Cemetery staff provide more than just hard work
The job may involve a great deal of digging, mowing and trimming, but for the staff at Chippenham Town Council’s London Road Cemetery, there’s more to it than that.
The hard-working team of two’s daily presence makes them a familiar sight for the people who go there to visit loved ones’ last resting place and they are very often a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear or the provider of a friendly welcome.
Acting supervisor Pete Stoneham said: “It’s surprising how much daily contact we have with people. We always have to be aware that people might want to talk.
“We see people visiting regularly and you get to know them. Lots of times I’ve sat on the bench and chatted to them for ten minutes because they want to talk to someone, they might not have anyone else.”
Groundsman Mark Doggett, is a familiar face not just at the cemetery but around the town as well. “I often get stopped and asked about sorting something out on a plot,” he said. “I’m always happy to because it helps people.”
He recalls seeing the same grieving widow arriving at the cemetery every day at the same time. “You could set your watch by her,” he said. “The 3pm bus would go by and then she’d walk through the gate at ten past. She was here every day, 365 days a year. She would always wave at me.”
The staff help with queries as people from as far away as Canada trying to trace relatives. The many War Commission graves, which are the last resting place of British, Polish and Dutch pilots and air crew from the Second World War air base at Hullavington, also prompt plenty of queries.
“You can spend a long time helping people looking for graves, especially the older ones, it is really interesting,” said Mr Stoneham.
The cemetery, opened in 1855 (the same year as the Town Hall was built) by the former Chippenham Borough Council as church yards began to fill up, is gradually being extended as the town increases in size and the new extension opened eight years ago, which takes the total site to 13 acres, is already half full.
“We have 13,511 graves here, that includes internments and ashes,” said Mr Stoneham. “And we have been busy booking plots lately, I think a lot more people want to come here.”
A plot costs £350 to reserve, with another £395 for the interment. For that there’s a 99-year lease and the guarantee that the staff take a pride in keeping the cemetery in immaculate condition. They are also among the cheapest in Wiltshire.
“We take real pride in keeping it in good condition,” said Mr Doggett. “We are out every day making sure it’s tidy. It’s not just the mowing, we trim all the hedges and keep the paths and chapel tidy.”
Mowing the grass in and around the plots is a huge job, taking up to a week to complete. In many of the older sections, where graves are closer together, the grass has to be mowed with a hand mower rather than a ride-on and strimmers are used to keep the grass neat around the stones.
“We often get people thanking us for the way we keep the cemetery, it’s really nice to get emails or comments,” said Mr Stoneham.
Mr Doggett added: “There was a lady from Milton Keynes here recently and she couldn’t believe there are just two of us looking after the whole site.”
The original cemetery, dominated by two huge Wellingtonia trees that can be seen from as far away as Lacock, was divided into sections according to religious beliefs. There was a Church of England section and one for Roman Catholics, as well as a non-denominational area and a section of so-called paupers’ graves for those who couldn’t afford a burial.
“The new sections are multi-faith, so everyone is mixed in together,” said Mr Stoneham, who is combining his stand-in role with being supervisor at John Coles Park in the town.
“These days we find that people want to be next to their friends or family, that’s something that’s really changed over the years since I’ve been here.”
Town council leader Sandie Webb said: “The staff at London Road Cemetery are wonderful ambassadors for the council. They provide a magnificent service and their hard work ensures the cemetery is always in great condition. Visitors always comment on how well it is kept.”
More details about the cemetery and reserving plots HERE