My intrigue with historic cemetery continues to grow

It has been almost two years since I joined Sheffield General Cemetery Trust but my involvement goes back over 27 years, writes landscape supervisor Sally Puddifoot.

Monday, 3rd June 2019, 11:24 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th June 2019, 2:45 pm
Sally Puddfioot, Sheffield General Cemetery Trust’s landscape supervisor

I first visited the cemetery when my mum moved up to Sharrow. I arrived on a freezing, foggy weekend after a six-hour drive from Peckham in my 2CV and the following day was given the grand tour of Sheffield starting in the cemetery.

It was immediately intriguing - the stink lamp on Frog Walk, the Egyptian Gate with its snakes and the top area like a secret garden with the stone walls, wonderful twisted trees, ivy and winding paths.

The non-conformist chapel was derelict but beautiful, sitting quietly in the heart of the cemetery. At the top was the imposing Anglican chapel with its roof in a terrible state and at the bottom the quietly babbling Porter Brook.

A tour leader at Sheffield General Cemetery dressed as industrialist Mark Firth

It was the inscriptions on the graves that made me stop and want to find out more. One really made an impression – it is quite overgrown now, and is by the side of the cobbled path - reading how one family lost all of their children at such a young age has always stuck with me.

My second connection with the cemetery was in the Lord Lyndhurst pub in Peckham some years later while chatting with a friend, Mark.

He told me his family came from Sheffield and his relative was buried in the General Cemetery. My stepfather showed me the grave the next time I visited Sheffield.

Mark from Peckham, I discovered, is a direct descendant of our most famous resident, Mark Firth. I had an opportunity to meet Mark again recently – this time when he joined the Historical Association’s Mark Firth anniversary tour that concluded in the Samuel Worth Chapel and gave him the chance to see our Mark Firth Bicentennial Exhibition.

Volunteers at Sheffield's General Cemetery clearing a grave

It was the first time he had visited the cemetery and it seems a happy coincidence that I now ensure his famous relative’s grave is cared for.

The cemetery is many things to many people and that is why it is so special. For some it is a place where their relatives are buried - people still come to pay their respects.

For others it is a place of tranquil peace and mental wellbeing, or where they energetically jog. Some cycle, others walk their dogs or climb trees with their kids.

For many it is a place to see wildlife: to watch bats at dusk, see birds and butterflies and enjoy the heady scent of wildflowers in the sunshine.

A young visitor enjoying himself at Sheffield General Cemetery

For some of our smaller visitors it’s a classroom for number of days in the week and for others it’s a place to have a beer and chat as the sun sets or to kick around a football.

Many people come from all over the country to see its architecture and to learn about its history.

For a few it becomes a home for a while. The enormous passion for the site felt by so many is why I feel it is one of the most unique and rewarding places to work.

The landscape and gardening volunteers have looked after the site for 30 years, and they have a wealth of knowledge – of birds, trees, wildflowers and history.

Volunteers completing a pond project at Sheffield General Cemetery

From 22 to 82, they reflect many generations and backgrounds; from retired hospital porters to young job seekers, from film students to librarians, they pass down years of knowledge of the site and bring in fresh ideas and enthusiasm.

The site is owned by Sheffield City Council who have legal responsibility for it; SGCT own two buildings and have a long-standing agreement to maintain some aspects of the site. The council manage the trees, the path network, the large lawns, the invasive weeds and all walls and boundaries.

The volunteers and I manage the other aspects of the landscape according to the Habitat Management Plan, which is prepared in consultation with ecologists.

Extensive surveys are carried out and SGCT volunteers also undertake surveys; we do yearly bird surveys with Wildlife Trust experts, volunteers Peter and Claire (both members of the RSPB) carry out a winter survey of nest box usage, and volunteer Sue does our butterfly counts.

In 2016 the invertebrates were recorded in a bio-blitz by the Sorby Natural History Society. Information where recorded is passed on to Sheffield City Council Ecology Department, the RSPB and to Butterfly Conservation.

I am hoping we may trial the new app I Record so we can record species while we are on the go. With regular consultations, we ensure our work supports the many aspects of this site.

A bug hunt at Sheffield General Cemetery

In the undergrowth where you are unlikely to go are two large bug hotels, a hedgehog home and many habitat piles, which provide great habitats for invertebrates.

We try to reduce human erosion by deterring desire lines and protecting areas of wildflowers with log barriers.

The pond is now established and one of my best moments last year was watching bats dance in and around the heads of excited young children by the pond as we explored the site with bat detectors at dusk.

Spring moving into summer is always one of the most exciting times – birds are busy nesting, our nest boxes are already being used, wrens, tits, corvids, woodpeckers and chiffchaffs have been seen or heard on site.

Orange tips are flying and we surveyed the butterflies last week. We let the grasses, vetch, hogweed and cow parsley grow long and flower and we have spent many hours dividing snowdrops so that more will flower next year.

The long battle with Japanese knotweed will continue. Volunteer Sue has surveyed the site in detail and sent the results to the council, and this will be controlled with chemicals by a licensed specialist.

The Cemetery is a great place for mental health. The volunteers and I spend time listening to visitors who are having difficult times and I would like to see a listening bench installed on site.

Last year the long battle to resolve a funding crisis was exhausting – we all put in many, many hours over and above our normal hours.

Our existing volunteers and trustees worked incredibly hard to support the trust and staff and we gained a number of committed, passionate new volunteers with expertise, energy and enthusiasm to offer, as well as four new trustees during that time.

It feels an exciting and dynamic time for the Sheffield General Cemetery and the Trust and a positive time for its landscape and wildlife.

*This is an edited version of an article written for the Trust's magazine, Undertakings.

Steel manufacturer Mark Firth's grave