The work of the Birchington war graves project volunteers

Volunteer Melanie Rosario from the Birchington war graves project

A project to commemorate the sacrifices made by people with a Birchington connection is underway with cleaning and tidying war graves at All Saints Churchyard.

The Royal British Legion is 100 years old this year and the Birchington Branch identified a need to focus on the condition of the war graves in the village churchyard.

There are 13 service personal buried in Birchington All Saints Cemetery whose headstones are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).  These graves contain the person who died in service or were killed in action.  The inspection and cleaning schedule by CWGC has now stretched from 2 to 5 years, so they are training volunteers to clean the graves if necessary and to report any damage for specialist maintenance.

The project will also “wash and weed” a further 45 graves that were easily identified by their inscriptions as family memorials.  Service Personnel who died overseas have a CWCG headstone or memorial near to where they fell.  Most families could not afford to visit those graves so they had a memorial inscription put on a family grave where they lived.

Alexandra Gilbert, who is managing the project which started this May, said: “I had to start from scratch. Something that seemed such a simple task quickly became very complicated and needed loads of administration and I am a volunteer myself.

“As well as recruiting a team of  volunteer “Guardians”, the churchyard is maintained by Thanet District Council, so we had to become volunteers of TDC in order to be insured when working on the graves.

“Of course the church needs to know when we are in there and what we have done.  As it’s an RBL project, the Branch members need regular updates, so does the Parish Council, and the CWGC when we clean one of the graves they manage.

“As the family of the deceased own the headstone and any surround (known as ‘grave furniture’) we need to try to find any descendants and get their permission to tidy the grave.  We are following the CWGC and Historic England’s Conservation Guidelines for headstones, so we are following several organisations health & safety requirements and regulations. Despite that, everyone involved has been very supportive and there are hopes the administration side of the project will able to be streamlined as we go along.”

Nearly all of the18 people who have already showed an interest in being a volunteer “guardian” of one (or more) of the selected graves have started to “wash and weed”.  They follow Historic England and CWGC guidelines for gentle cleaning of the headstones and any surrounds to avoid damage.

The appreciation for what has been done so far by villagers and visitors cutting through the churchyard or walking their dogs has been very encouraging.  The churchyard has been a particularly important greenspace for villagers’ exercise during lockdown, but the current overgrown and untended state isn’t to most people’s tastes.

Alexandra said: “We have only just started the project, and are very limited with what we can do, but those cutting through, visiting or walking their dogs in the churchyard have been very appreciative, and commented on how it gives them a much needed boost to see weeding now being able to be done on some of the graves.

“I am enjoying researching the stories of the service personnel in the graves and each volunteer receives a biography of the person of the grave they are tending.  It takes on average 4 hours to clean a grave, then the volunteer just has to visit every now and then to pull any new weeds and clean off any bird droppings or grass cuttings.

“They will put a poppy tribute on the grave they are responsible for, a week or so before Remembrance Sunday.  A grave shouldn’t need any further cleaning for a year or two.”

If you are related to a person listed below the project volunteers would like to hear from you to make sure you are happy with them tidying the grave.

Please contact [email protected] or write to WGLO Alexandra via the Parish Council, 2 Albion Road, Birchington CT7 9DN.