A Peaceful Place to Rest
West Hill Cemetery, Winchester
Fauna and Monuments
Fauna and Flora
The population of fauna and flora, with the exception of the trees, is much as it was when sheep grazed there. It is host to a thriving colony of the Marbled White butterfly (Melanargia galathea) that is fairly common on the chalk downs around Winchester and beyond, but this urban colony is probably unique in the British Isles. The flora is composed of many of the species that you would expect to find in chalk grassland with the interesting addition of a number of domestic flowering plants that have self-seeded from the floral tributes placed on the graves over the years. There are one or two fine trees in the cemetery and some modern planting that is far too close together. There are also a number of self-seeded trees that need to be removed together with ivy, and other climbers that are smothering one of the trees and some of the memorials.
Monuments and Archaeology
The boundary wall with its railings and the wrought iron gates are classified as a Grade II listed structures but the lodge is not. Despite past damage to the lodge, this appears to be a serious omission since it is very important to the ambience of the Cemetery, and is by the same architect as the listed wall. The cemetery itself is recorded as an archaeological site.
During the preparatory work on the St. James' Lane entrance, a cremation and burial site of Roman origin was discovered. Five cinerary urns of coarse workmanship and containing cremated human remains were uncovered, the largest being three feet in diameter. The burials were more numerous and stretched for more than 100 yards east and west "into the adjoining pastures". The graves had been cut into the chalk and backfilled with a mixture of loam, small stones and fragments of burnt wood. The burials appear to have taken place without coffins and were laid out without any regularity or order. A coin of the usurping emperor, Flavius Magnus Magnentius (350 to 353 AD), was found nearby but cannot be associated with any of the burials. These finds were recorded in the Gentleman's Magazine 1840 Part II, p.644.
The same source also records that the finds were sent to "a gentleman in Blandford". It would seem that he never returned them to Winchester, as they are not in the Museum Collection in the City. The Assistant Curator of the Dorset Museum in Dorchester (there is no museum in Blandford) suggests that `the gentleman' in question might be either William Shipp, an antiquarian and bookseller (1809-1873), or more likely Henry Durden, another antiquarian and collector (1807-1892). There is no trace of these finds in the Dorset Museum nor are they in The British Museum, where Durden's Collection is housed. However his Collection does contain a pot found in Winchester described as "red ware" and possibly of Samian origin.
Conservation and the future
The title to the cemetery passed to the City Council in 1953 and it is they who are now responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the site that is an important open green space in the setting of the City's built environment and valued by those who live in Winchester. A cemetery is first and foremost a place to commemorate the dead and is very important to the living relatives of those who are buried there. At the same time it is a pleasant and peaceful place for leisure and for the study of the natural environment and local history. It is therefore most important that adequate resources are earmarked for its continued care in order to ensure that it remains so.
In 2001 a Parliamentary Select Committee of Inquiry examined the current national provision of burial sites, discussed the question of maintaining existing cemeteries and looked at options for the future. The Government subsequently asked English Heritage and English Nature to provide guidance on the conservation and management of cemeteries. The first such paper entitled 'Paradise Preserved' is shortly to be published. It can be found on the English Heritage website (www.english-heritage.org.uk) together with details of much other useful information on the subject. 'Paradise Preserved' is well worth a read by those interested in the subject.
At the moment all is well but the pressure on budgets is great and unrelenting. If the citizens of Winchester want to keep the cemetery the way it is then they must take up the matter with their elected representatives if they see things going wrong. In that way it can be brought to the attention of the City Council. It would be a huge bonus if a group of 'Friends' could be formed to keep an eye on this wonderful place and act as unofficial wardens.