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Tenders of green and pleasant land

08 September 2017

In our third week showcasing the Green Awards shortlist, Tim Wyatt explores projects designed to protect biodiversity


Oasis: wildflowers grow in part of the Oasis Community Church’s garden

Oasis: wildflowers grow in part of the Oasis Community Church’s garden

St James’s, Finchampstead, Berkshire

THE biodiversity project at St James’s, Finchampstead, in rural Berkshire, a medieval church that dates back to the 12th century, began out of necessity rather than any ecological zeal.

Members of the congregation realised that they had space for only a few more years of burials before the churchyard was full, and de­­cided that the first extension since the 1700s was overdue.

Ed Sampson, one of the church­wardens who has led the project, then decided that the entire scheme should not just make more space for graves, but also create a haven for flora and fauna.

The new piece of land was in a “terrible state”: thickets of brambles and nettles were three metres high; but the church was determined to maintain the diversity of the land rather than simply turn it into a manicured lawn, Mr Sampson said. “We always decided to have a soft touch to the whole thing.

“The churchyards we have got are very rural, and we didn’t want to do anything which wasn’t in keeping with the nature of it.”

ST JAMES’S, FINCHAMPSTEADThriving: some of the wild flowers and plants growing in the new churchyard extensionST JAMES’S, FINCHAMPSTEADThriving: some of the wild flowers and plants growing in the new churchyard extensionEnvironmental surveys revealed that the extension, which had been left unkempt and unused for many years, was teeming with wildlife, including some rare species of tree and newt.

After raising more than £50,000, people got to work, clearing parts of the ground that harboured nothing of ecological value, while attempting to leave as much as possible in its natural state.

Trees that had to be cut down were recycled into benches and gates, Mr Sampson explained, and much of the other timber came from trees that had fallen in a storm 30 years ago. “That was a lovely touch of real recycling. It’s been fun using all the stuff that has been growing on the site.”

As well as space for new graves, the extension has been filled with less familiar graveyard items, in-
clud­ing a log pile that has become home to rabbits and foxes, boxes for the church’s resident bat popula­tion, an insect and bee hotel, and a wildflower garden of remembrance.

ST JAMES’S, FINCHAMPSTEADFun: a family tries out the new churchyard extension’s nature trail during an Exploring Nature DayMr Sampson, who spent his career in the computer industry, is no sentimentalist when it comes to green issues, and admitted that there were some downsides to the church’s soft-touch approach.

“Some of it is a bit of a nuisance, actually: the rabbits or the foxes or whatever come along and chew up everything we try to plant.

“There are lots of little things to consider, such as doing the ground­work or landscaping only when birds aren’t nesting and bats aren’t in one part of their life cycle.”

But the result was its own reward, he said. The project enthused the village: many residents who would never normally attend church donated money and trees to the scheme. The finished extension has also become a popular walking spot for people in the area. A recent family-activity morning was held in the churchyard, which encouraged children and their parents to explore the new space through a nature trail.

“It’s enormously rewarding to do it all,” Mr Sampson said. “We did everything with a soft touch, and it’s worked out really well. It’s really quite exciting; it’s a privilege.”


OASIS COMMUNITY CHURCHOasis: the community gardens in the heart of the Kilton housing estate in Worksop, which were created by Oasis Community ChurchOasis Community Church, Worksop, Nottinghamshire

BEFORE Oasis Community Church moved into the Kilton Estate, Worksop, in Nottinghamshire, the community had only one piece of green space: a dilapidated recreation field next to a derelict youth club.

So, when the church took over the youth club as its new home, Steve Williams, the pastor, decided that they also had to renovate the land around it as a gift to the estate.

Without any money, the church started small, six years ago, with just some basic landscaping. Bit by bit, through the help of volunteers and fund-raising, the congregation has managed to turn the land into a community garden.

Over time, more and more has been added to the garden, so that today it features allotments full of fruit and vegetables, water features, a chicken coop, an orchard, bird boxes, flower gardens, children’s play areas, and large tracts of grass per­fect for picnics and football games.

OASIS COMMUNITY CHURCHIn bloom: Oasis Community Church’s flower garden“Our aim was to have the heart and hub of community life which was missing before. There was nowhere for the community to meet, and no green space,” Mr Williams said.

The garden has fed perfectly into the mission of his community-orien­tated church, too. Members of the congregation now regularly host community events, bringing people together to eat and play in their shared garden.

One project, Flowers for Life, uses the space to plant flowers, and train people in skills to help them find work in floristry. The flowers are then sold to raise funds for other initiatives.

Another project has created space for those with dementia or mental-health problems, so that they can enjoy quiet therapeutic time in the beautiful gardens, Mr Williams said. “In the autumn, we plant about £1000-worth of spare bulbs, and then we have a spring festival where people come to enjoy the flowers. Now we are growing food like cucum­bers, and tomatoes, and lettuce; and we have a food project which feeds the hungry in the community as well.

“Kids learn how to plant seeds and take care of the environment. Everything is without pesticides or additives. We make our own compost, and gather our own water. It’s about showing God’s love for them through his creation.”

OASIS COMMUNITY CHURCHHard at work: children get stuck into planting flowers and vegetablesMost members of his congre­ga­tion were either retired, disabled, or unemployed, he explained. Without the garden as a free resource, they would never have been able to reach out to the estate and try to meet the needs in their community. “They were never able to reach the needs they can reach now. This green space has given us that.”

Some 30 projects — including schools, debt advisers, and youth services — now use the community centre and attached gardens.

While not every church had a derelict recreation field it can turn into a community garden, others could still follow Oasis’s example, Mr Williams said. “I think there are lots of spaces like this that people could take over; it could be allotments or churchyards. Lots of churches have the space, but don’t use it for much. I’ve got too much imagination: there is so much more you can do, in small ways and big ways.”


Bradford Cathedral

BROKERING the creation of Bradford’s first new woodland in generations was the natural next stage for the cathedral’s green efforts. At least, it was when Canon Mandy Coutts, in charge of mission and pastoral development at the cathedral, tells the story of how such a daunting prospect came to pass.

The eco-group at the cathedral — fresh from securing their third Eco-Congregations Award by installing solar panels on the roof, using a car-share scheme to take staff to events, and establishing a recycling scheme for all building work — decided that they needed to offset their carbon emissions by planting new trees.

This brought them into the orbit of a local woodland charity, the Forest of Bradford, which told the cathedral that the real challenge was not raising the money for the eight trees necessary to offset the emissions, but finding somewhere to plant them.

“Our cathedral greens are small, and there’s no capacity to plant trees,” Canon Coutts said. “So I said: ‘Why don’t we look at creating new woodland across the city, which would really fit into our sense of planting today for tomorrow’s future: showing our Christian mandate through the city, and all the good stuff that comes from planting trees?”

After two years of negotiations with the city council, the cathedral has finally secured from the local authority its first pieces of wasteland, which can be repurposed. The first trees will be planted in the autumn, creating the first woodland in the centre of the city.

“At first, we wanted to offset our carbon footprint, especially as our services were increasing, which would be eight trees a year, but the way we have done it is more than that,” Canon Coutts said. In the first tranche of land, 100 trees will be planted, and many more will follow.

Not only will this offset emissions and create new public green space, but the trees will also help to protect the city from flooding — which caused devastation two years ago — and promote care for the environment.

“For us, the big agenda is raising the issues of our environment and our care of God’s creation across the city,” Canon Coutts said. The part played by the cathedral was key, as it had the experience of managing large projects, and negotiating with the council, which smaller environmental charities did not know how to do.

“What we are doing is connecting the dots and starting that conversation, and helping people to realise there is possibility. In a way, it was that reputation of the cathedral that really made a difference in getting this done. We are now working as the intermediary in negotiating, and, in the past week, three new pieces of land have become available from the council for new woodland.”

The scheme may soon spread beyond Bradford, as Canon Coutts hopes to encourage sister cathedrals in the diocese of Leeds, and even parish churches, to take up the baton and push councils to turn their unused land into new forests.

“Nobody has got any money,” she said, but that didn’t mean that nothing could happen. “The councils don’t have the money, but they sit on pieces of land which they can’t use for building but would be ideal for such projects. Local business and community groups are very happy to raise money and plant trees, and the Church’s role is to help.”


The others

ST ASAPH Parish Church, which has transformed an overgrown cemetery, with the help of some Hebridean sheep, into an oasis of calm and a place teeming with nature.
St John’s, Sharow, which used its rare and important MG5 grassland to host a five-day celebration of biodiversity with a local school, including the training of volunteers to scythe the grassland sustainably, avoiding the use of petrol-driven lawn­mowers.

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