Sheridon Rosser, (co) creator of Bude’s natural burial ground

Welcome to our new ‘interesting people’ series, which involves all sorts of people from all walks of life, some local, some national or global, some contemporary, some historical. This came about because I was thinking there are many inspirational people out there who aren’t often publicised, but we know them when we meet them, quietly (or otherwise) changing the face of society/community/lives. We hope you enjoy reading about them.

Today is the turn of Sheridon Rosser of Atlantic Rest Natural Burial near Bude.  I wondered what made Sheridon decide to create a natural burial ground for the North Cornwall/Devon area and whether death is openly discussed in her home.

 The words are Sheridon’s own, only slightly re-arranged in places. We start with her idyllically rural childhood.

My earliest memory of Penlow is not the field itself but the lane.  When we were younger, my sister and I had a pony each, Chutney and Bimbo.   The ponies were stabled at my Granfer’s farm.  Mum used to take us around the roads on the lead reins – this often involved a trip down Penlow lane and back.  The thing I remember the most is the foxgloves.  I used to love the foxgloves back then and still love them now.  They are one of my most favourite parts of Penlow.

Further back than that, my Mum can remember Granfer’s Jersey and Guernsey cows going down to Penlow to graze; they knew the way and never tried to go further down the road than the lane entrance.  I remember the cows all had names, not numbers – we even had them named after us. Then there was the haymaking, the many occasions of taking the tea out to the workers who were too busy to stop.  I remember being part of that once but not at Penlow, at some other fields that Granfer or his brother Leslie farmed.  We often find bits of china when we are tucking people in – this may have originated from those days, perhaps.

Creating a natural burial site obviously wasn’t something that I wanted to do at a young age!

I wanted to be a solicitor when I was at school; in fact I split my work experience weeks at Budehaven between a bank, and a solicitors office – then Finn & Busby.  I went on to North Devon College to complete an AS level in law.  This was along with a secretarial diploma that involved one day a week work experience.  I continued this in Finn & Busby solicitors for my level 2 NVQ in Administration, over that first year.  I didn’t stay at college for the second year – it wasn’t for me.   I did however go on to do the level 3 NVQ in Administration via what was then Bude & Holsworthy Training Services, which resulted in me finishing the NVQ at, what was at the time, our family business – Penhill Quarry & Haulage Limited. I’d worked there over the summer holidays for several years anyway.  I finished my NVQ and my job was pretty varied there, ranging from all sorts and including a lot of health and safety and ISO accreditation.  Our family sold the quarry when Sophia was born.  I stayed on for a couple of years but then took the leap of faith to create our very own natural burial site.

I’m so glad that I did it. Our personal experience at Tom’s (her husband) grandparents’ natural burials were ultimately what gave us the idea for a natural burial ground.  This, coupled with our own preference of burial over cremation, and the fact that we aren’t particularly religious, left us with a bit of a ‘disposal’ dilemma, really.  We didn’t feel comfortable with being buried in a church graveyard one day, as we don’t go to church other than for weddings, christenings and funerals.  Also, back then we didn’t really have an understanding that the nearest cemetery being Poughill isn’t actually part of the church by it, although many people still perceive it as one; they are actually separate and it is operated by the local town council.

Starting was incredibly daunting!  It took us from 2005 to 2011 to actually find Penlow despite it being already under our noses, owned by my Granfer since 1959.  It then took until January 2014 to get planning permission.  It was really difficult to obtain permission.  We were met with a lot of objections, along with the fact that our planning application was pretty unusual.  There are only a handful of operational natural burial sites in Cornwall.   It’s far from being a standard housing planning application.

We were provisional members of The Association of Natural Burial Grounds (ANBG) prior to finding Penlow.  This is a network of natural/green burial sites all over the UK.  There are over 300 sites in the UK now but only around 70 or so are members of the ANBG.  We had run so many potential sites past Rosie, the manager,  prior to starting.  We attended our first ANBG meet in 2012 at a beautiful site in Mid-Wales.   Coincidentally, there we met Amy and Dan who run Westall Park (situated in Redditch, Worcestershire).  This is where Tom’s Grandparents, Bill and Nancy are buried, our inspiration.

The ANBG require their members to comply with their Code of Conduct. This is to provide the public with the assurance of best practice at every one of their member sites.  However, there is no regulation of burial sites.  There are laws and guidelines set out by the Ministry of Justice but other than that,  it is down to the operator.  I have heard some incredible stories of goings on elsewhere since we have been in the industry, and it only makes me more proud to be members of the ANBG.  We, along with others, are self-regulating by being members of an association like this. It’s really important to check out the credibility of a site.  Does it even have planning permission? That’s something that you should even ask, for example, if considering natural burial

We hope that our girls, Sophia and Meredith, will want to one day take over and manage the site when we are old and our days with a shovel, carefully tucking people in, are over.   However, at the moment at 11 and 4, one wants to be a vet and the other a doctor so if they both pull that off … they might be a bit busy for our beloved Penlow, and its ever growing family of residents. If they don’t want to be a part of the family business – we will simply employ a manager.  Not that I am perfect, but they will need to be!

Once Penlow is full, there will be a sizeable pot of money that is being put aside that will cover the costs of caring for Penlow.  The land itself and the ‘maintenance fund’ will transfer to a Wildlife Trust.  This is an arrangement that has been made with several other sites across the country.  We haven’t been able to make the arrangement yet as it is so far into the future.  Also with Penlow being so near the Marsland Valley, it would quite possibly become part of that.  However, so far as I know, that is currently managed by Devon Wildlife Trust, although in Cornwall. The trees at Penlow will always be coppiced, this will also provide a small additional income to the maintenance fund.

It’s always a bit different down here than to many place,  I think because it’s so rural and not densely populated, so it was always going to take time to build things up.  It’s very different from opening a site on the outskirts of a major city where they are inundated with people requiring their services and people paying thousands and thousands for plots.

We had three residents ‘move in’ to Penlow in 2014.  I always felt a little sorry for Audrey, our pioneer, to start with.   She was at Penlow all on her own until Darren joined her some 4 months later.  Then Robert joined the pair of them in time for Christmas of that year.

The number of people pre-purchasing plots for the future has steadily increased over the years.  Quite often people don’t realise that they can do that.  We aren’t sure how long we will continue to offer that though, as we could end up selling all the plots and not actually having anyone occupying them.  So, by following the lead of other ANBG members who have already tried and tested these methods, we will at some stage only sell pre-purchased plots to spouses of incoming residents and people who have a terminal illness.

A huge responsibility, I wondered whether Sheridon ever feels overcome by it…

It really is quite something, isn’t it?  I never thought of it like that really, not in the beginning.  It’s been such a steep learning curve, but we’ve overcome all the things that we encountered so far. I remember one day, I was out at Penlow doing some jobs and checking in on our residents.  I was stood by Brian and I had a little wobble and thought: wow, what have we done? This is now my life.  Thankfully, I got over that almost immediately when I thought to myself how grateful all of our families are that Tom and I created Penlow, for it to be such a peaceful, tranquil place for those loved and lost, to rest for eternity.

I didn’t really know what it was like to truly love a job until we started doing what we do now.  It is incredibly rewarding which is something that we hadn’t anticipated at all.  I can’t think of anything that I’d rather do.  It fascinates me to hear stories behind the lives of those who now reside at Penlow.   Tom’s Dad has always said I should write a book on the lives at Penlow – I think I might…one day!

I think I am, and have always been, very empathetic – I think that’s a lot to do with my star sign, being a Cancerian crab.  I’ve always been quite interested in horoscopes and spiritual things and what might be beyond.  I guess that makes me quite open to everyone’s individual beliefs, perhaps, and gives me room to let people talk.  I remember having a little pep talk from Rosie (manager of the Natural Death Centre charity and ANBG manager) before I met with my first family.  I was quite nervous, so she told me be sympathetic but not to offer my sympathy –  as that isn’t what families want; and I’d be likely to make them burst into tears which they probably don’t want to do.  Families want solutions at times like these, they want to know if they have found the right place for their loved one to rest.  I just explain everything that we do and don’t do, then give people the opportunity to ask questions.

As we go around the site I mention our residents by name when it’s appropriate to do so.  It may be that a question is asked of ‘can we do x, y or z on the day?’ and then I might respond with yes of course ‘or b did that when they moved in’ and say a little about that.

 

Marketing and maintenance

Marketing is really hard, as it’s not the sort of thing people research until they need it.  We’ve spent so much on advertising over the years.  Really – word of mouth from people who have attended burials is the very best advert that you can ask for.  It’s hard to know where people have heard about us from too.  I ask anyone that gets in contact how they’ve found out about us.  The most popular answer seems to be google/ referral from another website, though of course, the really helpful local funeral directors also refer people if they want a natural burial.  The local papers and free supplements that go to people houses can be hit or miss.

Rosie said to us in the beginning that you will find that people may see our advert and not act on it but will cut it out of the paper and put it in their folder of important things for when the time comes that they depart this earth.  Last year, when Susan moved in – that was exactly what happened.  Her daughter found a cut out of our first ever feature in The Admart (I think it was), she brought it on the day to show me.  It felt quite special to see that and know that it had an impact for Susan when she read that.

We have leaflets at the site and they always disappear so a fair amount of people just go out there and have a look around.  I have no idea how they heard about us unless they decide to get in contact.

Social media is a big part of our marketing, not really from a marketing perspective but it goes without saying that it does that.  We have our facebook and instagram pages where I’m always posting photos and updates of what has been going on at Penlow.  It is  a way that families of our residents, who may live quite a distance away, can stay connected with Atlantic Rest.  They are able to sit on their sofa at home and see that a wildflower has grown with someone, or a bug has sat on a plaque, for example.  We also have twitter and linked in but they aren’t updated quite so frequently.

More recently I created a private facebook group for the ‘Friends of Penlow’ – this is only for those who have a loved one resting at Penlow.  It’s another way for people with a common connection to make new friends and share their experiences.

I had some social media training at the end of last year from the lovely Ellie at Flossy Notes – she’s saved me a lot of time and energy in social media, that’s for sure.

Maintaining the site is a labour of love.  There is always so much to do, especially when everything is in full-on grow mode!  We’ve had to hire a gardener or two over the last few years to help me with things, as Tom works full time elsewhere.  There are some jobs that I can’t do myself like strimming, for instance.  We’ve recently, this year, bought a new (well very old!) petrol allen sythe.  That is now replacing the majority of the strimming and means it’s another job that I can do myself.

Both our Dads help out too with various things at Penlow on that side of things.

Our children get involved with the maintenance as well.  The girls often help with jobs when there with me.  I think Meredith enjoys it more but she is younger and eager to please.  Sophia is hitting the teenage years and is not quite so motivated.

The only regret that I would have is paperwork technicalities.  I would have numbered our maps downwards rather than across, so for instance a double plot would be number 1 & 2, not 1 & 5.  Just that kind of thing really. It’s a bit like how they say you need to build three house to build the perfect one I think.

The future

 

I think that people will become more hands-on.  We have had quite a few families who wanted to ‘direct it themselves’ and not employ a funeral director, though the local ones are always extremely helpful in providing the service people want.   Self-direction is not something that is for everyone, though.  We’ve had an increasing number in this last year, who wanted to be involved with the back-filling of their loved one’s grave.  They want to help us to ‘tuck them in’ – it is the last act you can do for someone really, isn’t it?

It is definitely becoming more popular now, in general.  I suppose people attending burials is the best advertisement – it takes time to grow because numbers are very small in the beginning.  It is a bit of a pyramid effect.

Our daughters  don’t really bat an eyelid about my work.  Death is an everyday topic in our house.  I do worry sometimes that perhaps we might be too open about such a taboo subject with them. I mean a playdate could go horribly wrong if Sophia started explaining the burial process to a friend whose parents didn’t want their child to hear that.  I think most people know that I have a strange job though so they probably expect the odd conversation or two!

Sophia was just starting reception when we opened so she’s always known Atlantic Rest to be exactly what it is.  When there is a non-school uniform day, Sophia usually opts to wear her Atlantic Rest hoody. I always try to persuade her not to, for fear that the teachers might think I’m sending her in advertising.  I think that secretly she’s quite proud and that’s why she chooses to wear it.

I was convinced that Meredith was going to be born at Penlow; thankfully, she wasn’t, but she did attend her first burial at just 4 days old – when Ashley moved in.  She really loves being outside and asks if we are going to Woolley most days. Sometimes they both like to pick random wildflowers from the hedge and lay them on our residents’ plaques.

At the other end of the scale, both my parents and Tom’s parents are involved and help us out quite a lot, either with maintenance and stone walling, my parents help me at burials – tucking people in, or sometimes Dad digs the grave with me.  Tom’s Mum is chief proof-reader and they all help with childcare.

So that keeps them all busy in retirement!

An Educational Fund

We are in the process of creating an educational fund for Penlow, ‘The Atlantic Rest Educational Fund – inspired by Ian’. The idea to have some kind of fund that could support young learning; and maybe even have surplus monies to be available to be distributed to local educational groups, is something that’s been in the back of my mind quite some time. It wasn’t until Ian joined our Penlow family at the end of last year that things started to fall into place.

On speaking with Vanessa (Ian’s wife) we came up with a plan.  Vanessa wanted donations that would usually be given at a funeral to come to Atlantic Rest.  I wasn’t really sure about this to start with as we aren’t a charity. On much further thought, we decided that these funds would be very gratefully received to create the Atlantic Rest Educational Fund.  This will all be held separately and transparently. This is something that families would be able to donate to if they wish, we will also make a donation of £10 for every resident that ‘moves in’ to Penlow.

I’d like to officially launch this when we reach 100 residents, this won’t be too far away.  We would kick off the fund with £1000 (total) backdated payment for each of our residents, coupled with the donations from Ian’s funeral.  Thank you to Vanessa, and indeed to Ian for his inspiration.  I look forward to sharing more information once we have put together a programme of what we will be able to offer.   We have plans to start in September of this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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