New life in God’s acre

a black squirel perches on a headstone

a black squirel perches on a headstone - Credit: Archant

Among the Victorian graves of a town cemetery, new life is appearing as an inspiring area for reflection is created. Countryside Management Service project officer Paul Evans explains

oxeye daisys among the gravestones

oxeye daisys among the gravestones - Credit: Archant

Tucked away in the quieter part of Hitchin is Hitchin Cemetery. It was laid out in the mid-1800s in a traditional Victorian style surrounded by a red brick wall with wrought iron railings. A new wildlife project to complement the cemetery is being undertaken by the Countryside Management Service backed by North Herts District Council that will conserve the area and write the next chapter in the cemetery’s story.

Hitchin Cemetery entrance lodge

Hitchin Cemetery entrance lodge - Credit: Archant

Drawing on the Victorian elements of the cemetery, while following a contemporary green space management approach, the project is developing a series of colourful, attractive spaces rich in wildlife to provide a place for people to scatter ashes, remember loved ones and for quiet contemplation.

ringlet butterfly

ringlet butterfly - Credit: Archant

The project focuses on a discreet section of the cemetery characterised by older graves, with headstones concentrated along the path edges and a scattering of memorials and flat tablets. There is also a large proportion of unmarked graves, thought to be those of paupers, children and those from the workhouse.

mouse-eared hawkweed

mouse-eared hawkweed - Credit: Archant

The previously close-cut grass has been allowed to grow to provide structure in this area, with sweeping curves laid out using existing trees, memorials, vistas and focal points, giving an old cemetery feel of long grass and occasional wildflowers around gravestones. These areas are complemented by mown curves more akin to a modern garden that lead visitors through a series of interlinked spaces and draw them on between conical yews towards feature trees like an Atlantic blue cedar. Cast iron Victorian-style benches will be installed in the interlinked spaces, providing an opportunity for visitors to enjoy the area from a new perspective. An interpretation panel will explain the change of management and highlight the history of the cemetery.

six spot burnet moth

six spot burnet moth - Credit: Archant

The small change in the mowing has shown that the long grass areas have some existing wildflowers including oxeye daisy, the small lemon-yellow flowered mouse-eared hawkweed, yarrow, common cat’s ear and the deep purple black knapweed, all of which have flowered this year. These areas will be enhanced to provide a sea of colour that surrounds and invites the visitor in, while providing nectar for bees and butterflies through a long period from early spring to early autumn.

The cemetery already attracts butterflies including ringlet, gatekeeper, large skipper and meadow brown and more wildflowers will attract and support may other wildlife, including bees, which need help more than ever.

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Volunteers will sow a specifically- designed mix of wildflower seed and, in the years following, wildflowers will increase in diversity from the yellow of cowslips and yellow rattle in spring to the purples and pinks of knapweeds and scabious in summer. To retain the mowed lines, volunteers will also plant crocus bulbs in drifts to give a natural feel, early colour and nectar sources.

Another wild visitor that is a bit of a local speciality in this corner of North Hertfordshire is the black squirrel – a melanic variation of the grey squirrel with fur containing high levels of black pigment – which can be seen hopping between the graves.