A DEVON church on the verge of closure just a few years ago has been named Devon CPRE’s Best Churchyard 2022.

The people of Kenton, near Exeter, rallied to rescue their village church early in the pandemic.

Through their sterling efforts, the green space around All Saints at Kenton has become a sanctuary for people and wildlife that impressed the competition judges.

Repairs have also been carried out to the fabric of the building and some of the graves, a new vicar has been appointed and the church has once again become a hub for the Teignbridge village.

This is the fifth year of the competition. Once again the judges, the charity’s Director Penny Mills and Trustee Ivan Buxton, travelled the length and breadth of the county visiting the diverse entries.

The Covid lockdowns highlighted the importance of churchyards to local communities, particularly in places where other recreational areas and facilities have been lost.

Devon CPRE’s Penny Mills said: “Kenton thoroughly deserves to win this year.

“Just two years ago the church was under threat of closure and the churchyard was a neglected wilderness.  But local people got together and turned around the fortunes of both the church and the churchyard in such a short space of time.

“Many small rural churches are in the same situation as Kenton was. It just goes to show that where there’s a will, there’s a way!”

Presenting Kenton with the winner’s plaque and a cheque for £200, Head Judge and Trustee Ivan Buxton added: “It was clear that All Saints, Kenton deserved to be recognised and we hope our competition spurs on other communities to make more of these precious green spaces.

“Devon’s churchyards rely on volunteers who put in so much hard work. We hope our annual awards go some way towards recognising all they do and saying thank you.

“It’s good to hear that our competition has also given volunteers ideas about what else they could do to help make their churchyard an even better place for both people and wildlife.”

Accepting the trophy on behalf of All Saints Kenton Friends Group, Jane and John Perkins said they had done their homework to improve their chances of winning by visiting previous competition winners.

Jane Perkins said being named Devon’s best was an accolade to everyone in the community who had helped bring the church and churchyard back from the brink, “We wanted this to be a community space because in 2020 we lost our village shop, Post Office and pub and it would have been a tragedy if we had lost the church as well. It’s amazing to receive this lovely award.”

St Michael’s in the Dartmoor town of Chagford has received the Runner-up prize.

The well-managed churchyard in the centre of the town is in regular use as a thoroughfare (for people and animals), yet the judges found not one scrap of litter on their unannounced visit. They were also impressed by the beautiful signs and noticeboards.

St John the Baptist Church in Hawkchurch, East Devon has been awarded a Best New Entry certificate.

The judges described it as a beautiful and incredibly welcoming churchyard - the most welcoming of all the places they visited because the gate to the churchyard was open, as was the door to the church, and there was a lovely welcome sign which made them want to walk right in.

The Church of St John the Baptist, Chittlehamholt in North Devon received the Most Improved churchyard certificate.

The small churchyard is quite isolated from the village, but it is really well looked after.

Following the completion of work to let in more light, wildflowers have flourished and the judges were greeted with an amazing profusion of foxgloves and ox-eye daisies.

Two churches that have entered the competition before have been Highly Commended: St Andrew’s, Halberton in Mid Devon and All Saints, Holbeton in the South Hams.

At Halberton, the judges made special mention of the wonderfully detailed information about the Commonwealth War Graves in the churchyard - something other churchyards could learn from. They commended Holbeton for its amazing allotments with fruit trees, a little pond and wildflowers. A wonderful bug hotel had been newly built by schoolchildren for the Platinum Jubilee and new signage had been put up following the judges’ advice last year.

Penny and Ivan always enjoy seeing topical touches in the churchyards - in previous years these have included a scarecrow in the form of a nurse as a nod to the work of NHS staff during the pandemic and a scarecrow depicting Captain Sir Tom Moore.  This year, several churchyards commemorated the Platinum Jubilee.

However, the judges were surprised and a little disappointed that only two churches showed any visible support for Ukraine with a flag or ribbons placed outside.

Entrants are also marked on their initiatives to encourage wildlife. This can include installing bird or bat boxes, bug hotels and hedgehog houses but it’s not a competition to see who has the most!

While they can be a nice project to get schoolchildren involved and inspire others to create wildlife-friendly habitats, there are other ways to encourage this, for example, through sensitive mowing and composting regimes and the maintenance of trees and hedgerows.