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Claim to churchyard access

23 May 2012

by Maggie Durran

A church neighbour (who lives in the old vicarage) claims that she owns the access across the church­yard to her house. The question came up because we have builders in the church, and their vehicles are parked in the churchyard, but this is an access that the church also shares with the cemetery beyond. What can we do to ensure that she does not shut us all out?

IF YOUR neighbour legally owns the access across the churchyard, it is unlikely that she could close it down without legal action, because of its common use by others. I would go further: it is extremely unlikely that your neighbour really does own the access at all.

I can imagine that, when the vicarage was sold, that right of access was permitted to the purchaser to help that sale. It is very difficult to sell churchyards for alternative uses, as the limits on their use are so re­strictive as to make change of use nearly impossible. There are almost undoubtedly old burials under the access road, and, even when these pre-date the time limits on re-use of land where burials exist, permission is still difficult.

But do check; and, if your neigh­bour persists, or makes further dif­ficulties for you, at least you can quote chapter and verse on the real legal status; so research in several locations.

Old church-council minutes may include information on the sale of the vicarage — though, after vicar­ages came into the ownership of dioceses, several decades ago, there may be only passing reference to issues to do with the house. There will have been details, however, on the access. Changes relating to the church­yard itself would happen only under faculty; so the church-council minutes should contain records of the nature of the change being requested, and what happened.

If you do not hold long-standing books of minutes, you could research the archives locally. The history society where I now live now knows as much as anyone about our ancient church. Such a society may know instantly where you would find the archive for the records you need.

In addition, the diocese should hold information on both the house sale and the question of vehicular access, as vehicular access would have improved the market value of the house. Approach your arch­deacon, your Diocesan Advisory Committee secretary, or even the parsonages department. The relevant commit­tees should have records that can be searched. After all, that is why the old files are archived, to answer later questions.

A number of churches I have en­countered over recent years have talked of changing their churchyards for various uses, including parking and improved access. The need must be obvious and pressing, as, again, taking cars across burials — even ancient ones — is not desirable, especially if roadsides and car parks are available for parking.

I know you may have to pay to park locally, but the cost of changing the churchyard for parking will be far more than those parking fees.

Whether or not your neighbours claim ownership of the access, or simply live near by, it may be neigh­bourly to let them know that builders will be in and out during the project.

For information on the one-day conference “The Village and its Church”, on 21 June, or to send your question, email Maggie Durran on maggiedurran@virginmedia.com

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