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Trail talk: Churchyard Yews

Signpost for the Ashbrittle Yew

“Of vast circumference and gloom profound

This solitary Tree! a living thing

Produced too slowly ever for decay;

Of form and aspect too magnificent to be destroyed.”

Yew Trees- William Wordsworth, 1803

Wordsworth was writing of a single yew in Lorton Vale and a nearby ‘Fraternal Four‘, a group of four yews in Borrowdale in the English Lake District, but he might just as easily have been enamoured by those found in ‘Gods Acre’.

Young Yews at St. Marys, Platt on the London Countryway
Young Yews at St. Marys, Platt on the London Countryway

The Yew, Taxus baccata, has long been associated with churchyards in the UK and Ireland Some 500 in England and Wales alone have yews that precede the building of the church. It is possible that some yews were subsequently planted on the graves of plague victims, to protect the dead and purify the ground. Others were no doubt planted simply to stop commoners from grazing their livestock in the church grounds as the tree is extremely poisonous.

Yew as a species, prefers well-drained chalk and limestone soils. The evergreen conifer is concentrated in the south-east and central England, Wales and the Lake District. Interestingly there is barely any yew presence in East Anglia which may point at either an unlikely tribal planting regime over the centuries or what amounts to an ethnic tree cleansing by invaders. Outside of churchyards I have come across many brooding dark yew stands on the steep slopes of my local North Downs, the ground beneath devoid of growth. I have frequently pondered just why it is that they, of all trees, can grow in such tangled and interwoven rotting profusion, often split or uprooted. Is it by nature- spread by birds passing seeds, or was it by man for a purpose unrecorded.

Older yews have been witness to history- In 1215 Magna Carta was reputedly signed by King John in the presence of the barons in the shade of the 2500 year old Ankerwycke yew at Wraysbury, Berkshire.

The yew is the oldest tree to be found in the UK. Some specimens will be over 3000 years old. There is considerable argument as to which is the oldest in the UK. The yew at Lanfaredd has a girth of 36 feet while the one in a Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire has been calculated to be between 2000 and 3000 years old. In 1769 its girth was measured as over 56 feet. Funeral processions used to pass through the gap in its huge trunk. St Cynog’s yew, in Defynnog, is probably a similar age though some believe it to be as much as 5000 years old.

Sign for the Ashbrittle Yew
The Ashbrittle Yew- “Generations of local people have cherished this tree, one of the oldest living things in Britain.”
Three Points of the Compass with the venerable Tandridge Yew

The ancient female ‘Tandridge Yew’ in Surrey was described in 1936 as having branches with a circumference of 250 feet. It has a trunk with a girth of some 36 feet. Another tree vying for the UK’s ‘oldest’ title is the Ashbrittle yew in Somerset. This impressive tree, growing on a pre-Christian burial mound, is estimated to be some 3000 years old and has a girth of over 40 feet. Along with the Fortingall specimen, this tree was selected as one of the “Fifty Great British Trees” chosen to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Eleven yews make the list.

The Ashbrittle Yew. Over 3000 years old
The Ashbrittle Yew. Possibly over 3000 years old

Often developing a hollow core, yews can grow to be immense and may give the impression of being a ring of separate trees. Ravaged by storms, severely damaged by lighting, vandalised to the extreme. Even one of Wordsworth’s celebrated yews in Borrowdale has had fires lit in its hollow trunk. An apparantly decayed and deceased tree can burst back into life. Heavy boughs that bend to the ground can take root and spring life anew from there. It is unsurprising that yews are symbolic of many things to many people- immortality, linked to their long life, but also as omens of doom. Yew branches were carried on Palm Sunday and sprigs of yew were once carried by mourners to be thrown into the grave. Possibly linked to the resurrection.

The oldest yews probably date to being significant within Druid and Celtic cultures. A tree revered by pagan worshippers, it is unsurprising that Christian churches adopted the yew into their sweeping conversion. If a worshipper is visiting a sacred site anyway, why not go along and convert him there? And once there, why not use an existing ancient gathering place to build a church? The relationship between church and yew has been unbroken ever since. In Denbighshire, slabs of slate have been laid to form steps up into the bole of the yew at Nantglyn churchyard. Reaching the top the branches open up and you stand at what has to be one of the most remarkable of pulpits to be found anywhere. A little fanciful perhaps, but the hollowed trunk of the yew in Crowhurst church cemetary used to accomodate twelve chairs and a table. There is still a wooden door providing access to the tree. A Civil War cannon ball was found lodged in its trunk. Estimates put this tree as being around 4000 years old. A yew grows very slowly and can apparently stop or slow its growth for many years. The Crowhurst yew only increased its girth by nine inches in 250 years.

Being evergreen, their foliage is to be found in churchyards while all surrounding trees have shed their leaves. On many a hike Three Points of the Compass has briefly sheltered beneath the thick needles, providing respite from torrential autumn and winter rains.

The hollow trunk of the yew in the churchards of St. Marys, Thurnham
The hollow trunk of the yew in the churchyard at St. Marys, Thurnham measures over 18 feet girth

Walking part of the Pilgrim’s Way, in Kent, my path passed through the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Thurnham. I chatted to the keyholder for the church. Margaret proudly pointed out ‘her’ yew at the entrance to the churchyard. I had been this way many times before and hardly given more than a passing, if admiring, glance at the tree. “Squeeze round the back of the tree” she urged, “it’s hollow”. Gathering more needles down the back of my neck than I cared for, I followed her bidding and peered into the trunk, now an almost perfect circle formed into fantastical shapes with pockmarks and ripples. I wouldn’t look at it the same way again.

Yew at St. Marys, Thurnham
The veteran yew at St. Marys, Thurnham has been dated to over 1500 years old
Certified aging of a churchyard yew

The Yew Tree Campaign was launched in 1986 and was the first nationwide effort to protect veteran and ancient yew trees by raising awareness of their venerability and vulnerability. The Yew Tree Campaign still send out certificates to parish churches which have old yews in their churchyards. You might find these hung in their porch.

It is an incredibly difficult task to accurately age a yew. The tree is susceptible to specific fungi that rot the core, resulting in the hollowed out yet still healthy specimens so prevalent. Below the height of 1m, the yew is subject to attack by Ganoderma lucidum. Above that height it is rotted out by Laetiporus sulphureus fungi. Age is extrapolated by partial core samples (dendrochronology) and corrolation with younger local trees. It is an imperfect science hence the raging debate as to the ages of local specimens. I do rather like yew expert Alan Mitchell’s viewpoint- “most trees look older than they are, except for yews that are older than they look.”

An eye on the path- view through hollowed out yew. The London Countryway
An eye on the path- view through hollowed out and rotted ‘young’ yew on The London Countryway

The timber of the yew is strong and durable but uncommonly encountered today in commercial use. Traditionally, the wood was used to make longbows and tool handles. However it was not the English Yew that was used for longbows, that was regarded as too brittle. Wood was instead imported from Spain and Italy. Some of our oldest specimens have been damaged by souvenir hunters. In 1833 the old yew at Fortingall was found to have had large amounts cut away to make drinking cups and ‘other relics’ for visitors to buy.

Huge Yew at All Saints, Church, Waldershare. North Downs Way
Huge ancient Yew at All Saints, Church, Waldershare on the North Downs Way. Over 24 feet in circumference

The massive buttressed and hollow trunks can flex with the storms, adding to the prospect of their surviving the centuries though ancient trees are rare away from churchyards. Trees can be either male or female. They bear fruit very late in the year and the sweet berries can be an important food source for birds in winter.

Berry laden Yew, North Downs Way
Berry laden Yew on the North Downs Way. The sticky berries can be consumed, BUT NOT THE SEEDS, which are extremely toxic.

The bark, stems, needles and seeds of the yew are poisonous though birds can eat the berries, excreting the seeds. Consuming fifty needles is said to be enough to kill a man. Even the mushrooms that grow on and below a yew will have accumulated enough of the trees toxins to become lethal. For such a poisonous tree it is perhaps surprising that it’s foliage was used to create cancer fighting drugs Taxotere and Taxol. Clippings are no longer gathered, the chemical compounds are now synthesised instead.

For those interested in churchyard yews, there is a wealth of information on the website for the Ancient Yew Group, together with a helpful bibliography here.

Sadly, not all ancient churchyard yews last foreever. The great storm of 1991 topled the ancient yew in the churchyard of St. Mary's, Newchurch, on the Offas Dyke Path, in 1991. The 1100 year old tree narrowlly missed the church. The handrail at the entrance steps was crafted from it's wood, as was the offertory plater used at Sunday worship
Sadly, not all ancient churchyard yews last forever. The great storm of 1991 toppled the ancient yew in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Newchurch, on the Offas Dyke Path. The 1100 year old tree narrowly missed the church. The handrail at the entrance steps was crafted from it’s wood, as was the offertory plate used at Sunday worship

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