Hidden depths

5th September 2003 at 01:00
York Cemetery is alive with opportunity for geography, PE, history and maths, as Kevin Berry reports


York Cemetery, Cemetery Road, York YO10 5AJ Tel: 01904 610578


In York, a visit to the cemetery is not just for the grieving or the ghoulish. As well as providing a picturesque place of rest, the burial ground offers a bona fide educational experience.

York Cemetery has 24 acres of splendid wilderness, lovingly nurtured areas, well planned wildlife habitats and wood sculptures of wild animals from local artists.

The cemetery was opened in 1837 and is still used for burials and the scattering of ashes. Yet it is not a sombre place. The lack of regimentation sees to that. There are many corners where gravestones are almost lost from sight and the grasses, flowers and shrubs have taken over.

Bird song is abundant and bees hum gently. The imagination does not have to leap all that far to think of being in a secret garden.

The cemetery's warden, Vanessa Temple, is particularly excited by the uncovering of two examples of rarely seen trees. "One is a Maidenhair and the other is a Dawn Redwood," she says. "Both are natives of China.

Clearing the growth of bramble around them, giving them light and allowing them to grow, was a real thrill."

Today, Year 1 pupils from Fishergate Primary which is just around the corner, are in the cemetery taking part in an "infant orienteering" exercise. Their task covers maths, PE and geography. Each group has a map with its own route clearly outlined and the children are soon lost from sight.

Frequent head-high vegetation, to right and left, stirs feelings of excitement and adventure as they walk along grass paths. Other groups can be heard but cannot always be seen. Hardly a term passes when children from Fishergate are not in the cemetery. Early years pupils visit each term to experience the changing seasons by looking at the same trees and locations.

Some children collect pebbles and pieces of wood to create sculptures back in the classroom and older children follow the Victorian Grave Trail.

It's the now unfashionable names such as Clarence and Ebenezer and decorative headstones that catch the eye of pupil Leonie Taylor. She says:

"The Victorians had some names that we don't use now. And they had huge carved gravestones to fit the names of wives and children. When I come here I always look for one grave. It has trees on both sides. There are always fresh flowers there and wild ones are growing near it, like snowdrops. It's beautiful. Not sad."

While lopsided gravestones have a certain aesthetic appeal, they do raise health and safety concerns. At York, they use a device known as the "topple tester", says Vanessa Temple. "I am sure that all other cemeteries have one or they would have to close their gates. We have our own version specific to this cemetery and there is a regular process of testing for which one person is responsible."

It's time to go back to school. A startled blackbird shoots out of a tangled mass of ivy and bindweed. We pass a volunteer, one of many who give their time to the cemetery. She is carefully clearing excess vegetation from a row of Victorian graves. The graves are being treated with respect and sympathy, as are the plants and shrubs and the wild creatures.

Visits are free for schools that subscribe to the York Cemetery Education Service (pound;30 or pound;2 per child). Notice of a visit is requested in case you have to be routed around a funeral. A new education officer will be in place this term, but schools can call the York Cemetery Trust to organise visits

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