For some months now, two hardy souls from Devon CPRE, the local branch of the countryside charity CPRE, have regularly been heading off on an undercover mission - armed with a packed lunch, a Thermos flask, a clipboard and weather-appropriate clothing. It’s the sixth year in a row that director Penny Mills and trustee Ivan Buxton are criss-crossing the county in pursuit of the churchyard they judge to be the best in Devon for people and wildlife.

The two judges personally visit every churchyard or burial ground that enters Devon CPRE’s annual Best Churchyard Competition. Each entrant - be it large, small, urban or rural - is marked on the same exacting criteria, and the judges say the competition gets tougher year on year.

Penny says: ‘Initially, we’re looking for a welcoming first impression. Is there good signage, including the name of the churchyard? We also like to see facilities that encourage people to stop and linger, for example, benches and water bowls for dogs. Beyond that we look at biodiversity and sensitive land management. Are there bird boxes and feeders, bat boxes, bug hotels and composting facilities? Is there a mowing routine that encourages wild flowers and grasses?

‘Although we don’t go inside the church or take the building into account, we do enter the porch to see if it’s clean and tidy and if notices are up to date. In the time we’ve been running the competition we’ve seen more and more churchyards ticking all of these boxes. So now we’re looking for those stand-out churchyards that go the extra mile. What are they doing that’s memorable or innovative? How have they improved the churchyard for locals and visitors? What do they do to help people locate graves if they’re doing historical or family research?

Great British Life: Smiles all round in Ashburton at the award presentation in 2021 Photo: St Andrew'sSmiles all round in Ashburton at the award presentation in 2021 Photo: St Andrew's

‘We’ve seen places with allotments providing fresh produce for the community, puncture repair kits for cyclists and fun trails to encourage children to hop, skip and jump around the churchyard. Every year we’re surprised by something we haven’t seen before.’

The competition is nothing like the Best Kept Village Competitions other branches of the charity are often involved with; these awards are not about finding the most beautiful or manicured places. What the charity is ultimately seeking are graveyards and burial grounds that provide a peaceful sanctuary for humans and a welcoming habitat for flora and fauna. Neither are the awards related to any particular faith. However, the Diocese of Exeter is keen to help promote the competition as it aligns with its Growing the Rural Church and Living Churchyard initiatives.

I’m with Penny and Ivan at St Michael’s in Alphington, a once rural parish now assimilated into the wider environs of Exeter. Their judging visit happened to coincide with the day when local volunteers carry out their garden maintenance, and the churchyard is buzzing with activity. The volunteers are hard at work clipping unwanted vegetation and blowing leaves off the pathways, and parishioners are gathered for coffee and chat inside the church.

Great British Life: The the ancient church at Buckfastleigh is actually a well-preserved ruin. Photo: Goodsouls/GettyThe the ancient church at Buckfastleigh is actually a well-preserved ruin. Photo: Goodsouls/Getty

Ivan says it’s lovely to see so much going on: ‘When I was growing up, churchyards were only really used for burials and weddings. These days, with our competition really pushing the idea of them being special places for people and wildlife, it seems to be working. Every churchyard we’ve been to has taken steps to improve, and the new entries this year are something to behold. They’ve watched what previous winners have done, they’ve learnt from them, and they’ve realised that, in these difficult times, these places are precisely what people need, whether they want to sit quietly and be at one with nature or join in and enjoy the community spirit.’

The awards yielded some interesting stories over the first five years, including 2022 winner All Saints in Kenton, where the community rallied to save their green space after having lost other facilities like the pub and post office. The previous year’s winner, Ashburton, was a tale of churchgoers and non-churchgoing townsfolk pulling together during the pandemic to create a churchyard with trails to encourage children to explore using innovative methods like QR codes.

Judging for this year’s competition is nearing completion. This month, Penny and Ivan will have completed their visits, reviewed their notes and chosen their 2023 winner. The winners will be announced in early autumn.

A perfect dozen

Churchyards aren’t perhaps the most obvious places to visit on a day out or a holiday in Devon, but wherever you are in the county there’s bound to be one that offers a green and peaceful haven, or a terrific view. Here are some that won’t disappoint.


1. St Andrew’s, South Tawton. 2018’s winner, this rural churchyard on the northern edge of Dartmoor affords spectacular views of the surrounding moorland.

2. St Michael the Archangel, Chagford. The runner up in 2022, this churchyard at the heart of the charming Dartmoor market town has a wonderful outlook, as well as being well frequented by human and equine visitors!

3. St Margaret’s Church, Northam. 2020’s winner, has a fantastic view over Northam Burrows and out to sea; it’s a special place for locals because Northam doesn’t have a park or village green.

4. St John the Baptist, Instow. This coastal churchyard has never entered the competition, but it’s one to visit for the spectacular views across the Taw-Torridge estuary and out to Lundy.

5. Holy Trinity, Ilfracombe. Another churchyard with sea views, Ilfracombe has repeatedly impressed the judges with its restoration work and unique features like its edible garden.

Great British Life: St Andrew's Parish Church in Ashburton is 2021's winner. Photo: Geoff Eccles/GettySt Andrew's Parish Church in Ashburton is 2021's winner. Photo: Geoff Eccles/Getty

6. St Andrew’s, Ashburton. 2021’s winner, it’s one of the few green spaces in this historic stannary town on the southern edge of Dartmoor.

7. St Andrew’s, Kenn. Just south of Exeter, this lovely churchyard is home to one of the oldest yew trees in Britain, believed to 2,500 years old.

Great British Life: The church at Stoke Gabriel is on a creek of the River Dart. Photo: Thomas Faull/GettyThe church at Stoke Gabriel is on a creek of the River Dart. Photo: Thomas Faull/Getty

8. Church of St Mary and St Gabriel, Stoke Gabriel. On a creek of the River Dart, near Totnes, this beautiful churchyard boasts another ancient yew, thought to be 1,000 years old.

9. Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh. Perched on a rocky outcrop above the town, the ancient church is actually a well-preserved ruin. Named Most Improved Churchyard in 2022, it’s the resting place of infamous local squire Richard Cabell, said to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Great British Life: St Petrox, Dartmouth has one of the best views in the South Hams. Photo: Ann Taylor-Hughes/GettySt Petrox, Dartmouth has one of the best views in the South Hams. Photo: Ann Taylor-Hughes/Getty

10. St Petrox, Dartmouth. At the mouth of the Dart, the churchyard has an enchanting atmosphere and the kind of view you could pay millions for in the South Hams.

11. St Swithun’s, Sandford. Just north of Crediton in the centre of lovely Sandford, this archetypal village churchyard (runner-up in 2020) is approached via cobbled steps and an ornate ironwork gate.

12. All Saints, East Budleigh. This was 2019’s winner and has also been a runner-up and highly commended. Features include a self-guided trail highlighting wildlife and interesting memorials in the churchyard.