CHILDREN laugh and play, running about and riding their bikes.

Elderly people walk together in the sun, admiring the flowers and looking for squirrels in the trees.

Dragonflies, butterflies and birds sit in the trees and fly through the air.

The only sound other than the plants rustling in the wind is the hum of an occasional car driving past.

These all sound like hallmarks of an idyllic park in the countryside or a nature reserve – but instead they’re features of an unusual cemetery in Southampton.

The city’s Old Cemetery, at the southern end of the Common, divides opinion among nearby residents and those who walk through it.

Some are enamoured with the untamed foliage and animals that scuttle around, while others consider the lack of maintenance disrespectful to the thousands of dead who lie there.

Daily Echo:

Southampton Old Cemetery divides opinion among residents and visitors

There are many First World War graves in the cemetery, including memorials for a number of British casualties and Belgian servicemen.

An all-day event will be held at the cemetery tomorrow when Southampton mayor Sue Blatchford will lay a wreath at the cross of sacrifice.

Freemantle resident Stan Walker, 50, said: “I walk here at least two or three times a day and I quite like it overgrown, but I don’t think a lot of people do.

“It’s a lovely place. I do go on the Common but it’s busy and there’s not as many people here.”

Others aren’t so keen, pointing to the head-height grass, fallen trees and occasional rats as evidence that the “natural” aspect of the site has gone too far.

Portswood resident John Bandee, 91, has tended his mother’s grave at the cemetery since she died in 1966.

Daily Echo:

John Bandee at the family grave where his mother is buried

The area around his mum Nellie’s memorial has now had its grass cut but previously it was covered in thick, high growth, causing difficulties for John. A tree that leaned over the headstone has been cut down.

The grave also bears the names of his grandparents, Benjamin and Sarah Servante, and his sister Joan, who died when she was 10.

His wife, Frances, used to visit the site with him but due to the rough ground can no longer do so.

Mr Bandee, who worked as a joiner, said: “Cleaning the grave is a bit of respect I can pay for the dead and she was a wonderful mother to me.

“I do enjoy it and when the weather’s like this I can spend time here, but my wife can’t walk across here anymore.

“It’s no good to complain because nobody takes any notice.”

The 27-acre site has been used for nearly 117,000 burials, including headstones for Titanic victims.

The grounds are maintained by Southampton City Council but volunteers from Friends of Southampton Old Cemetery (FoSOC) clean up areas of the site.

Huge trees line the cemetery and plants have grown around the outside of many headstones. In other areas there is rubbish including plastic bottles and bin bags. The difficulties suffered by Mr Bandee are not the first to have plagued visitors to the city’s cemeteries.

A year ago a fire at the Old Cemetery blackened a 30 sq m area containing historic headstones, and some walkers complained about cyclists and dog mess.

FoSOC member Bruce Larner is much more positive about the burial ground, and said it is a home to animals including deer, kestrels, nuthatches and lizards.

He said: “There’s an awful lot of wildlife, and they have a mowing programme which gives the wildlife a chance to move to another patch.”

“I would like it to be cleaned up, especially bringing back the litter bins.”

Southampton city councillor Jacqui Rayment said: “Every effort is made to ensure that the grass is cut to an acceptable standard throughout the year.

“However, wet weather earlier in the year had been a contributing factor to delaying some grass cutting within the cemeteries and the spell of wet and warm weather we have recently been experiencing has caused a flush of growth as the grass is seeding.

“Grass cutting around headstones and other obstructions placed around the graves of loved ones is extremely labour intensive and it can take several weeks to complete one full cut of the cemetery.”