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.