The Medieval Preaching Cross
Standing among the scattered gravestones is what remains of an early Medieval Preaching Cross, consisting of a stone shaft set into a roughly hexagonal base with its “Tabernacle” or “Aumbry” for the reception of the Sacred Host. The cross is officially listed as a Grade II Monument by English Heritage. We can only guess at its age, probably around 900 AD, but it is certainly older than the church building itself. The cross was used by itinerant priests who would journey across the country giving Communion to the local inhabitants. There were once about 20,000 such crosses in the UK, but there are now less than 2,000. It is thought that the first building on this site was as a Chapel of Ease, which was later consecrated as a place of worship. The Preaching Cross is still in use today when a summer service is held round it on the fourth Sunday in June followed by lunch in the churchyard.
The Conservation Churchyard
The Conservation Churchyard at Whitton is managed by a small team of volunteers working in accordance with the seasons. There are recorded some 200 different plant species including in Spring a carpet of wild daffodils. The churchyard is recognised as a Site of Special Interest (SSI) and is part of the “God’s Acre” initiative (see link to website on Contact page). Churchyards are also vitally important habitats for lichens and there is a case for regarding them as lichen conservation areas. Lichens are important in their role as sensitive biological indicators, and recently 78 varieties of lichen were recorded in the churchyard on behalf of the “God’s Acre” team. Filming took place for BBC Television’s Heaven and Earth Show in April 2006.
The approach to the church is through a beautiful array of wild flowers and grasses. From April to August the churchyard paths are cut regularly to provide access. The northerly meadow is a mass of wild daffodils in the spring, and is cut in late July for hay, and then regularly to maintain a tidy appearance. The southerly meadows are cut from early July onwards giving time for seeds to set, but a small section close to the north wall of the church is cut in late August and is the habitat of Betony, Devils Bit, Barren Strawberry, Bitter Vetch and Bird’s Foot Trefoil.
The excellent flora reflects the sympathetic management which the churchyard receives. Although the grassland has a good deal of Yorkshire Fog and frequent False Oat-grass, it does contain many indicators of old unimproved grassland. These include Crested Dog’s-tail, Yellow Oat-grass, Sweet Vernal-grass, Ladies Bedstraw, Sorrel, Common Knapweed and Pignut.
There are frequent Violets and occasional Primroses, and Hoary Plantain is frequent near the base of the tower. The boundary trees are a notable feature and include a large Sweet Chestnut, several magnificent spreading Pedunculate Oaks, some Yews, several Cherries, Sycamore, Ash and Scots Pine.
The plant list of over 90 includes:
- Common Mouse-ear
- Birch Medich
- Wood Sorrel
- Lesser and Greater Stitchwort
- Red and White Clover
- Sweet Vernal grass
Many tree species of birds use the area including Jay, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, and Spotted Flycatcher. A nest box has been installed in the large Sweet Chestnut to “encourage” the visiting Tawny Owl. There are a number of hedge birds including Yellowhammer, Bullfinch, Tree Sparrow and Goldfinch. 26 species have been identified at this site as well as the frequent visits from the waterfowl of Whitton Court. In addition, butterflies including the Meadow Brown and other insects feed on the flowering plants and grasses in the summer months.