A chest tomb on the point of collapse at Bitton Churchyard, South Gloucestershire
Churchyards provide access to
a unique combination of fascinating
and varied historic monuments, a
record of the social history of the community
and a rich diversity of plant and animal life.
They are a safe haven for distinctive and
ancient trees and are home to a wide range
of mosses, lichens and ferns.
also provide tranquil green spaces for quiet
reflection and provide invaluable resources
for community involvement and learning.
Increasingly recognised as important public
spaces in both rural and urban landscapes,
their care and maintenance is now considered
alongside that of the churches they serve.
The increasing use of churchyards as
community spaces has resulted in a heightened
awareness of the health and safety issues
associated with churchyard monuments,
especially those in a poor state of repair. This
in turn raises issues relating to the ownership
of these spaces and determining where the
responsibility lies for making them safe for
the public. English Heritage has provided a
thorough analysis of every aspect of churchyard
care and maintenance in Caring for Historic
Graveyard and Cemetery Monuments (2011).
This article looks at some of the primary
decay mechanisms responsible for undermining
the structural stability of churchyard
monuments and includes a case study that
demonstrates some of the solutions.
PRIMARY DECAY MECHANISMS
Given their setting, it is unsurprising that
vegetation is one of the chief culprits in the destabilisation and collapse of churchyard
monuments. Ivy and other types of woody
growth will grasp any opportunity to invade
stonework until monuments often disappear
completely beneath an exuberant display of
greenery and twisted branches. As the growth
takes hold the sections of the monument are
pushed apart and the foundations compromised.
The next culprit, subsidence, is also closely
associated with the setting. Churchyards
develop over many centuries and the pattern
of burials will often cause monuments
to sink and tilt. This causes compression through the side panels resulting in twisting,
warping, loss of jointing material, loss of
chest lids and, in extreme cases, the collapse
of the whole monument into a void. The
latter can result in the discovery of human
remains which will require an archaeological
assessment and an urgent health and safety
review of public access to the churchyard.
|West Littleton Churchyard, Wiltshire: an example of surface lamination across an inscription panel resulting in
loss of the stone surface
|West Littleton Churchyard: damage to the stone
surface (above left) caused by the corrosion of iron cramps. The
close-up (above right) shows the extent of the corrosion through the
iron cramp and the resulting loss of stone.
The next key cause of surface and structural
decay is the presence of iron fixings which were
widely used as structural ties in churchyard
monuments. Over time the iron is exposed to
damp moving through the porous structure of
stone and mortar. Iron is subject to corrosion
in the presence of moisture and the volumetric
increase caused by the corrosion exerts pressure
on the surrounding stonework resulting in the
opening up of the joints and associated loss
of surface. As the iron becomes increasingly
exposed to the air, the decay mechanism
causing the volumetric increase of the iron
accelerates and the monument is subject to a
dramatic loss of surface and structural integrity
that will eventually cause it to collapse.
The decorated and inscribed stone surfaces
of churchyard monuments are also subject
to surface decay through weathering and the
presence of salt crystallisation in the porous
structure of the stonework. Salt deterioration
problems are complex and any attempt to
remedy them should begin by establishing
the nature of the salts present and how they
are delivered into the masonry. That said, it
is clear that repeated cycles of salts moving
in and out of solution impose considerable
stress on the pore structure resulting in
disaggregation and loss of surface detail.
Lamination of the surface is also associated
with salt movement in cases where a section
of a sedimentary stone has been inserted
into the monument out of its natural bed
(the plane in which the stone formed). Loads
should always be carried at right angles to
the bedding plane, but masons often found it
expedient to use slabs of sandstone or limestone
in the wrong plane. Moisture ingress and salt
distribution will exploit the inherent weakness
of a stone bed which is under pressure.
SURVEY AND REPAIR
The decay mechanisms described above have
an impact on both the monuments and on
safe access to the churchyard. Furthermore,
if a monument becomes so badly damaged
that it can no longer serve its purpose as a
dedication to and record of an individual within
a community, the character of the churchyard
is diminished. Maintaining the vegetation
around unstable and collapsed monuments is
also more difficult and the balance between
the monuments and their setting can be lost.
In most cases where there are concerns
over churchyard monuments and in particular
where there are several of them, the first
step is to request quotes for a condition and
recommendation report. The first hurdle for
the custodians of the monuments at risk is to
obtain funding for this report which then can
become an important tool in constructing a
forward-looking strategy for the monuments
and for making faculty applications. A detailed
condition and recommendation report will
provide important information on the current
condition of the monuments and, where
more than one is at risk, should list them in
order of priority for treatment. It can also
then provide a benchmark against which the
rates of decay can be measured.If it does not
already exist, a simple numbering system for
easy identification of the monuments should
be created. This will be an invaluable tool for
recording the location, design and condition
of each monument in the churchyard.
||Buckland Newton Churchyard, Dorset: a monument
which has collapsed into a void
The report should also provide budget
sums for a best practice conservation
programme in order to enable the custodians
to begin to apply for grants both for individual
monuments and for more wide-ranging
programmes of work to groups of monuments
or to the landscape of the churchyard. Grants
for the conservation of churchyards are
now available through a number of heritage
agencies (see Further Information).
At this stage it can be beneficial to
consider how to involve the community and
local schools in the conservation project.
Churchyard monuments provide an excellent
opportunity to research the social history of
the community and the personalities behind
the monuments. For example, past projects
have involved local schoolchildren creating
time capsules to put inside monuments
which need to be rebuilt. Such projects
give the younger generation a greater
understanding of the church and churchyard
and can help to create a sense of shared
ownership and pride in the local heritage.
Once funding is in place it is important
to plan each step of the process and prepare
risk assessments and method statements for
each stage. Although it is important for the public to be able to view the conservation
works, it is essential to create a safe
working environment and to protect the
public. It may also be necessary to carry
out emergency repairs to valuable surface
detail before the monument is dismantled.
Apart from the removal of vegetation,
the materials and techniques used on
churchyard monuments are very similar
to those used for the conservation of
exterior architectural detail and for
interior church sculpture. The procedure
typically involves the following steps:
- dismantling of unsafe structures
- removal of all iron fixings
- rebuilding on firm footings
- installing new core material
- rebuilding the monument with stainless
- careful cleaning of surfaces
- repairing surface detail with lime mortars to
- repointing with lime mortars, in some cases
adding a final protective lime shelter-coat.
Great care and attention to detail is needed
throughout, particularly where monuments
are being dismantled and rebuilt.
CASE STUDY: THE BUCKLAND
||The Buckland Newton monument before conservation
||Fitting the stainless steel cramps
||The lid being lowered back onto the monument with
the new core inside the chest clearly visible
||The monument after conservation
This monument, at the Church of the Holy
Rood at Buckland Newton, Dorset was in
very poor condition. In particular, extensive
damage had been caused by a large elder
tree which had grown up through the west
end of the monument, breaking the lid.
A detached section of the lid was found
by the side of the chest tomb buried in the
The north side panel had also fallen
away and was buried in the ground with the
inscription side face down. The remaining
sections were badly misaligned and unstable.
However, the surface of the carvings, although
heavily soiled, was in good condition.
Firstly the vegetation was completely
removed from around the monument enabling
access to remove the remaining section of the
lid. The lid had a hairline crack running across
the section which required careful monitoring
during the lifting process. Once the lid had
been removed, the cornice section was revealed
to be badly fractured with some elements
inside the tomb. These sections were recorded
and set aside.
The two end sections and the
south panel were then removed. Further
careful excavation revealed all the broken
sections of the plinth course which had been
fractured and buried by the roots of the tree.
The broken elements were removed from the
ground and set aside. All the elements were
recorded, carefully numbered and put in a safe
storage area until they could be reinstated.
After the monument had been excavated
and completely removed to the storage area,
the remains of the tree and root system were
removed. The ground was then levelled and
foundations incorporating concrete blocks
were installed to ensure a sound base for
the reinstatement of the monument.
The cleaning programme was carried out
before rebuilding the monument. This allowed
further assessment of the condition of the stone and allowed the conservators to ensure
that they were confident when it came to
reassembling the jigsaw of pieces. The broken
elements of the buried plinth course were
carefully cleaned and repaired before being
re-bedded on a hydraulic lime mortar (NHL
3.5) on the new concrete footing.
The east end
section and the two side panels were then set in
place followed by the west end section. There
was evidence of corroded ferrous fixings in the
top of the side panels and the two end sections.
All remaining fragments of iron were removed
and replaced with stainless steel cramps
fixed with NHL 3.5 hydraulic lime mortar.
After the broken pieces making up the
cornice had been pieced together, one section
was found to be missing. This was re-carved in
Chilmark stone, which was the closest match
to the original material. The next stage was to
install a new core inside the monument to act
as a platform for the lid (right). This will
provide additional support to the cracked lid
as well as reducing the load on the side panels.
The final piece to be reinstated was the section
of lid found buried beside the monument.
Once the monument had been rebuilt,
a programme of surface repairs was carried
out using lime mortars that match the colour
and texture of the surrounding stone. Finally,
the joints were repointed to blend in with the
overall texture and tones of the monument.
Conserving this beautiful monument has
not only restored it to something of its former
glory but has also revealed who it was dedicated
to and something about her. Restoring the
purpose of the monument as a memorial
to a lost loved one and a past member of
the community, has been the most valuable
outcome of the project. The monument’s only
inscription, engraved on the north panel, reads:
Underneath lie the Mortal Remains of
Relict of THOMAS VENABLES Esq
of Chester and Daughter of
JAMES KING D.D. late Dean
of Raphoe in Ireland.
Who departed this life, trusting
solely for a Better
In the Merits of her Redeemer
November the 7th 1817. Aged 71 Years.
Her Two Surviving Sons erected this
Tomb in Memory of a Parent
Whose pious Care and Example
early taught them
To love their Saviour and their God.
And whose Maternal Tenderness and Affection
Claimed their lasting Gratitude.
Funds for Historic Buildings