Caring For God's Acre, Leominster-based charity

PUBLISHED: 11:06 29 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

Churchyard Task Team working at Hatfield

Churchyard Task Team working at Hatfield

Many of us have experienced the pleasures of unlocking a church door and discovering beautiful man-made treasures inside. Now the Leominster-based charity Caring for God's Acre is helping people from all over the country to unlock the treasures bo...

Many of us have experienced the pleasures of unlocking a church door and discovering beautiful man-made treasures inside. Now the Leominster-based charity Caring for God's Acre is helping people from all over the country to unlock the treasures both natural and man-made that can be found in our churchyards and burial grounds. Founder and Manager of the charity, Sue Cooper, tells us more.

On passing through a church lychgate the words of the poet Longfellow come to mind: "I love the ancient Saxon phrase which calls the burial-ground God's-Acre." And it was St Cuthbert who over a thousand years ago sought permission from the Pope to allow an area of land or 'God's Acre' around churches for burial.

Within the ancient boundaries of churchyards are contained a great variety of plant and animal life which together with their historic stone structures make them beautiful and interesting places to visit. You will find veteran yew trees, the oldest living things in Britain, now appreciated as 'green monuments'. In Herefordshire we have a good number of ancient yews including the yew with a seat inside its hollow trunk at Much Marcle. Hollowing of yew trees is a natural process occurring when yews reach about 500 years of age and it does not mean that the yew is dying. The hollow trunk can actually help the yew survive to an even greater age by increasing its stability.

The grassland in churchyards can also be 'ancient' having been both mown and grazed over many centuries, only being disturbed by grave digging. This has resulted in communities of grasses and flowers - 'hay meadows' which are now scarce in the wider countryside. These lovely churchyard meadows are a haven for other wildlife such as butterflies, moths and small mammals. Through advice and information we support the conservation of these special places, which bring pleasure to visitors and can be used for learning by schools and more informally by local naturalist or history or arts groups. I am minded of a piece of writing entitled No Matter by Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) in which he writes the following on children's education: "They need to feel the influence of the air that blows, sun-sweetened over fragrant hay; to feel the influence of deep shady woods, mile-deep in boughs - the stream - the high hills; they need to revel in long grass. Put away their books, and give them the freedom of the meadows. Do it at any cost or trouble to yourselves, if you wish them to become great men and noble women."

We have information sheets on subjects such as churchyard grassland management, activities for children and involving volunteers which can be downloaded from our website or available by post. We find that churchyard grassland and its care is the one aspect of churchyard conservation that causes the most problems so we provide basic guidelines and advice for its management. This includes what species of plant to look out for and when and how to cut the grass, remembering to rake off the cuttings or hay. In the old days the hay had a value and would have been given to the parish priest as part of his stipend. We also encourage the use of the scythe for cutting tall grass, and offer training in the care and use of this fascinating tool, which has a long tradition going back to Roman times.

The lovely grassland of churchyards includes plants with religious names and associations. Snowdrops, flowers which symbolise purity, were known as Candlemas Bells because they flowered at Candlemas, February 2nd. Daffodils were known as Easter or Lent Lilies and we find wild daffodils thriving in many Herefordshire churchyards.

Monuments, memorials and other historic stonework such as medieval preaching crosses provide a home for lichens, mosses and ferns, some of which may be uncommon. Look out for the different forms of lichen, producing a mosaic of colour on old gravestones. Many lichens have antibiotic properties and are used in medicines and in the dyeing industry. Romans used a lichen dye for their purple togas. Lichens, mosses and soft-stemmed plants like ferns do not generally damage churchyard stonework and should be left in place. Ivy and woody-stemmed plants such as valerian can damage stonework and we recommend their careful removal.

Because of our climate we have the best wall vegetation of anywhere in Europe and evidence of this can be found on many churchyard walls. Wall-rue polypody, Spleenwort, Hart's-tongue fern and Rusty back fern are all found on Herefordshire's churchyard walls.

Have a walk around your local churchyard in autumn to look at the close mown, old grassland for varieties of grassland fungi like the colourful waxcaps and the fairy ring fungi. Old churchyards, the lawns of country houses and old commons are the sites where colourful grassland fungi can best be found.

This wealth of plant life provides a home for a wide variety of creatures. Butterflies such as the holly blue and meadow brown, moths and other insects, which provide food for bats and birds are all part of the wonderful web of animal life which can be enjoyed on a churchyard visit.

Gravestones are a record of past parish inhabitants and are of interest for their epitaphs, architectural design and carvings. For the geologist, churchyards contain a greater range of rock types than will be found anywhere else in the parish.

Some of our favourite churchyards to visit in Herefordshire include those at Hentland, Garway, Little Dewchurch, Weobley, Llangarron, Upton Bishop, Llanwarne, Eye, Hatfield and Leintwardine. We are always discovering new churchyard gems, which is what makes our work so interesting and fulfilling.

Caring for God's Acre has a website with information on biodiversity, churchyard management, events and training.

A newsletter, The Lychgate, is produced twice a year. Anyone with an interest in the charity and its work can become a Friend of Caring for God's Acre. We also have a special Heritage Lottery Funded Churchyard Task Team Project which engages volunteers in practical tasks along with training. To date the team has restored many metres of stone walls, built compost bins, scythed and raked churchyard grassland and pruned shrubs and trees in 18 churchyards across Herefordshire.

Caring for God's Acre is fortunate to have as its Patrons Sir Roy Strong, Lawrence Banks and Professor David Bellamy OBE. Coming up in the calendar is a fundraising lecture by David Bellamy in the Bishop's Palace in Hereford on September 18. The Bishop is kindly opening the Palace garden beforehand and refreshments will be served. Tickets are now available.

For more information please contact our office at 6 West Street, Leominster.

Tel: 01568 611154. Email:

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