The boundaries of our parishes usually corresponded to the estates owned by the Anglo Saxon lords – or thanes. They were expected to provide a church for the local people and it would be surrounded by a piece of land often referred to as “God’s Acre”. The present church dates from the 11th century, although it was almost certainly predated by a timber building.
In Pre Conquest England, the churchyard might not have been enclosed by a fence but at a later time the boundary would have been secured to exclude animals; poisonous yew trees were planted in churchyards – possibly to provide the materials for the making of longbows.
Uses of the surrounding land would have changed over the centuries – sometimes cultivated in open strips, sometimes grazed by cattle or sheep. Old maps of the late 17th Century show that St Mary’s churchyard was set within a large parkland surrounding Walberton Manor House.
Vestry Records of 1834 tell us that the owner of neighbouring Walberton Park offered to build a flint boundary wall on the south and east sides, provided that the parish did the same on the other side. It survives in good condition to this day. Mr Prime also arranged for the levelling of the ground to facilitate mowing and he also planted a number of the magnificent trees that are such prominent features of the village landscape.
Burials and Memorials
In earlier centuries it was by no means usual for the deceased to be buried in the churchyard – often only the wealthier families could afford to. Even then, graves were normally just marked by a simple wooden cross. However, in the 18th Century burial in the churchyard became the norm, as did the erection of memorial stones or headstones. These often carry inscriptions recording the dates of the deceased’s life span and often some fond words to celebrate that life. The oldest memorial in our churchyard is just opposite the church porch. The inscription reads “In memory of JOHN MITCHEL who died 1711 aged 55. Also of ELIZ who died 1691 aged 37.”
In 1998 the Sussex Family History Group completed a detailed record of all memorials in the church and churchyard which provides an invaluable source of information – especially for families trying to trace their family history. All inscriptions are recorded, which is very helpful as some of the engravings become difficult to read. A good guide to the churchyard can be found in the Guide to the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin – it can be obtained at the back of the church.
There are several intriguing memorials containing carved illustrations of events, such as the untimely end of Charles Cook who was crushed by a tree in 1767; and poor Ann Rusbridger, aged 8 years who died in 1802, when a butter barrel rolled from a cart which she was following. At the entrance from Church Lane the lychgate was erected by men of the village as a war memorial following the First World War and there are two white headstones maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission dating from WW2. A large white marble slab marks the grave of Lord Woolton who was Minister of Food in that conflict.
It is remarkable to note that when JOHN MITCHEL died, there were just 48 families living in the parish; the total population in 2017 is approximately 2,000. Before permanent stone gravestones appeared, after a lapse of time, the spaces could be used for reburying; this is no longer practicable and as the capacity was reached, in 1950 the church was able to acquire some additional land to the west from the Wyatt family who farmed at Pigeon House Farm.
In modern times, the majority of families opt for cremation, rather than burials, and yet many do like to have somewhere to remember and celebrate the life of a dear one. A small section of the churchyard is set aside for the interment of ashes under a small stone plaque.
Recent gravestones are more regular in appearance as now there are strict parameters to what is permitted. Families of the deceased are asked to respect all who visit the churchyard and the use of artificial flowers and sound chimes is discouraged. A set of guidelines is kept in the Church Office for their benefit.
Heritage - A churchyard for the Community
The very brief reference, above, to the wealth of memorials in our churchyard explains why so many family members come to St Mary’s each year, as part of their search for details of the family’s history. Often these visitors have come from many parts of the world and it is rewarding to help them in their search. Local families of the more recently deceased also often visit the graves of their loved ones and so the churchyard is a very real link with the wider community.
In 2013 it became only too apparent that there was very little space left for burials and if the churchyard was to stay open, more land was required. After due consultation with the parish, it became clear how much the local residents valued the churchyard and so a fairly lengthy negotiation process was started. The agricultural tenant farmer readily agreed to surrender an area of the adjoining field but it took much longer before the owners of the land, the Church Commissioners for England, agreed to release the land. That was only the start! A faculty was needed from the Chichester Diocese, planning consent was required for a change of use, the Ministry of Justice had to be consulted and then... we needed a minimum of £10,000 to complete the purchase, to pay legal fees and to fence the boundary.
A public appeal was launched in December 2016: a grant of £2,500 was obtained from Arun District Council’s Community Fund and then there was a magnificent response from the community and eventually the appeal raised over £13,000. A contractor carried out some remedial landscaping and, on a cold Saturday morning, 30 villagers planted several hundred hedge plants around the perimeter.
Finally on the 16th February 2018 the Bishop of Horsham, Rt. Rev. Sowerby, supported by our vicar, Rev Timothy Ward, conducted an ancient ceremony to Consecrate the new extension on a beautiful sunny winter’s day – with the attendance of eighty parishioners and friends. The churchwardens presented a petition to the bishop promising that the land would be set aside from “common and Profane” uses. The bishop assented and processed around the perimeter of the plot of land which was blessed – all accompanied by enthusiastic hymn singing.
In 2001, a Local Heritage Grant was obtained for a project to strengthen links between the past and the present. Repairs were carried out to damaged or unstable gravestones, a study pack was produced for use by the village school, the new church guide was published and a Video/DVD was commissioned looking at some of the names in the churchyard and discovering where is the family now? The DVD is called Hidden Gems and is available from Walberton History Society.
Maintenance and Conservation
In terms of wildlife diversity, it is accepted that much variety has been lost over the last 100 years; yet, churchyards were set aside from cultivation roughly 1,000 years ago and the main activity in that time has been controlling the grass – by grazing in earlier times or mowing. Little if any herbicides or pesticides have been used and the result is that the churchyard often contains a unique residue of species that were once prolific in the area. As part of the Heritage Project (see above) a plant survey was undertaken and a Management Plan was drawn up to guide future maintenance work. The aim is to provide a tranquil retreat that is well cared for but also leaves space for the range of plants, insects, animals and birds which live there – indeed the whole of God’s creation. The main access areas are mowed regularly, but some areas are not mowed after April to encourage spring and early summer flowers. This approach has proved popular, each year is different in our climate and each year populations vary.
Of particular interest is a long established nursery bat roost in the roof above the church’s chancel. Each year the number of Soprano Pipistrelle bats emerging from the eaves is recorded; the 2002 count was the highest so far amounting to an impressive 338 bats!
This has always been the case: in Victorian times, a local writer, Charles Ayling, said “what a very pleasant spot it was for those seeking a few minutes of meditation among the tombs........Shut out from the village a visitor may resign himself to hours of solitude and reflections...... A glance westward will show a pleasant landscape, the Chichester Cathedral spire standing out as the most prominent feature, while the Isle of White, like a misty cloud, may be seen in the background far away.” (The latter observation is quite surprising as the Cathedral and Isle of White are not visible today, demonstrating what a barren treeless landscape the coastal plain must have been in those days).