This month Helen Gamble from Lincolnshire Countryside Service spoke to us about God’s Acre; a conservation scheme that supports the wildlife within our churchyards, graveyards and cemeteries. Set up in 2006 within the Wolds, 30% of Churches responded to the initial email and since then it has become a national scheme; not only protecting a diverse range of habitats, but proving a wealth of historic, geological and social information.
Churchyards provide a sanctuary for the living as well as the departed. For our ancestors, churchyards were an extension of the church. It was a meeting place where outdoor festivities would be held, such as ale festivals, archery practice and cock fights! As for the living, we are rarely alone during a visit; our churchyards are home to a wonderfully wide range of flora and fauna, including a rich variety of lichens, moss, grasses, flowers, insects, reptiles, bats and owls.
Many older churches contain grassland that are the remains of ancient meadows which contain our declining flora. Mareham on the Hill has been allowed to grow as a meadow for the last 10 years and is now producing orchids in the area (as a huge orchid lover, I was very excited to hear this news and will be certainly be making a visit!) We were also informed that St Andrews in Utterby has also been designed as a Spring meadow using wildflowers harvested from Red Hill to include cowslips and ox-eye daisies; it looks best between April and May. Wildflower fans… you know where to go!
And for those of us who follow nature’s seasons and the more ancient ways of thinking, we were informed that there is also a Green Man symbol at Mareham (and also Pardney St. Nicholas). And, rarer than the Green Man himself, you can find Sheela-na-gig, the Earth Goddess at Wold Newton All Saints! Raithby also has a green man inside the Victorian stylings as a nod to pre-christian beliefs. Amazing really to when you think about the history, that the early Christians would have adapted local beliefs and deities as a way of incorporating the old with the new!
Churchyards contain some of the oldest trees. Yews, both the common and Irish are commonplace. We were showed an example of a coppiced Ash tree at St Michel’s in Burwell and reminded of the sensitivity needed when dealing with old trees that may be found in these areas. The trees and deadwood provide a habitat for insects to overwinter, which in turn, with the tombs and roof tiles, provide a habitat for bats. We learned that the Lincolnshire Bat Group help conservation by providing free surveys, and raise awareness of due diligence. We were shown photos of bat events which looked really super!
Diverse habitats with a range of grass lengths and nectar sources provide a home for the bees, butterflies, moths, snails, beetles and grasshoppers. Snails are particularly found of graveyards as they use the stone to build their shells! We were shown a photo of a very happy little boy called Nathaniel, who particularly loved the snails on his Scambelsby school visit! God’s Acre do great work by making educational packs for school visits which I personally think is wonderful, we need to be educating our youngsters to secure and look after these diverse habits don’t we? I know that personally, that my days spent in nature were always happiest and stored in my memory.
And it isn’t just children that get their thrills! Apparently, many a scream has been heard from a visitor having a sit down near a compost heap and meeting grass snake basking in the sun! But not just snakes, depending on the underlying soils these areas can also be home to worms, newts, frogs and toads, especially when they are set close by to water. What a wonderfully interesting first half of the talk!
After a lovely cup of tea we went on to look at the geology and history of graveyards. We were told that sheep can help to graze the sandstone bedding planes (Lowton by Spilsby); but to avoid goats, as they may mow the grass but also dance on the tomb stones and can create significant damage! (photos were shown).
Lichen lovers may well find themselves visiting graveyards as headstones are a vital habitat for lichen, especially on the older exposed stone; sadly over zealous cleaning can damage the rare lichens. We were given a great tip however, and rather the cleaning the stones if you photograph them and change the contrast you can still read the inscriptions and support lichen life too! We were reminded that many lichens suffer when headstones are moved, as of course, their environment changes and again, something to be aware of. Lichens are incredibly interesting and a great indicator of pollution. Castor to Tealby have very different lichens due to the pollution coming in from the Trent valley. If you like lichens there are apparently some interesting ones at Hagworthingam growing on the Spilsby sandstone and bivalve fossils at Tealby and Nettleton. Talks have been held by Professor Mark Seawood who runs lichen courses.
In Claxby, West Lindsey you can find leaded lettering, which apparently the lichen love too. Most commonly the metal work found in graveyards is made of cast iron and fairly resistant to weathering, but again, Western pollution coming in from the Trent Valley can erode the metal at a faster rate which was very interesting to know.
Graveyards are a great place to learn more about the geology of a landscape from local stones and bedding planes, as well as the fossils and minerals found there. We live in a non-rocky county, an area of chalk, which interestingly is the youngest stone in the world. Chalk is a soft stone and therefore not suitable for lintels and gales as they are weight bearing; Churches were instead made with local materials such as sandstone (Spilsby), limestone (Tealby) and brick (Ulceby). The materials used can help to chart the development of railways, road networks and canals as a means of transport which would have allowed for more exotic materials to be brought in, such as marble and slate.
The stone work also provides information about open and closed villages (closed being those only that worked on the estate, open being those that would travel or work elsewhere). Lanton by Spilsby and South Elkington used local materials of a closed parish, owned by a large extended family. Tealby and Nettleton were examples of open parishes.
The Rambler’s church, Walesby, would have also been a closed parish. They now have a lovely stained glass window depicting a corn field with ramblers and cyclists which was donated by ramblers who passed through the area. The inscription reads ‘It came to pass that he went through the corn field on the sabbath day’. You can read more about Ramblers Church here: https://www.walesbychurches.org/all-saints-walesby.html
We learned that Broggling events take place in Lincolnshire (I have never heard of this, but I hope I am right in saying that it means to poke with a stick?) Our local volunteer brogglers found slate headstones that were grassed over at Hemmingby. And at Sutterby, they found human remains proving there was an extension built over the skeletons! For those interested we were told that the archives of Lincoln are an excellent starting point for maps of all Churchyards.
And finally, and poignantly, the stone work provides a wealth of social history - depicting the rise and fall of families, the bonds of marriages, and sadly, the sweep of illnesses through a population. We learned that Horncastle was home to seven stone masons; who made their mark on the stone (3/4 below grass level) so their movements and work can be traced. Large landed families would have specially cut patterns for their gravestones. St Michaels in Burwell was given as an example. All the gravestones were cut from the same quarry with the same initial pattern carved, and the inscriptions to follow over the years. The later inscriptions usually fair worse to weathering, lacking the protection of ‘quarry juice’ - a slight damp varnish which protects the initial carving - how very interesting! Ramblers Church and Viking’s Way have likenesses in the headstones and were given as further examples. Finally, to protect the stones we were told to avoid strimming close to the base of headstones. The metal can damage the stone which allows water to seep in, and in Winter when the water freezes it can pull away the layers of inscriptions.
What a fabulous and educational talk. I know I never really considered the wealth and knowledge, flora and fauna contained in them. I might have myself a new hobby! I hope our readers are inspired to make a visit to some of our lovely churches and graveyards too! Thank you to Helen for an inspiring talk and all our members that come to support the group. For those that couldn’t make it, I hope you enjoyed the synopsis.
We also mentioned the wonderful world of moss, a lovely little programme on the BBC, well worth a watch: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001hqth