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Maggie Durran: Graveyard changes

23 May 2007

I recently visited a beautifully laid-out churchyard in London, which had been “reordered” to make it more attractive and visitor-friendly. How would we go about getting work done on our own churchyard?

YOUR QUESTION led me to spend some time Googling on my computer to find out about landscape architects and their work.

Churchyards, especially in urban areas, make an important contribution to public open space, but often owe their shape and layout more to their past function as burial grounds than as attractive open spaces for the enjoyment of everyone. In villages, they are often a more ordered setting amid a landscape of fields and trees, and are still used for burials.

Churchyards can be much more than simply the land you cross to get to church. Because of the burials, and because of the building they surround, churchyards must always retain a sacred quality. Being a football pitch might not be sympathetic, but being a place that draws people in to find beauty, stillness, and less definable qualities such as freshness and renewal, is part of the potential. In addition, the landscaping should show the church building to its best advantage and add to the “Wow!” factor.

An opportunity might arise to redesign the church grounds with all these values in mind, and the architects who design urban public spaces may be able to offer the skills that will bring new life to church land.

Partnerships to develop churchyards as public spaces can be formed with local authorities, especially the parks department or town regeneration boards. Smaller projects may be developed using funds from environmental bodies such as landfill tax trusts. There are charities — at least, there are in London — that will work with local people to develop a design, raise funds, and then work with the volunteers.

Security may be an issue, but mitigating action can be part of the design brief. Vandalism can occur, but the sooner the garden is put right after such an episode the less such problems happen. Lighting can help, and there are environmentally friendly ways to utilise solar power.

If you are able to redesign your churchyard, consider ways in which other people in the area could work with you in voluntary partnership. This could be as a gardening club, for example, preparing seedlings for summer planting, weeding, trimming, and so on.

Could your planting include areas that encourage butterflies, or offer ways in which visitors could engage with the history of the churchyard? Consider how planners in London relate much of what they do to the view of St Paul’s Cathedral on the skyline, and its many viewpoints throughout the city. Do the various approaches across the churchyard enhance the views of the building?

A good landscape architect should be able to consider all these issues with you and develop creative ideas, as well as produce a pleasing garden space that draws people in.

Spend time considering the continuing maintenance of the space you create. These days, many larger churchyards are cared for by local-authority parks departments, but that does not mean that you cannot strike up a new partnership with them to regenerate the grounds.


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