St Mary & John Churchyard

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Bats in the belfry

The churchyard at Cowley St John Parochial Church used to be neglected and suffered from misuse. The team at the church felt strongly that wild spaces in cities are crucial to the health of the community and so have turned the churchyard into a much needed haven for residents to escape to.

In 2000 the process of turning the churchyard into a wildlife haven began when soldiers of the Pioneer Regiment of Bicester spent a week clearing masses of unruly brambles, ivy and self sown trees. Staff at the church, the local police force and local residents all pitched in.

Since then a large volunteer group, under the capable eye of Ruth Conway of the Parochial Church Council, has been meeting weekly. They are genuinely dedicated and gain enormous happiness from watching it flower into a beautiful wildlife haven. The garden also helps volunteers from all walks of life, who are unwell or unemployed and who receive healing from the natural and spiritual surroundings of the churchyard and the friendships they build.

The churchyard itself is a warm and welcoming place which envelops visitors with a sense of wellbeing. Interpretation boards show the local history of the site and displays of butterflies and birds for identification.

The Trinity Labyrinth, patterned with ceramic mosaic tiles fashioned by residents suffering from mental illness, greets congregations in the front of the church, and bats truly do live in the belfry, encouraged by night scented plants planted by the Church Council such as evening primrose and nicoteana.

A wildflower garden of remembrance graces a quiet corner of the churchyard and bird boxes hang alongside tasty bird treats such as thistles and apple trees. The team are propagating wild clematis plants, and the big question now is how to encourage warblers back to the garden.

The Big Lottery Fund Award has allowed the team to plant out a butterfly garden. Ruth is keeping her fingers crossed that some of the more unusual of these flighty creatures will visit and top of her wish list is the fragile fritillary.

The team has chosen plants known for attracting butterflies as well as brambles and nettles. These not only provide a breeding ground but also act as a prickly barrier to stop people trampling the garden at night. Spring planting will enhance the area even more with scabious and wild thyme.

The fund allowed for an ecologist from BTCV to help develop a wildlife management policy for the churchyard and also uncover special plants already living there such as stone parsley. Volunteers learnt how to develop habitats by growing grasses and creating piles of logs and stones to hide a menagerie of minibeasts. This seeded the inspirational idea of a wildlife tower, an enticing bug hotel built from a stack of palettes with the middle stuffed with leaves and straw, bamboo, bricks and broken flowerpots for bugs to happily live in.