Brighter Breightmet brings wildlife to a peaceful graveyard

Brighter Breightmet is a meeting of wildlife and community which, since 2016, has been restoring the graveyard of St James’ Church in the area of Bolton known as Breightmet. Find out how they're doing it.

St James' Church sits on a prominent knoll and on a sunny day it’s obvious that 'Breightmet' (pronounced Brate-met), a name which originates from Bright Meadow, is a great name for a great place. Rob Bakewell leads the project, blending historical preservation and ecological development in caring for this urban burial place whilst creating a haven for wildlife.

Rob hails from Blackburn and his journey began as a young lad with early encounters of wildlife in Corporation Park, where he and his friends enjoyed collecting tadpoles in jam jars, bird-spotting through cheap binoculars and the sheer freedom of being out and about in all weathers. “We had a small back garden and I made a bird box which was used by a family of blue tits,” Rob says. “It was great to watch the dedication of the parents as they worked tirelessly feeding their young and in some way I had helped them along by giving them a home.”

Rob has held on to these interests throughout his life. Working in Blackburn and later in Spain as a church-based community worker, Rob moved to Bolton in 2003 when he was invited to manage a drop-in centre for the homeless and unemployed.

“We were new to Bolton and bought a small house in Breightmet and were delighted to discover the local parks and Seven Acres Country Park right on our doorstep.”

The Brighter Breightmet volunteer group posing for a photo

After eight years at the drop-in, Rob set up a new gardening business and with it, the community project at St James’.  Rob loves living and working in Breightmet and the response of the community to the work at St James’ has been heartening. The church is an active place of worship and its members have joined in the restoration work alongside interested people of no particular religious allegiance. It has made for a wonderful mix of volunteers where wildlife conservation is bringing people together with a common purpose in a friendly setting.

When the project began, the graveyard looked like a derelict site and was completely overgrown with brambles and small trees. As work progressed and the church monuments were gradually revealed again, feedback from local people was very positive.

“Many neighbours have expressed their appreciation and even a passing delivery man wound down the window of his van and shouted ‘That’s a great job you’re doing there, keep it up!’,” says Rob

The work has meant replacing one micro ecosystem with another. Rob continues: “The original brambles gave shelter for a range of animals, especially frogs and birds, from predators. We still ensure there are plenty of damp crevices for frogs to enjoy, although there is no pond in the graveyard so where they spawn is a bit of a mystery.”

Volunteers working on the Breightmet project at St James' Church

Keen to maintain a range of habitats, the group has planted 75 trees in order to restore hedgerows as these are an important refuge for birds including the now not so common house sparrow.

Rob says, “As well as standard bird boxes we have put up a couple of specialist swift boxes with the support of Bolton and Bury Swifts. Inside the boxes a device sounds out the swifts’ call to attract young swifts in search of a nesting site for next season. After their long migration to Africa over the winter it is hoped that when they return next spring, some may nest in the church grounds.”

Eradicating large areas of Japanese knotweed on the site has been a particular success.

“We are active members of Bolton Forum for Greenspace (BFG) and their advice and support is invaluable as we look to manage the site long-term and enrich the biodiversity,” says Rob. “We are working on creating a meadow area and introducing yellow rattle, wood avens, etc, to complement the existing bistort and willow herbs. A recent site visit from BFG was very encouraging and there was a great deal of enthusiasm about the future potential of the site.”

So far 37 people have put in more than 1,600 hours of voluntary work; literally tons of material and accumulated debris have been removed; more than 400 miles have been driven to the local tip; 75 trees have been planted and the wider community has something to be proud of again.

Members of the Bolton Forum for Greenspace at St James' Church in Breightmet

St James’ dates from 1855 and at the time it was built it stood alone, described as 'smiling like a lily by the wayside'. The mature trees we see in the grounds today are missing from the photographs taken in the early 1900s. The congregation would trek across open fields to attend the services, and its founder, Canon Slade, would arrive on his horse, Prince. Today, the rural ‘small church charm’ remains alongside the impressive multi-arched, early Victorian architecture topped by a magnificent spire.

Rob says, “Canon Slade, also founder of the school in nearby Bradshaw that bears his name, is buried here. The 170 years of history recorded in the graveyard’s monuments brings home the reality of a very different and sometimes painful past. Commonwealth War Graves stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those of local families where the loss of infants was all too common in the early industrial age.  We take modern healthcare for granted, but antibiotics were unknown before 1928. This reminder of our history provides a valuable connection and in some way continuity with those who lived and worked in our community not too long ago.”

Rob continues, “It’s my hope that by visiting this place people may be able to feel connected in some way with those things that make us more fully human, with our community past and present and with our environment in all its wonderful diversity. That we may look back with gratitude and forward with hope and by observing the snowdrops that appear every spring and the passing butterflies every summer, this little graveyard, ironically, may be a place to celebrate life and all that it has to offer.”

Brighter Breightmet would like to thank the following for their support: Bolton CVS, Bolton Forum for Greenspace, Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Bolton and Bury Swifts, Bolton Green Umbrella, The Woodland Trust, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Glendale Horticulture, Arthur Lane Nursery, Breightmet Resident’s Association, Bolton Council and all the volunteers and supporters from the local community who have made this transformation possible.