Country Matters: Elegy on a churchyard mower

Mowing our churchyard is a tricky business, for it lies on the side of a steep hill. Moreover, the sloping turf is dotted with nearly 70 tombstones, memorial slabs, rectangular enclosures and lesser structures, so that as you cut the grass you are forever weaving in and out of obstacles.

Being a stickler for tidiness, I cannot bear to leave tufts and fringes round the monuments; this means that mowing must be preceded by half an hour of strimming, and that all cut grass must be collected. A thorough work-over takes the best part of two hours.

Inside the church there are memorials that date back to the 16th century, but the outdoor gravestones bear no inscriptions earlier than the 18th century, and - alas - they are all rather pedestrian. They include no flights of fancy, no jewels; nothing to take your mind off the job in hand.

Yet many of the names on the tombstones survive in our neighbourhood to this day, and one of particular interest to me is Garn. Four Garns are commemorated in an enclosure with a stone surround, and the inscription records that they occupied the house that is now ours. From other sources I know that they sold our farm in 1897, and although the family has gone from the valley, members of it still live not far away. The name itself seems ideal for a farmer, for it is exactly what he might yell at a wayward bullock: "GARN, yer blighter!"

There is one huge horizontal slab, about 7ft by 3ft, and 6in thick, which I can never pass without a smile. Of the three brass plaques on top of it, the earliest is dated 1765; but only seven or eight years ago the grave was opened so that the body of an old lady could be placed with the remains of her forebears. First the diggers had to shift the big slab a few feet downhill, and when they had completed the new burial, they left it where it lay until the mound of earth had settled.

When I asked their boss, Reg, whether they were going to put it back in place, he came up with the immortal reply: "Don't you worry. Er'll be all right. Nobody don't want she for stew, do 'um?"

To help pass the time while mowing, I often see how far I can progress (in my head) through Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. The beginning is easy:

The curfew tolls the knell of

parting day,

The lowing herd winds slowly

o'er the lea...

and many passages are so perfectly appropriate that they resound in the mind intact:

Beneath those rugged elms, that

yew tree's shade,

Where heaves the turf in many

a mould'ring heap,

Each in his narrow cell for ever


The rude forefathers of the

hamlet sleep.

In fact the whole poem is studded with lines so memorable that they are often quoted in other contexts: The paths of glory lead but to the grave; Full many a flower is born to blush unseen; Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife...

Gray's sonorous nuggets are easy to remember; it is the links between that can become muddled. But it does not do to search your memory too hard for them. Lack of concentration on the task in hand leads to collisions with immovable objects: the other day I walked backwards into a gravestone and went heels over head downhill, pursued by the mower, whose automatic cut-out fortunately shut down the engine. Another time I was brought sharply to my senses by the realisation that, while I had been out of sight round the corner, some passer-by had stolen my sweater, which I had left draped over one of the stones.

The reward of regular toil is the satisfaction that a sense of order produces. I derive much pleasure from seeing the churchyard look ship- shape - and the same goes for the church itself. The more closely you are involved with the upkeep of a building, the more interesting you find it becomes.

Casual visitors are not to know, for instance, that woodworm has got into the floors in the tower, or that the iron ladders up there need treating for rust. Nor could they tell that our lightning conductors are out of date. This is particularly annoying, because the whole system was renewed less than five years ago; now new regulations have rendered our arrangements obsolete, and we need to spend several hundred pounds upgrading them.

Naturally we are reluctant to lay out so much on rectifying what seem to be trivial deficiencies - but we are goaded by memories of what happened a few summers back, when lightning struck a fine cedar scarcely 20 yards from the end of the chancel. The tree was split from top to bottom, and pieces weighing 50lb or more were thrown a hundred yards uphill. If that amount of electrical energy had been discharged into the church, the building would have caught fire or been blown apart.

A stealthier and more persistent enemy is damp. Being a tiny parish, with fewer than 40 inhabitants, we are attached to two other villages in a united benefice, and have only two services a month. In winter, and sometimes in summer too, I switch on the heating the night before each, but in between services the church is left cold, and damp used to play havoc with the organ, many of whose pipes are made of wood.

Now, however, we have imported a secret weapon - a de-humidifier, which purrs away day and night beneath the pulpit. Operating like a refrigerator, drawing air in one side and expelling it the other, it extracts an amazing amount of moisture from the atmosphere - two or three gallons a week - and makes the organ appreciably easier to play.

So, by small but frequent ministrations, we keep our little place of worship intact. Our efforts go over the heads of our rude forefathers, I am sure - but at least some of their descendants are grateful.