Managing ‘God’s Acre’ at St Wilfrid’s Church

A St Wilfrid's Scythe SUS-150924-163110001
A St Wilfrid's Scythe SUS-150924-163110001

It’s been a very busy summer at St Wilfrid’s Church, Haywards Heath, as clergy and parishioners have put on a wide variety of services and events to mark the church’s 150th Anniversary.

The anniversary got off to a flying start on Sunday June 7, when the Right Reverend Dr Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, celebrated the Opening Eucharist, followed by a bring and share lunch in the Centenary Hall at which he was presented with bottles of commemorative St Wilfrid’s Ale.

Since then there have been a children’s concert, four Saturday evening concerts, flower festivals, open days, four former clergy welcomed back as guest preachers and much excitement.

None of that, however, has disturbed the quiet passing of the seasons in ‘God’s Acre’ - St Wilfrid’s much admired churchyards (Upper and Lower) - and at the end of August parishioners of all ages joined in the annual final summer scything (no, not mowing: scything). Just the sort of thing that would have been familiar to their Victorian predecessors, who assembled at the new church on 5 June 1865, St Boniface’s Day, for its consecration.

Those ancestors, whose gravestones were being carefully respected as the scything team cut neat windrows, were perhaps in 1865 still getting over the shock of huge railway cuttings and steam locomotives thundering past the cattle and sheep.

But they would surely have been proud of the skills of their web-browsing successors. The pitching of the pitchfork by a choirboy, the gleeful flattening of the freshly cut compost heap by a choirgirl would have met with their approval.

But those suspiciously American brownies and flapjacks at elevenses, with fluorescent Finnish pear juice to quench thirsts on a warm summer’s morning, might, 150 years ago, have stirred a few painful memories of Britain’s first empire winning its independence - and nobody in the churchyard then would have guessed that the newly baptised Jean Sibelius’s music might inspire the birth of a new nation in Scandinavia and earn him a special place in a popular institution that still lay ahead - the Proms.

Haywards Heath’s oldest church stands near the geographical centre of Sussex and continuity amid change has been a central theme in its 150th celebrations.

Parishioners over the past few years have literally been clearing away dead wood and overgrown dominant bushes to preserve an important element of their heritage - a remnant of the flower-rich grassland of which little is now to be seen in the English countryside. The children who swung scythes this year as a summer holiday treat (under adult supervision of course!) described their conservation work as ‘awesome’.

The whole story of how today’s generation of parishioners are keeping faith with what went before in the countryside, as well as the Christian faith that inspired their church’s founders, has been summed up by one of St Wilfrid’s scythe-wielding enthusiasts,

Dr Margaret Pilkington, a botanist who has helped to inspire the re-creation of what many people who pass through St Wilfrid’s churchyard as they go about their daily business now regard as a breath of fresh air in a bustling town centre. Visitors to the church can read the leaflet by Margaret in their welcome pack.

Report and picture contributed by Melvyn Walmsley.