I remember back in November watching a fascinating episode of Autumnwatch with Chris Packham and his team of presenters. It featured a particular cemetery in Bristol called Arnos Vale, and the programme highlighted the vast array of animal life, together with the varied flora and fauna found in this vast Victorian cemetery.
The cemetery is now designated a Site of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCI) and is maintained by a dedicated team of volunteers. The programme featured deer, badgers and foxes found regularly in the grounds; rare visiting birds like firecrest and woodcock are also seen. The programme mainly focused, however, on one of Britain’s rarest bats, the lesser horseshoe which has also made its home there.
The reason Arnos Vale is of interest to me is because I used to pass the cemetery almost every day when Debbie and I lived in Keynsham, and I travelled in to Wesley College in Bristol where I was training for the ministry. As you meander along the extensive nature trails you will come across some very interesting grave stones. I refer to one in particular, which marks the burial place of a lady called, Dora Greenwell. I visited her grave once. Dora is also of interest to me because she came from my native North East. She was born In County Durham in 1821 and she died in 1872. Dora would later move to Clifton in Bristol where she died. Her epitaph reads, I both hold and am held.
Dora had very little formal education beyond four years and was almost entirely self-taught. She had, however, a very keen intellect and with very little support from home she taught herself to read and converse in French, German, Italian and Spanish. Even more notable was that she became of the few women theologians of the nineteenth century. She was an Evangelical Anglican, but even then she had a broad ecumenical understanding. She much admired the Church of Rome, the Quakers and I’m glad to say the Methodists. A close friend recorded, “She loved the Quakers and the Methodists even more, because they are such a strongly social community and always like to go to heaven in parties.” She was a wonderful non- Methodist exponent of what John Wesley called , “the Catholic Spirit.”
Dora Greenwell’s whole life was dogged by ill-health, but with quiet patience and persistence she engaged in a wide range of social and pastoral work, including making regular visits to prisoners awaiting execution in Durham jail. She was a passionate supporter of her friend, Mrs Josephine Butler, in her campaign against prostitution which was rampant in the cities of Victorian England. Her work would have daunted many, even those in good health. Dora Greenwell remains a wonderful exemplar of faith, fortitude and forbearance.
I never cease to be moved by the lives of those quiet and resolute saints of old like, Dora Greenwell, who still speak to us down through the generations and remind us of our wonderful Christian heritage. I should add, Dora was also a hymn-writer, and two of her hymns are found in our Hymns and Psalms. If you want to understand something of her faith and beliefs, then take time look up numbers 221 and 415.