ANGRY and frustrated villagers who have been told they are not allowed to visit the graves of their relatives turned out in force to hear about the future of their church yard.

The church yard in Quarrington Hill has been closed since June as a result of subsidence, which has resulted in headstones moving, with some graves sinking and some having holes in them.

Reverend John Livesley, the priest in charge of Cassop cum Quarrington with Bowburn, chaired a pubic meeting in the village's community centre yesterday to try and answer people's questions about the closure.

About 80 people attended the meeting, which heard that the the parochial church council (PCC) had "no option" but to close the church yard because of health and safety concerns.

Revd Livesley said: "The PCC and I deeply regret the fact we have had to close to church year, at least temporarily, for public safety.

The Northern Echo:

"We recognise the extreme stress this has caused to many people but the safety of everybody has to be our first priority. That is why we have acted in the way we have."

Questions were raised about past maintenance of the church yard, what had caused the subsidence and how a geological survey to find out would be paid for.

The PCC, which is responsible for the site. says it does not have the funds to make sure the church yard is safe for visitors and it is considering applying to the Ministry of Justice to close it for future burials, which would allow it to transfer it to Durham County Council for future maintenance.

Before that happens, a geological survey has to be carried out to find out the cause of subsidence.

Councillor Stuart Dunn said: "The geological survey may cost several thousand pounds but it's absolutely necessary.

"I honestly think the recommendation to move to closure at this stage is premature."

Cllr Jan Blakey, who has relatives buried in the church yard, said: "We need to get the money for somewhere. For all the people that have relatives in there its a very emotive subject."

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The meeting heard there were historic issues with subsidence, which are thought to have been caused by coal mining and exacerbated by the geology of the area, but there had been a "rapid increase" in its rate in May.

People were told that blasting from the nearby quarry, which is operated by Tarmac, was not affecting the church yard.

Resident Keith Pounder said: "There are people who have relatives there and they want to be able to end up next to their husband or wife. People pass my house on a daily basis wanting to put flowers on graves.

"If it closes where are people from Quarrington Hill going to end up? That's a highly emotive issue for the people in this room."

PCC member Maureen Robinson said: "You have to realise we don't have any more money.

"You have got to let us work through it and raise the funds for the report.

"We are all here, put your hands in your pocket. The faster we get the money, the faster we can do something about the church yard."