One of our regular dog walks takes us through a disused graveyard. Most of the graves date from the 18th Century to the early 20th. There are no recent burials and the contemporaries of these dead are themselves by now long gone. This graveyard – like hundreds of others around the UK – has become an unofficial wildlife reserve. Twice a year, men arrive to cut back the undergrowth and prune wayward trees. The rest of the time, nature is left to its own devices.
Foxes raise their cubs among the graves, in a fortress of bramble. There are nuthatches and treecreepers, jays, wrens and robins, coal tits, thrushes, blackbirds, green woodpeckers. Ravens honk from the top of the towering cedar and, last summer, a pair of sparrowhawks raised their brood in the nearby woodland.
Many of the gravestones here are tilted or fallen, ivy-grown, scabbed with lichen. Some inscriptions have been worn away by wind and rain, the identities of their dead charges lost to the elements. Others are still legible – names, ages, dates, some motto or legend of love.
It’s startling how many of those buried here are young children. 3 year old Beatrix Amy who died in 1888, her resting place marked by a white marble cross. I imagine her like a very young Alice Liddell in this wonderland of life and death, hide and seek among rosebay willow herb and foxglove, catching butterflies, lying in the long grass, bees droning in the sunshine. I bid her good morning every time I pass by.
The young man lost at sea, the ship he served on sunk by a torpedo in the First World War.
The sad little headstone that marks the passing of two infants one year and a third child the next. One family, so much loss. How did the survivors carry on?
Yet this is not a sad place. A thrush sings. The breeze gusts a blizzard of cherry blossom across the path. Celandine sparks like gold in the new green growth.
Reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, I thought about this place. His novel is fantasy, of course, but he captures the spirit of these old graveyards well – the people behind those brief inscriptions, the bygone lives that, for the most part, are now only accessible through imagination.
And all the while, the big wheel keeps on turning.