Wild beauty in a disappearing graveyard

It took me a moment to notice there was something different about this graveyard.

St Leonard’s Church was closed and silent even though it was a Sunday. There was a food festival taking place in the centre of Ludlow and the sounds of music drifted across the houses and gardens. Visitors flowed into the market square to enjoy the food stalls, hog roast and local ales. But the graveyard, apart from the occasional local taking a shortcut, was quiet and peaceful.

The graveyard had a neglected air with weathered gravestones tilting to the point of collapse. But as I looked closer I realised the graveyard was more than neglected, it was positively abandoned to a slow smothering of nature. The graveyard was disappearing under a sea of wild flowers, bracken, grass, brambles, trees and ivy. Headstones bobbed-up above the sea like the head of a drowning man, doomed to disappear with the next cycle of growth. A network of narrow paths dissolved the boundaries. In the deepest parts of the wilderness I could not be sure I was walking over the graves. Whole parts of the graveyard had disappeared under this blanket of nature. Gravestones and mausoleums lurked in shadows under sycamore trees and bushes, in banks of nettles and glimpsed through the foliage. Yet here was a grave well-tended with the wilderness kept back.

Silky hairs from rosebay willowherb drifted on the breeze. There were yew trees once used for making bows. The red berries from yew trees are poisonous; hence they were grown in churchyards where animals were excluded. The birds sang and autumn’s produce was on its way, blackberries and damson with roots deep into the soil of the graveyard. Decay feeding life. Is the whole world not a charnel house nourishing life?

The current burial ground was first opened in 1824 to replace a medieval churchyard full with burials. When space ran out during the First World War burials switched to another local cemetery. The burial ground today contains some 1,400 gravestones. Now it is a project managed by the parish church council and local wildlife trusts to enhance the wildlife value and preserve the archaeological features of the site.

It’s a wonderful place with peaceful and immersive atmosphere, and an imaginative use of wild space. You could also draw a less kind conclusion. St Leonard is silent because it is deconsecrated and now houses a print company. The graveyard, as beautiful as it may be, both masks and reveals the slow passing of a once powerful order, a receding tide stranding deconsecrated churches and wild graveyards. With dwindling numbers in the Church’s congregations it is a tactical retreat to the main church, St Lawrence, that sits on the hill dominating the centre and view of Ludlow.

See also: Ghosts, fog and Bedlam: country night-walking

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23 thoughts on “Wild beauty in a disappearing graveyard

  1. Atmospheric photos of an all too common sight.

    But, to correct an all too common misconception, yew berries aren’t actually poisonous it is the seeds inside that are poisonous.

    Not recommended, but you can, and I have, safely eaten them – just don’t swallow the seeds! Suggest eating one at a time and spitting out seed – count them in and seed safely out.

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  2. Great stuff Alex.

    ‘The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
    There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
    The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
    And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

    There’s chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
    And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
    And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
    And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

    I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
    The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
    And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
    And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

    But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
    And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
    They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
    The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.’ – Housman

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  3. Thanks for comment Ed. I really really must get hold of that. It’s not great when I have drunk the beer but not read the poems the beer was named after. Will buy it for next Ludlow visit.

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    • Thanks EofE – this graveyard is close to Ludlow station if you are have a spare 30 mins for a wander while waiting for the train next time you are there. Which is exactly how I discovered it.

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    • Yes – know it well or rather I did. If I remember, it was a long time ago now, the wildness of Highgate Cemetery was semi-controlled but parts of this place were completely disappearing underneath the undergrowth. Love Highgate Cemetery.

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  4. I think disappearing graveyards are the most fascinating. The points you touched on, financial issues, or that loved ones are no longer around. Whatever the reason, I appreciate that burial grounds are one of the few places we treat as sacred regardless of property values or supply. There are exceptions, but on the whole I think we tend to defer to the deceased, when it comes to land planning.

    I imagine there will be a day when a future generation is clearing away what they believe to be a bushy field, only to find hundreds of tombstones or other grave markers buried beneath the foliage. A forgotten cemetery! If it hasn’t already happened, it will.

    Great pictures too, my friend, they do well to capture the mystique of the ‘yard.

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    • Thank you! I entirely agree with you and I suspect it’s more common than we would think. They would not think twice about visiting Père Lachaise or Highgate Cemetery though. I always find them peaceful places. It was great to find this one by accident.

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