God’s Acre16th December 2020
I am in my local Parish Churchyard, St. Marys, Bromfield. The weather is mild, breezy and threatening rain but the flowering Ivy on the Scots Pine on the left of the gate is humming with insects, mainly Honeybees, assorted flies and a few wasps. The sweet scent of the Ivy flowers wafts in the humid air.
It was at the base of this tree that I saw a large Grass Snake just a few weeks ago basking in the autumn sunshine. Its size indicated that it was probably a female. In this churchyard, amphibians on which Grass Snakes usually feed, are not common so perhaps it survives here on a diet of Field Voles and Bank Voles which are prolific or Slow Worms, the legless lizards that do well in the thick undisturbed sward. I survey the usual haunts of the Slow Worms but see only voles today, the reptiles will be inactive now until spring and torpid in the coldest weather.
There are two Scots Pines, near the Lych Gate and these are a rookery, the birds are absent now but soon after Christmas they will be back, renovating nests in a noisy and messy way, and dropping twigs all over the path for me to tidy up. The ground beneath these trees is enriched annually by their droppings and detritus which encourages Rank Grass, Nettles and Cow Parsley and the grave stones in this corner can become quite hidden in herbage until I strim it or volunteers from Caring For God’s Acre scythe it.
I have been carrying out churchyard maintenance here for long enough that the stones themselves are familiar, like weather beaten old friends, some leaning at eccentric angles showing their age and beneath some of the stones do indeed lie old friends.
A significant headstone for me is near the gateway on the left. On it is inscribed; ‘Mary Anne wife of Thomas Reason’, she died aged 24 years in 1884. Thomas was buried there too but 29 years later and aged 63. He was a previous Head Gardener on the Estate and lived in the house that my family and I occupied for nearly twenty years. He and I had lived lifetimes apart but I worked the same earth as him and walked in his footsteps.
I care for two War Graves in the churchyard. They should be kept shorn to military standards but in the spring I allow one to grow Forget-me-nots. They appeared on William Goode’s grave a few years ago and I allow them to self-seed annually. The other grave belongs to Welsh Guardsman Lewis and has some well-established primroses. I like to think that neither soldier would judge me harshly.
The charity Caring for God’s Acre has compiled a plant list for Bromfield Churchyard from their survey and this list is ongoing. Dominant in the central areas are Ox-eye Daisies; Lady’s Bedstraw; Sheep’s Sorrel, Self-heal; Barnet Saxifrage; Bird’s Foot Trefoil and Knapweed with patches of Yellow Rattle, Harebells, Cowslips and Primroses. There are native Wild Daffodils left of the path and near to the church amongst the more ancient tombs and Alexanders, usually a coastal plant, grows extensively at the back of the church.
I have discovered Dormouse nests in the Privet and Snowberry on the left of the gate and in collaboration with Shropshire Dormouse Trust (C.F.G.A.) have built and installed nest boxes on the perimeter of the churchyard.
The Bats in Churches Group have identified the bat colony in the church as Natterers Bats.
As I walk over the spongy turf of the burial ground, I see that there is a nearly straight line of small footprints impressed into the grass perhaps from a fox hunting voles the previous night.
In a few weeks time I will be here again to decorate the church window ledges on Christmas Eve with Holly and Ivy, something I enjoy. Within these walls nothing much will have changed, unchanging continuity is the essence and appeal to me of this beautiful place. By Christmas it may be colder and the days will be shorter. The Priory Gatehouse may have Christmas holiday makers and its windows warmly lit in the dimming light.
I don’t come here to worship or maybe I do – in this sanctuary for the diverse life that thrives here unobtrusively amid our communal memories and our dead.
Christmas Duties completed I will wend my way home to the welcoming scent of a wood fire and a steaming Christmas pudding on the stove – and a whisky.
Jim has been involved with the church and churchyard for the last 30+ years but more as the conservation ‘groundsman.’ 15 years ago, when he ceased being the head gardener on the estate that surrounds Bromfield, he got in touch with Caring for Gods Acre. Jim knew there was something very special about the ecology there when he first visited it and found slow worms in the thick mossy grass and stone walls. Since then, hundreds of species (some very notable) have been identified and recorded. The grass areas have improved for biodiversity and even Dormice have been found in the church hedges.
Jim’s earliest memory of this fascination for wild things was of finding a toad in a park in Liverpool as a small boy and being totally entranced by its ‘wildness’.