Stories from the Meadow - The Fire Circle
Daphne Pleace writes stories about Sharpham - here she explores our natural burial ground Sharpham Meadow
Nature's circle of life - and death
High above the River Dart, on the Sharpham Estate, lies Sharpham Meadow: a quiet, beautiful place preserved as a natural burial ground.
The land surrounding the graves is maintained as a traditional hay meadow, and is full of wildflowers, grasses and creatures which benefit from the traditional, organic conservation methods. You can read more about the flora and fauna of the meadow here.
Within the site there is a ceremonial building made from cob and stone, which offers a covered space for ceremonies and contemplation. The design mirrors the elliptical stairwell of Sharpham House and shares the same dimensions. It’s quite exposed on the high hillside and the building gives some protection from the weather. Wandering the meadow you are truly at one with the elements: walking the earth and experiencing the sun, the rain, the wind, or whatever else the weather chooses to deliver. There’s also a compost toilet in the little wooded area between the car park and the meadow itself.
Towards the furthest edge of the meadow, facing east and with stunning views of the River Dart’s meanders, lies the Ancestors’ Fire - believed to be a place used as a physical and spiritual marker by previous owners of Sharpham House and now incorporated into the Burial Ground.
In 2015, Robin Lacey - then Artist in Residence at Sharpham - created ‘The Circle’ around the Ancestors’ Fire as a focus point and place for ceremony and ritual. I met with Robin recently to ask him about the creation of the Circle, and how he feels about it now, four years on.
“In consultation with the Sharpham Trustees the original idea was for an intentional intervention to create a space into a Place”, Robin explained. “The brief was to create a meaningful work that could be appreciated by people of all faiths, and none. Something that would not offend, and that would embody the natural circle of life - and death - in keeping with the ethos and purpose of the Burial Meadow”.
I asked Robin about his preparation and he said he spent time in various cemeteries, graveyards, and in the burial ground area of the meadow, simply observing what people did when they visited.
“I noticed they often brought some small gift, or token. Flowers or plants usually, but other objects: stones, shells, votive candles... and in cemeteries where non-natural objects were permissible, things like soft toys, a tiny framed photograph, a card or folded piece of paper.”
As a psychotherapist who has worked with grief and loss for many years, I mentioned to Robin the need of many recently bereaved people to find a new way of connection to the person who has died. We discussed their need to have some kind of touchstone.
Robin told me that with the creation of The Circle he hoped to find a way to acknowledge those needs, to acknowledge the wider circle of life and death, and to make a physical place with a spiritual connection - for those who need that. He explained that there was already a small fire pit in the meadow, not much more than a hollow in the ground, but it had a long history - one not completely known - and the Trustees did not want this original site disturbed.
“At some point early in the planning, the idea of the ouroboros - ancient symbol for wholeness or infinity - came to me as did the quotation which became the inscription ‘In my end is my beginning’; and with that, the notion of incorporating the phases of the sun and moon. The calculations for the sun and moon images on the stone posts (or seats) around the fire pit were technically difficult, and I had help from an astronomer friend,” Robin continued, “but it all came together in the end, and then I remembered the cards and letters I had seen people bringing to graves, so decided to incorporate the letter-box at one of the cardinal point marker posts.”
This letterbox is kept permanently locked, but a representative from the Trustees empties it once a year at the anniversary of The Circle, and any cards or letters are burned in the ancestors’ fire.
Robin and I had our first meeting at his home, but the next day we went up to the Burial Ground together, and as well as spending a few moments at The Circle, Robin showed me his own mother’s grave.
“I have an ongoing relationship with this place, an attachment," he looked out beyond the trimmed areas around the grave markers, to the long grasses swaying in the breeze, and the river, glinting way below. “As well as The Circle, and my mother’s grave, I have my own plot here. I come and tidy The Circle a few times a year, and I will be buried here.”
Both the Meadow and Burial Ground were new territory for me, but even without Robin’s deep connection, I knew I’d want to visit again…and again.
Find out about Sharpham Meadow here: www.sharphamtrust.org/burials
See pictures and video of the inauguration of the Fire Circle here
Daphne is a volunteer story-teller for the Sharpham Trust. She blogs at www.daphnepleace.co.uk/blog