Breathing Life into the Cemetery
Dympna Irwin 
A tribute by a neighbour to St Sepulchre's Cemetery and those who work there

Anyone who has ever read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and was enchanted by it will understand exactly the parallel with how charming St Sepulchre’s Cemetery is. Anyone who has lived in Oxford for years and never visited, or in innumerable instances never even knew of its existence, wonders how they could have ever missed it.

Just as in The Secret Garden where heroine Mary Lennox finds the key to the hidden door behind which lies an enchanted but neglected garden that she transforms with the help of new-found friends, so The Friends of St Sepulchre’s have transformed this secluded space into a hidden gem. In 2009 the Friends of St Sepulchre’s, formed by Peter Strong a local resident, began their restoration. Ever since then a group of ambitious and determined people who sadly include too many to mention have worked very hard in often unpleasant conditions to open up the area and breathe life into it. This culminated in the Green Flag – which recognises and rewards well-managed parks and green spaces – being awarded to them in 2015 for all their hard work and dedication by transforming what was once an overgrown wilderness into a magical space.

Down what appears to be a private a lane-way, between cast-iron gates and through the Gothic-style arch designed by the Gothic revival architect Edward George Bruton – who added the apse in 1853 to St Paul’s Church (now the Freud café) on Walton Street – you will find a portion of  nirvana. The arch built in 1865 is reiterated by yew trees as you enter, but watch out for the sticky red berries that decorate the ground late in the year and create a red path.

This open-air green space is undoubtedly worth a visit. Sitting quietly on the benches in the middle, or even on the grass if it is a fine day, there is an overwhelming invitation to fall straight under the spell of nature. The variety of birds that visit or live there such as woodpeckers, magpies, robins, blackbirds, and jays vociferously provide all the music you need.

The shorter grass is decorated all year round with wild flowers; here grow buttercups, daises and dandelions, and the graves themselves made of a diversity of stones and terracotta are festooned with a variety of colourful mosses and lichen.  Or perhaps you would prefer to wander further down to where the large copper beeches are? You will find they provide a calm and natural temple that give shelter from the rain or sun and solitude for meditation, retrospection, or sheer delight. Here an ever-evolving carpet of a variety of seasonal flowers appear, from a sea of snowdrops to bluebells, cow parsley, and cuckoo pint to name a few, festooned on either side of the well-worn paths that wind  their way through the burial plots. The ever-changing hues and scenery below and above always bring something new and special to a visit.

Not somewhere just for the dear departed, but contemplation for the soul and an enchantment for children. A place for stories of hidden fairy dens, pixies and goblins, giants and elves. A wonderful site to read a book to the little ones or even for yourself. Just as long as the children are protected from climbing on the graves themselves, as most are well over a hundred years old and could therefore be a danger. There are stories hidden in the inscriptions that could make you want to cry and some that just fill you with curiosity about the people young to old that wanted, or found this, to be their final resting place.

A  great deal of information has been collated and can be found on this website, created by the Friends of St Sepulchre's in 2013, for those who are inclined to research and perhaps find a relative or two, or just fulfil their curiosity. It is possible to wax lyrical about this, but there is no intention to cover that information here, where the emphasis is on the nature that is now possible to enjoy and watch enfolding. What is written is to give accreditation to all of those who have taken the time to co-ordinate themselves and spent effort in giving back to the community and to innumerable others from all over the world this urban oasis in all its glory, one minute from the hustle of a busy Walton Street. Also not to forget Oxford City Council, whose gardeners also play their part in the upkeep.

The rejuvenation of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery has opened up this special place in all its magnificence – somewhere that those in the know can have a quiet break even if for the shortest of times and regenerate their batteries.

© Friends of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery 2012–2017