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The unquiet grave

As well as roses and shady cypress trees, Victorian cemeteries are havens for wildlife. Kevin Berry accompanies some primary children visiting a graveyard in York. There is an increasing awareness that old cemetery sites are worth preserving as green spaces. The Victorians loved to walk in their cemeteries for recreation. Now Victorian cemeteries are seen as precious havens for wildlife, a marvellous resource for study which can offer a host of practical learning activities.

Some years ago an enthusiastic group of people recognised the enormous potential of York's vast 24-acre cemetery site, situated just outside the city walls. They formed a charitable trust and began to develop the site for leisure and educational activities.

York cemetery is staffed by a full-time warden, Bill Shaw, who has some part-time and voluntary workers to help him restore the site. He has a part-time education officer, Sue Sandle, who appears for school visits. All visits are organised in small groups with one of the cemetery's voluntary staff.

Bill and his team have devised trails, walks and projects to cover military history, trades and professions, trees, wildflowers - their list is formidable. Sue Sandle took me on a recently-prepared mini-beast trail based on specially prepared sites. Huge logs have been left to rot while piles of smaller logs are sited in shady areas to provide habitats, holly and ivy left to smother a headstone so that spiders can spin their webs, swathes of grass allowed to grow waist high to encourage wild flowers and strange weeds. There is a beautiful pond teeming with life, and all around the cemetery are countless smaller sites where old baths have been sunk to provide further wet habitats. All water sites have a sloping stone bank so that hedgehogs can clamber out if they fall in.

I followed a group from Amotherby Primary School in Malton, watching as pupils examined cuckoo spit on grass, a mass of ladybirds on tall daisies, bees totally absorbed with a rich supply of wild flowers. We came across a rotting tree-stump riddled with holes and saw at least three different types of spider waiting with their webs. Then we lifted damp leaves, to see woodlice and millipedes suddenly scurrying out of the sunlight.

We were in the oldest part of the cemetery, built in 1837 in the Victorian style with circular paths and a number of mature trees.

Why so many trees? Actually, there aren't quite enough, explained Bill Shaw. When the cemetery was first laid out there were many more trees which were supposed to provide a canopy for the gravestones. An extensive tree planting programme is in full swing to revive the parkland landscape.

Why so many gravestones with different colours? Local stone was used for the first burials because transportation was difficult. If your family had a wagon you could have a different type from another district. When the railways arrived your nearest and dearest could buy you a more exotic headstone, perhaps a piece of marble from Italy.

I rejoined the pupils on the scented walk, stocked with plants such as camomile and Corsica mint for blind and partially-sighted visitors. We were heading further on to a row, perhaps 100 metres in length, of Victorian grave sites which had been planted with umpteen different varieties of flower and plant and bush - the object being to attract caterpillars. We looked in some high nettles (yes, rubber gloves are provided) but we only saw one caterpillar.

As if sensing what had happened, Bill Shaw suddenly turned up to tell us that some caterpillars, probably tortoiseshell, had been sighted on a bed of nettles in the Edwardian section. So off we went. We tiptoed forward, a small group at a time, to have a careful look.

Bill Shaw's team obviously enjoy their job. Their response to questions and suggestions is exemplary and they have prepared some superb worksheets. They inspire curiosity and they encourage care and respect. When we were in an area where hedgehogs might be spotted my group went silent and on tip-toe without having to be told.

School groups in York to see the regular tourist attractions, such as the Minster and Jorvik, now put York cemetery on their agenda as a quiet and relaxing alternative. Other groups have been keen to join in practical activities such as tree and shrub planting.

* Visits are free to York schools and Pounds 1 per pupil for others. The cemetery splendid chapel buildings are used by schools as workrooms. Tel: 01904 610578

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