St Peter’s burial ground in Budleigh Salterton was runner-up in this year's Devon CPRE ‘Best Churchyard’ award.

Budleigh were pipped by Devon’s Moorland Team Ministry after St Andrew’s in Ashburton was named the winner.

Three churchyards were highly commended: St Swithuns in Shobrooke (Mid Devon), St Swithuns in Woodbury (East Devon) and St Mary's in Buckland Filleigh (Torridge). All Saints Church in East Budleigh, previously a winner and a runner-up, received a Certificate of Excellence and Holy Trinity in Buckfastleigh received a Certificate as Most Improved Churchyard.

In the competition’s fourth year, there were more entries than ever before. Devon CPRE’s judges travelled the length and breadth of the county to visit every entry and were impressed by the standards and originality of the work being carried out in churchyards by teams of volunteers.

Head judge and CPRE Trustee Ivan Buxton said: “Ashburton stood out this year. It’s amazing what they’ve done, and it was evident how hard everyone has worked. Arriving here, we were pleasantly surprised by the ingenuity and innovation employed to embrace the challenges posed by the pandemic and provide facilities for adults and children alike. Ashburton had taken the use of QR codes to a new and inventive level, with speciality trails and gentle challenges to encourage children and the young at heart to hop or jump around the perimeter of the church building. That was a lovely touch.”

Representatives from Ashburton, Budleigh Salterton and the three highly commended churches have been presented with sustainable oak plaques to mark their achievements. The winning churchyard also received £200, which Ashburton has said it intends to spend on seeds and bulbs.

Receiving the award on behalf of St Andrews, volunteer co-ordinator Geoffrey Histed said: “We’re delighted and it’s a tribute to a huge amount of hard work and teamwork by the volunteers. I was completely overwhelmed by the fact that we had won.

"We’ve got the biggest and the best green space in Ashburton and we want to share it with the church, obviously, and the town and we wanted it to be a joint project between the two. That’s exactly what’s happened and that, in itself, is as big a success as receiving this wonderful plaque that we’re going to put up with pride somewhere.”

Mark Rylands, Team Rector and Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Exeter, commented: “It’s just amazing. Two and a half years ago, Geoff and I had a chat about what this churchyard could be - an oasis, God’s Acre, we talked about - a space where people could come and unwind and unfurl, but also manage it properly. He has galvanised so many people. We couldn’t believe we’d won.”

Following their visit, the judges wrote in their report: Throughout the churchyard are thoughtful touches, well-planned to stimulate interest in the surroundings. They give a sense of place that invites sharing and caring and combine to provide a green oasis in the centre of this ancient town.

The main aims of the competition are to encourage the use and upkeep of churchyards so that they are welcoming to people and wildlife-friendly. During the pandemic, Devon’s residents have appreciated the green spaces around their churches like never before. In some places, they have been the only public space for people to exercise and be at one with nature during Lockdown.

Larry Sampson, Sexton at St Peter’s in Budleigh, said: “We’re very, very pleased to be the runner-up. One of the pleasures of working here is that you do get compliments from people who come to visit loved ones, equally we have many people who don’t have loved ones laid to rest here and they come because it is just such a lovely tranquil place to be.”

Devon CPRE Director Penny Mills says it’s heartening to see how churchyards have responded in the four years the competition has been running: “We’ve noticed how churchyards have taken on some of the comments that we’ve made in previous years and it’s fantastic to see. There’s more being done for wildlife, for the environment and for people. Sometimes, it’s just simple things like a new welcome sign, bird boxes or a drinking bowl for dogs, but it makes all the difference.”