The churchyard of St Mary the Virgin lies, as is customary, mostly to the south of the church building. It was extended to the south in 1947.
It is known locally as affording some of the best views from a publically accessible space of the attractive upper reaches of the River Box, particularly so to the west. It is also appreciated for its rich flora. A management plan is in place that is designed to benefit that flora as much as possible within the constraints of its primary purpose as the last resting place of the mortal remains of the parishioners of the village.
As is apparent when standing in the churchyard, it sits on a knoll of land falling quite steeply to the west and less so but still noticeably to the north and south. Each of these slopes reach their end at the River Box or one of its contributory streams. As such it is moderately well drained and lies on the boundary of two soil types. One is a relatively free draining light loamy soil and the other a heavier water retaining clay based soil, with the former tending to characterise the valley slopes and the latter the plateaux which extends eastward from the church towards Boxford.
This clay based soil is often described as chalky boulder-clay. This rather curious description is used to refer to a range of soils that are derived from the action of glaciers during the Anglian Glaciation beginning about 450,000 years ago. During that very cold period glaciers would have covered the entire surface of what is now Suffolk to a depth of many, many metres. The route of these glaciers as they moved southwards traversed the area now known as the Fens extending in from the Wash in a south westerly direction. As they crossed the land they scooped up vast quantities of the soft clay that lay near the surface in the area and mixed it up with the load of chalk and flint fragments they had already acquired in their passage across the Lincolnshire Wolds. With the retreat of the ice this jumble of clay, chalk and flints was left mantling vast areas of East Anglia.
The lighter valley side soils are revealed where the action of ten thousand years of weathering, and the several thousand years of cultivation have tended to remove the heavier overburden down the slope and away via the watercourses.
No soil boundaries are precisely delineated and it is likely that both types are present or even mixed together across the churchyard. However, there is a marked difference between the flora to the east of the churchyard path and that extending west from the chancel.
The eastern section supports an excellent population of Primroses, Primula vulgaris, and Snowdrops, Galanthus species. The Primroses are native, but the Snowdrops are most likely escapees from those planted long ago in the older graves thereabouts. Both of these species prefer a moist moderately heavy alkaline soil and chalky boulder-clay fulfils that need admirably. Along with the shy flowers of Sweet Violet they offer the visitor a marvellous display of spring flowers in the early months of the year.
West of the path the Primula that dominates the shorter turf is the Primrose’s later flowering cousin, the Cowslip, Primula veris. In some years this plant flowers in great swathes all around the church building. Cowslips are happiest on free draining lighter soils and this is clearly what they have found in their chosen habitat.
There are many other species to find in this beautiful grassy space, some much less choosy than the Primrose family, but these two plants are a useful illustration of the variety of soil types present, which goes some way to explaining the range of flora that can be identified. A survey in the summer months of 1995 on behalf of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust identified eighty three species of wild flowers and eleven species of grass. A list of the species is published in the church guide. (In the list an indication of the rarity of each species is given as either frequent, occasional or rare. This grading seems to have been taken as applying to the status of the species in a national context or, at least, locally to Suffolk. However, it is clear from a botanical point of view that this classification is particular to the relative frequency of any given species within the churchyard).
The Ecology of Churchyards
Churchyards are very important spaces for wildlife, particularly the flora. They often represent the only patch of unimproved grassland in a parish. The demands we make upon our farmers to feed the ever increasing population of the Country has required agricultural practices to be developed that are not conducive to a rich natural flora. The application of nitrogen fertilisers, vital to the arable crop yields required today, encourage the growth of coarser grasses and plants that can then outcompete the less vigorous species such as the Cowslip. So it is that many churchyards in this arable county, never having been cultivated or fertilised, are significant for the variety of plants and animals finding homes therein. Edwardstone is no exception, and has without doubt the richest flora of any of the five churchyards in the Box River Benefice. To help and encourage this richness, if you visit in the summer months you will find several areas marked out that are left to grow uncut through the season. Within them you will find many wild flowers, most noticeably our friend the Cowslip. Come the autumn these enclosures of longer grass are cut and cleared to await the next season.
Whatever your reason for visiting this church and its churchyard, or the extent of your knowledge or interest in its ecology, just take time to look around and soak up the wonders of this special place. “Is this heaven or just near it?” one visitor asked of the Rector.