Does Buckingham's Brackley Road Cemetery have any Friends?

Buckingham residents may be surprised to learn that Buckingham's Brackley Road cemetery was first opened one hundred and fifty years ago this year, by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford (the son of the anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce). Bishop Samuel is best remembered for his legendary encounter with Thomas Huxley. The two men publicly argued the case for and against Darwin's controversial theory of evolution by natural selection. Their meeting is now acclaimed as a landmark in the history of science. Some of the specimen trees planted at that time still exist today, particularly those near the entrance, where the first interments took place.

Up until about the middle of the nineteenth century, most burials took place in country churchyards. However, with the growth and establishment of towns due to the industrial revolution, the overcrowding in churchyards and the explosion in population, more space was needed and legislation was enacted to permit burials (and eventually cremations) outside of the church. The public (local authority) cemetery, as opposed to the churchyard, as a 'proper place' for burials, really came to prominence in the Victorian era.

However, our own local cemetery, due in no small part to having had a number of owners over the past few years, had fallen into disrepair and was starting to look very disreputable and uncared for. A local man, Tony Webster who, prior to his retirement in January 2004, was the Cemeteries Manager at Banbury Town Council and who could, therefore, claim a certain expertise and knowledge of what a good cemetery should look like, decided to do something about it.

With the benefit of this background, he and a number of other grave owners approached the local council and asked for improvements and changes to be made. With the council's permission and support, and utilising his knowledge of the 'burial business' and his industry contacts, he formed a 'Friends of Buckingham Cemetery' group, to assist the council in maintaining and improving the cemetery, as well as working to preserve and record the historic heritage of the monuments, building and flora.

Cemetery Friends' groups are common in local authority cemeteries and perform a very useful function in helping councils to maintain and improve facilities, as well as working to conserve and restore historic Victorian heritage. The group, consisting of about fifteen volunteer members, now belong to the National Federation of Cemetery Friends (NFCF), who have helped with the setting up and organisation of the group and who has arranged such practical things as insurance (necessary if maintenance and remedial work is to be undertaken in the cemetery) and public liability.

Many councils' have these organisations working with them and most have found them to be very mutually beneficial, both in raising the public's awareness of these high profile and sensitive areas and in bringing these often neglected areas back to full use as a valuable and attractive public asset. Councils are generally very supportive of such groups because it is usually very much in their interests to do so.

Many of the Cemetery Friends groups, with the ultimate common aim of preserving and conserving their local cemeteries, started as pressure groups to counter owners' neglect or proposals for inappropriate use and went on to monitor the owners' maintenance and restoration work and, if given the opportunity, helping in a practical way. Buckingham Town Council officers and elected members have responded well to our requests and entreaties and have since pledged their full help and support in endeavouring to bring standards at the cemetery up to mutually acceptable levels (although much still remains to be done).

Saving cemeteries from decay and neglect is important. They are our heritage, both in terms of the great and the good and the ordinary people interred in them, the many monuments and memorials to them of historic, social and architectural interest, the often unique blend of natural and rare flora and fauna, usually including very many fine specimen trees and shrubs and also very much, too, as a place for quiet peace and reflection - but it has to be clean and tidy and secure.

All manner of wildlife is commonly seen in cemeteries, from the ubiquitous squirrel and rabbit, to foxes, deer, birds of every sort, particularly woodpeckers, plus insects of every sort (look for the hosts of Red Admiral butterflies feeding on the shrubs along the fences in the summer). All of these harboured and protected by the trees and shrubs, bracken, leaf mould and the ever present old and decaying logs, on which can also be found the lichens, protected by law, and which are also to be found on the older monuments and headstones.

The group are also currently engaged in researching a history of the famous and the infamous interred in our cemetery and so far have produced enough material to form the basis of a series of lectures of fascinating and largely unknown facts and anecdotes from our past, with a view to producing a booklet and/or a DVD for publication.

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As VOLUNTEERS, Friends can help with:

General tidying (cleaning, weeding, pruning and planting)

Monitoring routine grounds work, grass cutting, tree work,

Monitoring council maintenance, restoration and repair

Monitoring and recommending safety work

Recommending improvements and remedial work

Suggesting for improving access, particularly for disabled and infirm visitors, e.g. paths

Preserving and conserving wildlife (flora and fauna, rare plants, fungi, lichen)

Cataloguing and managing the tree population, including installing bat and bird boxes

Promoting the site by organising and running guided walks/photography tours

Organising talks on the history, flora and fauna, etc

Carrying out research and publishing a history and/or guide book (with CD/DVD)

Promoting cemetery safety, including advising on 'memorial stability', dangerous monuments and other 'at risk' structures

Countering vandalism

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If you are interested in joining the group or even just finding out how you can help, please call
Tony Webster on 01280 817357 or email tony@tonywebster.co.uk

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In conclusion, the following words sum up what the group is trying to do in Buckingham cemetery.


A CEMETERY SHOULD BE A QUIET, BEAUTIFUL PLACE, A PUBLIC ASSET,

FIT FOR REFLECTION AND CONTEMPLATION.


BUCKINGHAM CEMETERY IS NOTHING LIKE THIS AT THE MOMENT, BUT IT COULD BE


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WATCH THIS SPACE:

FOR CEMETERY FRIENDS NEWS, ARTICLES, REGULAR FEATURES, ACTIVITIES,

INCLUDING A MONTHLY NEWS ITEM ABOUT THE CEMETERY

BY ED GRIMSDALE

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