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In memory of Brenda Gilling

Wednesday 26th July 2017

The Staff and Board of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust would like to pass on their condolences to the friends and family of Brenda Gilling, a great supporter of the Trust who died this month.

For the entire life of the Yorkshire Living Churchyard Project, from 1988 to 2013, Brenda was totally committed to it. The ‘Wildlife in Churchyards’ project had begun at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in 1985 but it fell victim to financial constraints. Then in 1988, aware of the importance of churchyards for wildlife and aware that the churchyard project was too valuable to be lost, the then Archdeacon of York, Leslie Stanbridge, had a hunch that Brenda and the late Jean Hall would be ideal ‘churchyard’ people and invited them to morning coffee. He was right. By lunchtime he had enthused them so much they immediately began to negotiate the re-launch of the churchyard project as a joint venture between Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and the Diocese of York and to obtain three years’ funding from the Prince’s Trust. So began the work to transform Yorkshire’s churchyards.

The 1300+ Yorkshire churchyards make up a considerable area of land, largely unimproved grassland of which 97% has been lost since World War 2. With appropriate management ‘God’s Acre’ – the Saxon name for the churchyard – can redress this loss and become a sanctuary for wildlife. ~

Brenda’s vast knowledge of the natural world, land management and farming was invaluable and was reflected in her conversations in churchyards with those managing them and in her follow-up reports, always written promptly and with clarity. With considerable input from Brenda a number of leaflets were produced giving guidance on aspects of churchyard management and eventually these were incorporated and expanded into the Churchyard Management booklet, available to download from the internet. ~

It was always a pleasure (and fun) and a steep learning curve to spend a day visiting churchyards with Brenda. The priority, after setting off, was to find somewhere to park to drink our flasks of coffee before arriving at the first churchyard where the morning would be spent surveying the churchyard and talking to people about the plant and animal species found in the survey and how the churchyard might be managed to benefit these further. Many were astonished by the number of species of plants and birds in their churchyard. “Listen” Brenda would suddenly say, “That’s a chaffinch” (or a robin, or a blackbird, Brenda could identify them all). Then, after a picnic lunch, a drive to the afternoon churchyard to meet more people. Sometimes the day was rounded off by tea and cake at Brenda’s house to discuss the reports to be written for the day’s churchyards, a pleasant end to a worthwhile day.
Such was Brenda’s commitment that to the very end of the project, in spite of her age and the physical discomfort from a previously fractured femur, Brenda continued to make field visits and to give talks and lead walks in the yearly churchyard conferences. One conference attendee joined Brenda’s walk round the churchyard to learn more about the wildlife and because ‘he liked the cut of her jib’!

In 2008 Brenda and Jean were awarded, jointly, the volunteer prize at YWT’s Gala dinner for their churchyard work. Brenda is still fondly remembered by many of those she met in churchyards and at the conferences. Her vision and contribution to the churchyard project lives on in the number (still increasing) of churchyards being managed as sanctuaries for wildlife.

Written by Elizabeth Hardcastle, Yorkshire Living Churchyard Project Officer, 1991-2013