A Celebration of Sidmouth Cemetery
Sidmouth cemetery is a photographer’s dream and a pollinator’s haven. East Devon District Council’s Streetscene team should be applauded for managing this wonderful local asset so much better over the last two or three years.
Now in summer, wherever you look, there are stunning, surprising or atmospheric views. Outstanding craftsmanship sits perfectly framed by nature’s glory.
Green woodpeckers can be heard “yaffling” as they peck for meadow ants amongst the long grass. Greenfinches – increasingly rare – flit through the cypress trees feeding on tiny insects and flocks of tits swarm through the high canopy of the Scots Pines. Kestrels hover motionless, looking for mice and voles to swoop down on. Slow worms and lizards find refuge amongst the warm stones that now overlay this ancient grazing pasture.
In spring, bluebells, primroses and violets spring up in the wilder area south of the chapel of rest, where there is a more wooded character and history to the land. Beech and Oak trees planted by Victorian Sidmothians now spread their canopy over much of this area, with some dating back to the opening of the cemetery in 1879. Nearly 50 trees have been mapped and recorded by Sidmouth Arboretum, with a little story about each one on the website.
In June, the lower section of the cemetery is a sea of oxeye daisies and birdsfoot trefoil, the food plant for the common blue butterflies, which light up the cemetery with a subtle blue flickering as you wander through.
Wildflower meadows are lodged deep in our psyche as a beautiful, rare and iconic feature of our landscape and memory. But fungi are also really important indicators of a rare and valuable habitat.
In autumn the cemetery is heaving with multi-coloured waxcaps, fairy rings, puffballs and many more.
The hedges running around and through the cemetery are often overlooked but some of them are in fact the most ancient feature of the cemetery, with the southernmost hedge possibly dating back to the Middle Ages. They are critical for wildlife, providing a green highway across the town for bats, including the rare Lesser Horseshoe Bat which roosts nearby at Knowle and uses the Knapp and cemetery hedges for foraging and commuting. Dormice have recently been found in the old hedges that run through the Knapp and could expand their habitat into the cemetery if we manage the hedges well. What’s important to the bats, butterflies, birds and even the dormice is not just mature and spreading hedgerows but the long grass all around them. Bats and birds feed on flying insects which multiply above long grass and dormice will feed on caterpillars and other insects they find on the stems, to boost their protein intake in the fallow period between summer flowers and autumn fruits. Combining short and long grass actually provides a more diverse habitat for a greater range of insect and plant species, so perhaps a happy compromise can be found for relatives who want their family graves kept clear and easy to visit, and those who prefer a wilder setting.
The cemetery is now, ironically, heaving with life; and also beauty, surprise, monumental art and atmosphere. What better way to pay homage to our dead than to celebrate life by managing this outstanding fragment of our ancient landscape for nature and for the future.
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