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The ancient yew in St. George’s Churchyard, Crowhurst, East Sussex

I only have eyes for Yew

Our ‘Tree Correspondent’ Joan Taylor-Rowan continues her exploration of Hastings & St Leonards’  trees. This week, its the gnarled and noble yew.

Latin name: Taxus Baccata
Common name: Yew, English yew, Common yew
Location: Crowhurst churchyard (1500 years old (est.)), hedges and gardens

The gnarled trunk and the dense, needled foliage of the English yew, Taxus baccata, is a common sight in old churchyards. They are famously long-lived. The ancient yew in the grounds of St George’s Church in Crowhurst village, just a few miles outside of Hastings, is a spectacular and venerable example, and well worth the short trip. Its core, split and hollow, is surrounded by new growth, each sinuous red-barked trunk a sculpture in its own right. Thought to be around 1500 years old, it is one of three mighty yews in the church grounds. Specimens reported to be more than 4000 years old can be found in churchyards as far apart as Surrey and Perthshire.  Over the centuries, yews have been admired and feared in equal parts. William Wordsworth in his poem ‘Yew-Trees’ puts it beautifully,

“Of vast circumference and gloom profound
This solitary Tree! – a living thing
Produced too slowly ever to decay;
Of form and aspect too magnificent to be destroyed.”

Highly toxic (Macbeth brews a poisonous concoction that includes yew leaves), the yew developed a reputation as gloomy, dangerous, and indestructible – ‘the tree of death’. The branches are so dense and its leaves so toxic that little can grow beneath it. The Romans believed they grew in hell. To some degree, it’s this toxicity that accounts for their long life. They are highly resistant to disease.

The yew is also associated with immortality because of its ability to renew itself – the branches can take root where they touch the ground, creating new trunks to replace the original. A tree that seems to cheat death and live forever is an apt symbol for a Christian church, although some believe the yews were planted in the churchyards for less spiritual reasons – the highly toxic leaf litter kept the pesky livestock herders out.

That said, there are at least 500 yews older than the churchyards they are found in, suggesting that yews were already considered sacred before the churches were built and experts agree that the yew played an important part in Druidical and Celtic sacred stories. Associated with death and rebirth they are often found at ancient burial sites. In Celtic myth, the yew was linked with the Samhain (November 1st) when the gates between the worlds of the living and the dead were said to open. The association of the yew with both death and immortality occurs in other cultures too. The ancient Greeks considered the yew to be a guardian of the soul at the gate to the underworld.

yew berries photo reproduced by permission of www.wildfooduk.com

However, if you could ask a squirrel or a blackbird, their story of the yew would be quite different – an understorey story of protection and nourishment. Yews are often found beneath beechwoods and the densely packed branches provide a safe place for tiny birds such as the firecrest. The yew is an evergreen conifer with needle-like leaves on each side of the twig. Unusually for a conifer, the seeds grow inside little pink-red fruits, rather than cones. The globe-shaped fruits – open at one end like little lampshades – provide precious winter food. Despite the poisonous seeds, birds and squirrels gorge on them. Although some birds can eat the seeds, most are dispersed, undigested in their droppings, ready to develop into new trees.

Whilst we must leave the fruit to the birds, humans have found the strong and durable wood invaluable. In fact, the oldest wooden artifact ever found in the UK was a spearhead made of yew wood – estimated to be around 450,000 years old. Yew has been used for furniture and tool handles for centuries, but most famously for longbows. The battle of Bannockburn was won in 1314 using longbows made from the sacred yews in Ardchattan Priory in Argyll. It was also yew longbows that helped win the battle of Agincourt. Sadly, these successes lead to the destruction of yew forests across Britain and the eventual dependence on imported yew from Europe, for weaponry. The forests never recovered and now most of the oldest examples are found in churchyards and parks but younger individuals are quite abundant in hedges and gardens.

One of the ‘younger’ yews in Crowhurst churchyard – thought to be about 600 years old.

In Hastings we have a champion Adpressa yew – not ancient but the biggest of its kind – up at the top of Alexandra Park near the Buckshole reservoir path. The designated ‘ancient’ yew in the Crowhurst churchyard, already had a recorded girth of 28’ in 1680 and according to the plaque, was there in 1066 when King Harold owned the Manor of Crowhurst. The local magistrate was said to have been hung from this yew for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of King Harold’s treasure. This is a designated champion tree of Sussex but there are two other splendid specimens in the churchyard thought to be about 600 years old.

We no longer have much use for longbows but the yew is proving useful to humans in other ways. The poison that makes the yew so lethal, contains compounds that have been developed into anti-cancer drugs, luckily for the yew they are now manufactured synthetically. So perhaps the ancients were right – the  yew, while unable to grant us immortality – can help some of us to live longer lives.

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Posted 18:29 Wednesday, Feb 2, 2022 In: Green Times

1 Comment

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  1. Diana Taylor

    Such a fascinating article – thankyou. A visit to Crowhurst churchyard is in order, to see this beautiful ancient tree, I think. Have just gone back and read your previous articles in HOT about the monkey puzzle tree, holly and apple. I’ll look forward to the next one!

    Comment by Diana Taylor — Thursday, Feb 3, 2022 @ 11:02

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