On my cycle rides around the countryside I end up exploring many churches. Some of them are grand statement buildings with their towers rising above the neighbouring houses and trees asserting their authority on the land and people around them. Others are much smaller and self-effacing, nestling amongst the trees and tucked away from view. Some of the churches have stood almost unaltered for centuries. Others have been knocked about over the years displaying a tapestry of architectural styles, and some have been knocked down completely and replaced (usually in the Victorian era when there was a church building mania).
Whatever the age or size of the church I am always keen to explore its details particularly the features that make it more human. If I can get inside (which is rare these days unfortunately) I am more interested in the space behind the organ, the door to the vestry where the priest robes, or the prayer books by the door than the architectural features. If I cannot get into the church I find myself exploring the churchyard.
Some of the more human aspects of a church can be found amongst the graves. Here is the grave of a man who died young and alongside him his wife who lived without him for another forty years. And underneath that tree there is a cluster of gravestones marking lives that never made it out of childhood. And then there are the newer gravestones where perversely I am attracted to those who were born at about the same time as me but who have already died. It is a reminder of the random nature of life and the necessity to use it.
There is much to view in a churchyard but the feature I always seek out is usually tucked away around the back. It will typically be close to a small side door into a church. There will be a tap and a couple of watering cans. Usually there is a bin or two, one of them for grass clippings and faded flowers removed from the graves. Sometimes there might be a wheel barrow and a spade and garden fork propped against the wall. Perhaps there will be a pile of slates from the roof or some crumbled stonework that fell from the walls and has been shoved out of the way for the time being (and that time could be very long). Then there could be markers used for freshly dug graves before the headstone is put in place; a line of tiny crosses propped against the wall.
Sometimes this space is kept tidy with the watering cans and bins lined up in a row. Others are less formal and the discarded flowers sprawl from an impromptu compost heap blurring into the surrounding grass.
All of these spaces represent a different side to the church away from the building’s soaring grandeur or its ancient lineage. It is a more intimate part of the church usually hidden away. As I photograph them I sometimes have a feeling that I am intruding upon something private, almost like photographing someone’s laundry hanging on a line.
However I think it is worth recording because there is something to celebrate here; the practical workaday rituals of the bereaved. It is the visits people make to the resting place of their relatives, the process of clearing out the old flowers and tidying the grave, putting in the new flowers, filling the watering can to water them, then throwing the old flowers onto the compost heap. It’s a working part of the church showing that they continue to have a role to play for many people.
To view the photographs visit the gallery, “A quiet corner of a churchyard”