind it, the faculty officer was supportive and we started clearing.

“The back part of the top church yard has 1,000 graves, sitting cheek by jowl, and cherry tree saplings had sprung up all across it. We began taking out the best part of 1,000 cherry tree saplings. The trees had pushed graves over and we had a rabbit warren that had come up between two lots of graves. You couldn’t walk, it was highly uneven, it was difficult to get around. There were families in the village who could not get to their family graves. We were losing biodiversity because it was getting overwhelmed with brambles and nettles. It was trying to find that balance between ecological biodiversity and human access and maintenance.

Before and after the work was carried out

“We have been planting hedgerows and replacing hedges. We have had employees from HMP Lowdham, the local prison, come and help us. Some of the prisoners helped with making garden furniture and people taking part in the community pay back scheme came along to do work. We have had help from the scouts, people from the village and members of the congregation. People have come looking for family graves and as a result have contacted us asking us when they can come and help.

“In the field we planted an orchard of more than 40 trees and we have also planted a 100 metre length World War I Heritage Hedge within which we have planted a willow for each of the men in the village who fought or died fighting in World War I. We are creating stories, as we are planting.

“In the ‘front of house’ churchyard, we are starting to get a lot more of the wildflowers coming through and we are going to create a nature area and wildlife areas. We would like to see forest school style activities and opportunities for outdoor worship. We are just at that point, after two years of work, of being able to put in place a proper maintenance and development plan for the future. It has been hard work but it has been fun. I think I’ve learned more about my village in the last two years than in the last 20 years of living here.”

Janice Yelland-Sutcliffe
Member of St Mary’s Church, Lowdham

Listen to Janice speak about the project more below.

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