In my role as manager of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, I witness the journeys taken by inspired individuals when trying to open green cemeteries. At any time we have twenty or so provisional members whose experiences are, mostly, far from smooth. Torturous, frustrating and infuriating is probably the typical experience. I asked Sheridon and Tom from Atlantic Rest Burial Site to share their story with us. Rosie

What happened was………….

Tom and I were introduced to Natural Burial shortly after we met in 2005. His Grandparents Nancy and Bill planned ahead and bought their burial plots, side by side at the lovely Westall Park, a natural burial site in Worcestershire. The inevitable time came for one of them to occupy their plot and not long after, Bill joined Nancy. We attended their funerals and our experiences inspired us to open our own site.

The idea simmered away for a very long time, we kept our eyes on the property market waiting for a suitable piece of land to become available. Then in 2011 my Granfer Cyrildied: he was a Cornish born and bred farmer who lived in the hamlet of Woolley, in North Cornwall, not far from our home. After retirement, he had retained his land, renting it out to a local farmer from across the valley. His passing meant this land was now available for us to invest in.

where theres a way2I remembered Penlow Lane and the fields from my childhood; my sister and I had ponies and our mother took us out on little hacks around the village. The abundance of Foxgloves down the lane is what I remember most; little did I realise that Penlow Lane would one day become a headache.

After Granfer retired and sold his cows, the lane became unused. The tenant farmer no longer accessed the fields from the lane and so, one day, we went on an expedition. It took a while to reach the field, we travelled slowly and carefully along what had become a strip of jungle. Yet, this was such a turning point in our search – getting to the end of that lane and taking in the view; it just felt so right. I often describe it as being like finding your wedding dress – you just know it is the right one.

where theres a way5Tom worked long and hard to regain vehicle access to the field, allowing us to get our mini-digger in to excavate some test pits. These showed that the field was a suitable medium for burials to take place.

As part of the planning application we began a public consultation process. We invited the homeowners in Woolley to a meeting that went well and was positive despite a small response. The subsequent pre-application enquiry to Cornwall Council in September 2012 was also favourable.

Encouraged, we submitted a full application for a change of use. The pre application did not, however, tell us that the Highways Department would now decide they required a transport statement and topographical surveying – an expense we had hoped to delay until after planning was granted. Nor did it tell us that the Environment Agency would request a very detailed Controlled Waters Risk Assessment which would be difficult to source and would take quite some time to conclude.

This involved another company drilling three, ten metredeep bore holes, to check for water. It all resulted in us having to withdraw the application, (whilst on the worst timed family holiday ever) as the required reports could not be produced in the two weeks we had been allowed.

So much for the benefits of pre-applications.

Whilst all this was going on, we were in the midst of the ‘Penlow Lane headache’. My family had historically enjoyed rights of access along the lane but for commercial use, such as the burial ground, we needed to own it. You would think that this would be quite simple – find the owner, agree a price, pay the money and solicitors complete the paperwork. Don’t be silly.

We met the owner and started things moving. In August 2013, the purchase of the lane was completed and we finally thought we were on our way. We then realised the last piece of land in front of our gateway was not included in the sale. The valuable lesson learned here is that land registry plans with hand drawn felt tip outlines are not always reliable.

where theres a way4We completed the two outstanding reports, allowing us to re-submit our application, quite certain that we finally had all the necessary documents. We also went along to a local parish council meeting to explain our idea. Several objectors attended this meeting and had the opportunity to say their piece.

Two days before the decision was due on our application – the divisional ward member called our planning application to committee. It was heard on Monday 6th January 2014 in Liskeard.

A slight dampener, over the Christmas period, was the news that yet another survey, an ecology report was needed.

Judgement day came, it was the scariest three minute speech I have ever given. The opposition was strong and one lady spoke against the application (who, I might add – we now get on fine with). Standing at the front and being asked questions by the committee members was daunting but after some in depth discussion a proposal was made and a vote taken.

Eleven counsellors voted for and three voted against but finally we had permission.

Now the real hard work was to start. We carried out all of the tasks ourselves, with some extra family help, in some very cold and wet conditions. I can now operate a variety of plant including a digger and a dumper. By May 2014 we were ready.

What a journey! Reading it back, I can’t quite believe we went through so much. We would never have got there without the immense support from our family, friends and of course Rosie and the other Burial Association operators, constant fonts of knowledge and advice.

I do have to stress that every little disappointment we met along the way was made worthwhile when I met the family of our first resident. We had fought to provide this service to local people and their gratitude is deeply touching.

We had our second burial not long ago and again, the reward for helping a family at such a desperate time certainly brings huge job satisfaction. We’ve also had several forward thinking couples book plots.

The local community have now come to realise the benefits of our burial site and most of the objections have thankfully faded; their fears and reservations have subsided and our memories of the battle to open our gates are slowly starting to fade. In their place is gratitude for having had the strength to persevere, and warmed by the response of those families we have already served. This is the beginning of an adventure and although it’s not been straight forward, quick, easy or cheap; I promise you it is one of the most rewarding things anyone could do.

Sheridon Rosser

Atlantic Rest