All Hands on Deck for a Grand Day

All Hands on Deck for a Grand Day

On Saturday 8th June 2024 it was the Annual General Meeting of the National Federation of Cemetery Friends held here in Foster Hill Road Cemetery, Bedford.  A huge event for our little group of volunteers, involving months of planning by the Committee.  (I wasn’t involved in any of the prior arrangements as I’m not organised enough now I have to prioritise 3.5 grandchildren.)

About 40 delegates from all over the U.K., e.g. Leicester, Halifax, Tunbridge Wells, and some of London’s “Magnificent Seven” – Highgate, Kensal Green, Nunhead and Abney Park all attended.  There were also some local councillors and others involved locally in various ways. Luckily it was a mostly sunny spring day and our beautiful arboretum and memorial garden looked at its verdant best and was much admired.

My part in the preparations had been to fill the delegates’ goody bags with all our leaflets and to alphabetise the name badges. How I enjoy and miss tasks like that from my working life! What a geek! In the week beforehand dusting and cleaning were less enjoyable.  At home I planned a tableau out of about 100 mouth-sized ginger biscuits (cut outs of trees, stars, birds, angels etc.) called “Funeral at Foster Hill Road”.  These proved delicious and were gobbled up in short order.  I spent three very frustrating hours on the Friday evening trying to transfer some of my better photos of the cemetery from my creaky old computer to the colleague who was preparing the slide show. We’ve got huge TV screens in the chapel and waiting room now.

I’d only lately become available, and hadn’t been allocated specific duties, so on the day my role was that of ‘helpful hoverer’.  (I’d been one of the hearty hooverers of the chapel carpet the week before.)  I greeted everyone as they arrived, from local dignitaries to delegates to random passers-by. They were all so grateful! The couple from Bradford who were desperate to stretch their legs having driven down that morning. The dog walker and Park Runners who just wandered up to see what was going on – drawn chapelwards by the haunting skirl of a lone piper. The local councillor (a young Mum) who asked “Are you Sally and Eve’s mother?”  (I am.)  “You look JUST like them.” (So proud!)

One lady from Yorkshire said “Oh what a lovely welcome!” and that was before she’d gone inside to the waiting cup of tea, the toilet break and welcome speech, or seen all our displays or the lovely marquee full of foody promise for lunch and tea.  In my high-vis tabard, I was a tiny bit stressed to realise I was in charge of where some people should park, without knowing where to send them.  With a lot of goodwill, those with display stands to put up, the halt and the lame and the Speaker of the Borough Council were all able to park close to the chapel.

A man approached me in some agitation just as the AGM was about the start.  “My wife’s locked in the Ladies!” he said.  So I alerted our tour guide (he was dressed in Victorian garb, with a top hat and mutton chop whiskers) and we rushed to her aid. Firstly to the wrong ladies toilet, then to the correct one.  It’s in an ancient Gothic vestry behind a heavy arched door.  I opened the latch easily from the outside and she was quickly at liberty and smiling, but the latch clearly needs oiling on the inside. Luckily she’d had her phone with her or there’d have been eerie wailing throughout the meeting.  The three of us had a quick giggle in the vestry singing “Oh dear what can the matter be?” sotto voce, then tiptoed out discreetly just as the Chairperson cleared his throat and tapped the mic.

I went with the large tour group to six notable graves, in case anyone needed help or guidance. Three colleagues dressed as Edwardian suffragettes stood by our suffragette’s grave, two gravediggers from the 1850s emerged from the undergrowth near our first ever grave, and one of our volunteers gave a very moving recitation of a Polish inscription and prayer by our World War Two Polish freedom fighter’s grave. This was especially poignant.  We all wanted to applaud, but most were too busy dabbing their eyes. As we approached and left that grave she played a recording of a soldier’s marching song, which echoed through the tall trees and dappled shade.

The Highland piper seamlessly transformed into an expert on the “Bedford Highlanders” of 1914 and gave an erudite account of their experiences in Bedford and on the Western Front. We passed two women pensively mourning their babies, husbands and grown up soldier sons from years gone by. Our knowledgeable guide, an expert on Bedford’s Panacea Society, gave an excellent overview of that enigmatic 20th Century religious group.  Later he stopped at his ‘own’ family’s grandiose burial enclosure, since in another life he had founded Bedford cemetery in 1855.

The crowning moment of the day for me was when I introduced myself over a fabulous lunch to the Founder of the “Friends of Flaybrick Memorial Gardens”, Birkenhead.  I just went over to say hello and thank him for his group’s help to me five years ago when they went to a lot of trouble finding my family graves. He had his cemetery leaflet on the table and I showed him on the map where our burial plots are. One of the large granite headstones had fallen flat on its face many decades ago so the writing couldn’t be seen. He asked matter of factly “Do you want it lifting?” I said “Wow!” and my eyes filled with tears. (I loved Taid, my Welsh grandfather, who lived near us, and then with us and died when I was thirteen. I loved hearing about my other Welsh grandfather who died in 1918 when my Dad was an infant.)

He said that the Flaybrick Non-Conformist section was in a high priority area as it is just off the wide main path from the gatehouse entrance up to the big ruined chapel. They were planning to work on it soon. Heavy lifting machinery was to be deployed. They’d had a substantial recent grant for this work. We swapped email addresses and I sped home to get the family dates of death and Grave Reference Numbers.  And sped back. (He emailed me the next day “Hi Sue, All received, will come back to you soon. Thanks for all your hard work hosting our Federation.”)  In view of very recent requests for information and photographs from my older brother and cousins and my own abiding interest in ancestral things, it was fairly mind-blowing.

Throughout the day, beautiful table decorations using our abundant spring wildflowers, home-baked scones and cakes and informative displays and photographs testified to the efforts all our many volunteers had put in. Our chapel and grounds looked at their best thanks to on-going years of diligent management and gradual improvement, weekly gardening sessions and several weeks intense cleaning. Visitors will have realised what an incredible team we have at Foster Hill Road. I know that many were inspired by our achievements and by our plans for future work. The whole day highlighted the joys of hospitality, friendship and teamwork and I was very proud of all my friends and colleagues in the Friends of Foster Hill Road Cemetery.

 

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