Churchyard challenges solved – thanks to Community Payback

In a special blog post, Maryann Williams, a volunteer at St Mary’s church in the village of Llanfairtalhaiarn, Conwy, talks about how their small parish overcame the challenges of managing the upkeep of their churchyard.

There must very few churches whose supporters do not struggle with the upkeep of their churchyards. Managing grass that seems to grow as you watch it, malignant weeds and leaning or crumbling gravestones are all part of the annual issues.

Graveyard at St Mary’s church.

Within its original stone walled boundary, there is a large grassy area containing many visible gravestones, some upright and some lying flat ready to surprise the uninitiated mower. A wildflower meadow in the centre and additional small flower bed with lavender and buddleia attract bees and other insects. There are steep banks and we also have to contend with vigorous earthworks from a determined mole. We also are responsible for the management of a closed churchyard right next door. AND the average age of our congregation is more than 60 – with many of us getting older.

Rake and Cake”  

How do we manage? We have a mowing and strimming rota and twice a year we organise a “Rake and Cake”. Within half a day we can blitz the creeping brambles and the awkward corners that need regular attention. So the area around the church usually looks really good.

But what about the closed churchyard next door? For some years it had been left alone and it had begun to look unkempt and neglected, even though it attracted a decent array of butterflies. Managing this when volunteers were already overstretched was not possible.

Graveyard at St Mary’s church

Local Community Payback Team

When a person offends he or she can be brought before a magistrate’s court. A range of penalties can be imposed depending on the type of offence and the person committing it Being a retired magistrate, I was very familiar with the options and that one possible sentence was of unpaid work (Community Payback), regarded as an alternative to a custodial sentence.

Community Payback work doesn’t necessarily need to be arduous, free time is lost and the offender must comply with the conditions imposed – eg being ready for the morning pick up, and obeying the rules of the working day which can be challenging for some. The projects carried out are community based – litter picking comes to some people’s minds but clearing wasteland, working in charity shops and painting community buildings are also on the list.

For us at St Mary’s our local team has been invaluable. The Team supervisor arrives early with a van full of workers, strimmers and rakes. The team comes annually for the marathon task of strimming, raking and clearing the disused graveyard (we leave it virtually untouched for most of the year to encourage wild flowers, butterflies and birds). They have also worked in our main churchyard pruning and clearing brambles around the walls. One year I asked that a pile of random rubble be cleared away – by the afternoon I had the newly created rock-bordered flowerbed mentioned earlier, an idea of their own.

Overcoming Lockdown

Over the last 18 months life has been much more difficult for the Team organisers with no group travel in vans being possible.  However our local organiser, Dave, has soldiered on valiantly bringing just one worker and between them they managed the winter clearance over some weeks.

The team has a new project this week– we have a shed door and some ancient wrought iron gates all in great need of renovation. We are supplying the wire brushes and the paint and now we are about to have a new and much smarter look.

Community Payback Worker cleaning gates

This is a huge help to us. The team members are universally friendly and the work rate is fine. We supply of tea, coffee and cake – and the jobs get done. Wonderful!

I would strongly recommend Community Payback as a tool for those needing help for church maintenance (and am happy to respond to any queries) Team organisers are always looking for more projects so the chance of cost free work can only be of mutual benefit.

Thanks to Maryann for sharing her experience of using the Community Payback Scheme to solve the problem of churchyard maintenance. More information on the scheme is available on the Government website.

Church exploring with our camera

In this special blog post from one of our Friends, Ros Patrick described the joy she and her husband get from exploring and photographing local churches.

My husband and I moved to England from Australia six years ago. One of the first things we noticed was the beauty of the countryside and the next was the incredible age of so many buildings. We live in Wales so we’re in the perfect place for both.

Within thirty to forty miles of our home we have so far visited over 160 churches and we have found it’s a wonderful hobby to photograph them and read their history. This includes finding them in the first place as many are quite isolated and up narrow country lanes. We’ve walked to quite a few for the last mile or so as driving on a road barely wide enough for one tractor is a bit nerve-wracking.

Whole villages must have disappeared as the size of the church is completely out of proportion to the size of the hamlet where it is. Other churches have been surrounded by buildings and parking can be difficult.

As we’re in the Welsh Marches a lot of the history is pretty bloodthirsty, and some families have a sad reminder in the graveyards of the members who died in battles.

We have been lucky as we only rarely find churches which are locked – I feel we should give a special thankyou to the men and women who must open and lock them each day. Some of the locks require a very large and ancient key.

We have found several churches which have workmen doing repairs and maintenance and it must be very expensive to keep such old buildings in a good condition. We have met a lot of people who enjoy their beauty and history and I hope will do so for many years.

You can explore some of Ros’s beautiufl photographs in their flickr photostream.

Cherish the Chapel

by Huw Edwards, journalist and broadcaster
Published in 2012 in The National Churches Trust Annual Review

Huw Edwards

Huw Edwards

The chapels of Wales need friends.

The past half-century, a period of base neglect, has seen hundreds of cherished buildings flattened without heed.

There is a bitter twist at work here. Wales has suffered a campaign of cultural sacking approved by elected and unelected officials; but many of those responsible have had little understanding of the scale of the loss.

In Wales today, those tokens of Plantagenet savagery, the medieval castles, are cared for with a vigilance approaching the fetishistic. We willingly revere these symbols of our oppression. And it follows that our national authorities accord them maximum listed protection.

Chapel

Chapel

In this same Wales, those heroic symbols of our Nonconformist freedom, the chapels, are neglected, disdained and spurned. They lie rotting and decomposed in town centres, casually vandalised. They are invisible and irrelevant. They seldom pierce the people’s awareness, but when they do, they provoke repugnance and scorn.

The popular memory is pitifully short. Even those who vilify religion praise the chapels for enriching the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. These places of worship gave essential literacy and numeracy skills to children and adults; they provided the poor with food and clothing; and they operated an effective welfare system while state and parish dodged their duties.

In rejecting the state religion of England, the Nonconformist movement offered a new definition of Welshness. It really is no exaggeration to say that the spirit of the chapels shaped modern Wales.

But modern Wales doesn’t want to know.

These days, the fact of that transformative contribution is an irritant. The chapels are unsettling reminders of a very different past. To acknowledge the greatness of their contribution is to invite inescapable questions about their present lot. And that is acutely wearisome for a generation whose rejection of the chapel is absolute and final.

The official guardian of our built heritage of Wales is CADW. Unlike Historic Scotland, CADW does not appear to offer a website with a searchable database of listed buildings. What it does provide is an interactive map which locates countless castles, fortresses and monuments of importance.

Try locating Maesyronnen chapel, one of the earliest Nonconformist places of worship. It should be immediately visible as one of the prime religious sites of Wales. It is not. This lack of prominence is even more shocking for a building listed Grade I by CADW.

Rather more bewildering is the knowledge that of the 30,000 buildings listed by CADW following the national survey completed in 2005, very few chapels were accorded the integral protection afforded by Grade I status.

Chapel

Chapel

CADW’s own listing criteria are clear. Buildings of ‘architectural interest… which illustrate important aspects of the nation’s social, economic, cultural or military history’ are worthy of listed status. So are buildings with ‘close historical associations with people or events of importance to Wales’. The majority ‘of special interest’ are in Grade II. A much smaller number of particularly important buildings are listed Grade II*. Buildings of exceptional interest (around 2 per cent of the total) are in Grade I.

Nonconformist Wales

A visit to my home town of Llanelli, one of the strongholds of Nonconformist Wales, will reveal the folly and injustice of the listing process.

The only Grade I listed building is Llanelly House, a particularly fine Georgian town house now being restored in an impressive £6 million scheme. It certainly deserves its full-scale protection. Across the road lies St Elli’s Church, listed Grade II* thanks to its medieval west tower and fifteenth-century chancel. A short walk away we find Tabernacl Chapel, one of the most impressive chapel buildings in Wales, also ranked Grade II*. Tabernacl was designed by John Humphrey, whose much bigger Tabernacl in Morriston is listed Grade I.

So far, so good. But a longer walk around the town centre raises some unsettling questions which also apply to many other parts of Wales.

Capel Als, the oldest Nonconformist cause in Llanelli, is given the minimal protection of Grade II listing, despite an opulent interior rightly regarded as one of the finest chapel designs anywhere in the United Kingdom. It was designed by Owen Morris Roberts who also rebuilt Llanelli’s Capel Newydd. Here, too, he delivered an exquisite interior considered to be one of the best examples of Edwardian chapel design and craftsmanship.

For reasons which are difficult to fathom, both Capel Als and Capel Newydd are lumped together with the majority of chapel buildings in Llanelli in the basic Grade II band, a category which also includes some decidedly mediocre buildings and monuments. The historically significant Adulam Baptist Chapel in nearby Felin-foel, the oldest Nonconformist cause in this part of Carmarthenshire, is also considered worthy of a basic Grade II.

A real problem

This lack of consistency is a real problem. In Carmarthen, George Morgan’s Baptist Chapel in Lammas Street is Grade II*. His equally glorious Dinas Noddfa, Landore, inanely accorded Grade II status, is heading for the same fate as his Calfaria, Llanelli, a rotting mass on the steep slope of Bigyn Hill for the past decade.

This is plainly unjust. But the evident inadequacies of listed protection predate CADW, it must be said, and start with the implementation of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. It is clear that successive generations of officials have either failed or refused to acknowledge the architectural and cultural importance of Nonconformist chapels in Wales.

Llanelli does, however, offer some hope for the future. It once boasted 22 chapels in a compact town centre, several of which have been acceptably converted. Glenalla is one of the best examples: here we have a solid Edwardian chapel reborn in 1987 as a community centre and concert hall. A decade earlier, Siloh was the first Llanelli chapel to be refurbished, as a sports and social centre. It has proved to be a popular and valuable local asset. Zion, an elegant chapel design by Henry Rogers, is now part of a major theatre complex which involved one of the best heritage protection schemes in Wales.

It can be done.

The chapels of Wales, those distinctive emblems of Welshness, need many more friends. From the unadorned charm of Soar-y-mynydd, in the depths of Cardiganshire, to the flamboyant grandeur of Bethesda, Ton Pentre, in the heart of the industrial Rhondda. They all deserve protection and preservation. They are all part of the story of Wales.

%d bloggers like this: