Royal honour for churchyard squad
Mark Andrews reports on a group whose work casts the final tribute to our loved ones.
Eleven years ago, Shropshire conservation charity Caring For God's Acre received a £300,000 lottery grant to tidy local churchyards.
The charity had identified 10 churchyards across south Shropshire and north Herefordshire in need of a bit of love, and set up a plan to give them the attention they deserved. At team of volunteers was established, and a five-year plan to improve the sites was drawn up.
The Churchyard Task Team has come a long way since those early days. Last week it became one of seven groups across Shropshire to be given the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service, which is considered the equivalent of the MBE for volunteer groups.
Harriet Carty, director of the charity, says the accolade is a huge honour for the people who generously give up their time.
"We are delighted that Caring for God's Acre's volunteers have received the Queens Award," she says.
"They are an amazing team with many talents and much dedication, most burial grounds are managed solely by the local community.
"This is a massive task requiring not only specialist skills, but also a lot of hard physical work. The volunteers have helped sites be managed in a way that reflects the views and sensitivities of the local people, while at the same time preserving the old memorials and making them special spaces for wildlife."
The churchyard team is made up of volunteers who carry out conservation work in burial grounds across Shropshire and Herefordshire using traditional techniques such as dry stone walling, hedgelaying and scything.
The team also receives funding from the Jean Jackson Trust, a Shropshire-based charity which makes grants to environmental projects.
"Tasks range from moving compost bins and managing the grassland for wildflowers to surveying the wildlife and caring for memorials," says the charity's communication and development officer, Andrea Gilpin.
She says the team, which meets twice a week, also promotes healthy living and wellbeing, and had a strong social element.
"The Church Task Team brings communities together to learn new skills, make new friends and enjoy physical work together," she says.
Martin Garland has been a volunteer with the churchyard team for about 10 years.
He says: "In that time I've met and worked with a remarkable bunch of like-minded people, who want to get involved in countryside work, like scything and hedgelaying.
"These are just some of the skills I've learned. It's always rewarding to see, over time, how a seemingly sterile burial ground can become an oasis of wildflowers and wildlife. It has been a most enjoyable time."
Paul Rogers joined the group in 2016, when he started work at Knowbury churchyard near Ludlow, raking grass into large builders' sacks.
"This was truly a backbreaking initiation but homemade Victoria sponge and lemon drizzle supplied by local church wardens eased the pain," he says.
"I have never looked back and most weeks will be found in a Shropshire village corner amongst the gravestones."
"I tend to volunteer to learn new skills and now feel a confident with a scythe which must be true as my colleagues no longer give me a wide berth when I am in action."
Tony Newbury is one of the newest volunteers, having signed up in September last year.
"I had not done any scything before but had a go and after a few days, with some expert guidance, now can cut grass," he says.
"You get to see some very beautiful churchyards, have interesting conversations in an relaxed atmosphere, surrounded by wildlife. Volunteering at its best."
Andrea says the work of the volunteers has transformed many burial grounds around the county, leaving them better managed, with more wildlife and looking more attractive to locals and visitors alike.
"Management is planned to reflect the views and sensitivities of local people as well as biodiversity or heritage importance," she says, adding that the charity worked with other voluntary groups.
She says the volunteers are well aware about the sensitive nature of places where people are buried, always treating them with special consideration and respect.
"Working within burial grounds, it is vital that the team is always aware of the importance of sites for remembrance and reflection," she says.
Andrea adds that the highly skilled work that the volunteers carry out would in many cases be very expensive if carried out at commercial rates.
"Works which would be unaffordable, such as wall repair, are completed at a fraction of the cost," she says, adding that the team is also doing its bit to keep traditional skills alive.
"The Churches Task Team promotes environmental and ecological awareness, and the volunteers learn about habitats, species and land management for biodiversity," she says.
"Our management work is planned to sustain and increase biodiversity within these fabulous sites which may contain some of the best habitats and rarest species within a parish."
Work carried out by the team last year included hedgelaying at Cressage, repairs to a wall at Quatford, and managing beehive and grassland at Preston Gubbles. A survey has also been carried out of the plants at Hyssington