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Close to heaven: Hitchin Cemetery garden project

PUBLISHED: 09:00 22 October 2016

Drifts of crocus in the unmown grass. Cut areas create pathways

Drifts of crocus in the unmown grass. Cut areas create pathways

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New life has begun at a Victorian cemetery in Hitchin with the creation of a garden of remembrance that helps wildlife and people too. Countryside Management Service projects officer Andrew Taylor explains

Oxeye daisy among the Victorian gravestonesOxeye daisy among the Victorian gravestones

St John’s Cemetery is a Victorian cemetery on Hitchin Hill, in the centre of Hitchin. Over the past three years the Countryside Management Service, working with owners North Hertfordshire District Council, has developed a colourful, attractive and peaceful space in the oldest part of the cemetery, ideal for quiet contemplation and for the scattering of ashes at funerals. Now a team of volunteers is getting involved too, and putting their recently-acquired topiary skills to the test.

The cemetery was laid out in the 1850s at a time when many new municipal cemeteries were opening across the country. Its earliest tombstone, of a sexton named William Morgan, is dated May 22, 1857. The oldest part of the cemetery can be found north-east of the red brick chapel. In this area, scattered trees and shrubs provide a focus in the landscape, particularly tall conical yew and shaped box. Those graves with headstones are generally along the edges by the pathways, with a scattering of memorials and flat tablets marking graves in the central area. The remainder of this area is taken by unmarked graves, which are thought to be largely paupers, children and workhouse inmates. This area is the heart of a new garden of remembrance. The grass cutting regime has been relaxed to add structure, with sweeping curves guided by existing features. The line of grass cutting in the spring is attractively indicated by drifts of crocus and winter aconite. Where the grass is allowed to grow long, a specially-designed mix of wildflowers has been sown. Species such as cowslip, oxeye daisy and field scabious ensure an extended flowering season throughout the summer and a variety of colours and forms. Importantly, at the end of the growing season all of the grass is cut short so the whole cemetery retains the appearance of active maintenance.

The cemetery supports a wide variety of wildlife, and the habitat improvements benefit its bumblebees and hoverflies as well as butterflies like gatekeeper, large skipper and meadow brown. This in turn helps birds such as goldcrest and green woodpecker by increasing populations of their food supply. A local speciality is the black squirrel, a melanistic form of the grey squirrel, which can be seen hopping between the graves.

New welcome signage and seats echo the Victorian style of the buildings and gateways, and the seats provide an opportunity to sit quietly in remembrance and contemplation. All the furniture was installed by Countryside Management Service volunteers, who have been central to the whole project. The volunteers also planted seeds and bulbs in part of the project area.

back lit gatekeeper butterfly at the edge of wild herbsback lit gatekeeper butterfly at the edge of wild herbs

One of the features of Hitchin Cemetery is its collection of topiary. Numerous box and yew shrubs have been moulded into various shapes over the years, but these lack any common theme. With the help of an expert trained in the art of topiary in Japan, we devised a plan to develop curved natural shapes in the topiary which would echo the curves in the grass.

Following the theme of the project, this was an opportunity to build long-term involvement in the site by the local community. The professional topiarist returned to lead a training workshop for enthusiastic volunteers, teaching them to maintain and reshape the existing topiary in the cemetery. During the hands-on course, participants softened sharp angles on many of the box cubes, removed holly from several pieces of topiary and raised branches on a large yew to improve its shape and character.

Remodelling the topiary will be the work of several years, and soon after the course a new Friends of Hitchin Cemetery group was established to take on this challenge. Other than making use of their new expertise in topiary, the group has also been working to improve the appearance of the cemetery, by clearing vegetation from gravestones and removing weeds like bramble from the topiary.

The group welcomes new members – if you would like to get involved in helping to look after this special place, contact the Countryside Management Service or North Hertfordshire District Council.

St James' chapel of restSt James' chapel of rest

The Countryside Management Service works with communities in Hertfordshire to help them care for and enjoy the environment. For more information visit hertfordshire.gov.uk/cms, email northeast.cms@hertfordshire.gov.uk or call 01992 588433.

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