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Y is for Yew Trees

Myths and legend surround the yew tree, probably due to its ability to live for hundreds of years. This may have led to the religious associations linked to both ‘pagan’, and Christian beliefs, with parish churchyards a familiar location for this conifer.  The most ancient example is the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland.

Information found on the Woodland Trust website, says “With lifespans up to 3,000 years old, the oldest living tree in the UK is easily a yew.”

Oliver Rackham in The History of the Countryside, comments that  – Churchyard yews have their special lore and books…People believe that they are very slow growing and that the big ones are of fabulous antiquity, 2000 years old or more.  They are therefore supposed to have been sacred trees before the churches were built.

Robert Bevan-Jones notes in his book The Ancient Yew, that large yews of 16ft (5m) girth are rare or unknown in Cornwall, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.  These eastern counties are bereft of any yews of more than 400 years age. Indeed, examples of ancient, notable yew trees appear to be scarce in Suffolk, although a yew in the churchyard of Preston St Mary, had been noted as one of the largest in the county.

Yew is, however, also cultivated to provide dense hedging.  The picture below is dated c1917, and shows a rather unkempt example on the Timworth Road at Ampton, just before it was cut.

Yew hedge, Timworth Road, Ampton, c1917 (K997/115/4)

Yew hedge, Timworth Road, Ampton, c1917 (K997/115/4)

This would surely have been a mammoth task to perform by hand, as a 1950/51 article in the East Anglian Magazine shows:-

The Parson Clips the Yew:

The yew hedge at Huntingfield rectory has a surface area three times the playing area of a tennis court.  Canon Dobson recently clipped it by hand. It took 32 hours.  Wisely, perhaps, friends had suggested the loan of an electric machine, but the writer laments with regret that another old handicraft has had to be sacrificed to the pressures of these demanding days.

Yew wood has also been used to make the famous English longbow.  Only a handful of examples of this renowned weapon exist today, with one (damaged) to be found in the “…most complete armoury of any English parish church…”  at Mendlesham church as noted in Pevsner’s The Buildings of England – Suffolk, 2nd edition.

Suffolk yews growing in mixed woodland may be found at Westhall Wood, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), near Rickinghall close to the Suffolk-Norfolk border.