Gardeners like planning – whether it’s deciding on the course of a path; next year’s planting for an herbaceous border or which species to choose for a new hedge and, annuals aside, this planning will, at least in part, be for the longer term. And it’s difficult to get longer term than the Yew.
The Llangernyw Yew
(Top picture) The village of Llangernyw lies in Conwy, North Wales and in its churchyard (St. Dygain’s) stands the extraordinary – if somewhat ordinarily named – Llangernyw Yew. It is the oldest tree in Europe and the second or third oldest on the planet. According to Yew Tree Campaign in 2002, it first pushed a tentative shoot above ground around 4,000 – 5,000 years ago. The Campaign aso recognised it as one of the 50 Great British Trees. Though the core of the tree has been lost, giant offshoots remain, giving the Yew a girth at ground level of 10.75 m.
The Fortingall Yew
(Middle picture) A similar story emerges in the village churchyard of Fortingall in Perthshire – though there is less agreement about the age of the Fortingall Yew with its estimated age ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 years. The general consensus of 2,000 years old may make it a bit of a juvenile but it does have the largest recorded trunk girth of any tree in Britain.
The Ankerwycke Yew
(Bottom picture) Near Wraysbury, Berkshire, stands the Ankerwycke Yew. Standing on the bank of the Thames and close to the ruins of the 12th century St Mary’s Priory, this massive tree has a girth of 8m and is at least 1,400 years old. As Runnymede lies on the opposite side of the River, this tree may well be the last living witness to the signing of Magna Carta.
The Borrowdale Yews
These Lake District Yews are generally reckoned to be around 2,000 years old, though this is not their main claim to fame. In 1803, Wordsworth wrote the poem Yew-Trees containing the lines:
Are those fraternal Four of Borrowdale,
Joined in one solemn and capacious grove;
Huge trunks! – and each particular trunk a growth
Of intertwisted fibres serpentine…
Unfortunately, thanks to a storm in 1883, it is now the fraternal three, though they remain magnificent specimens.
The Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve
Lying near Chichester in West Sussex on the South Downs. this 400 acre reserve has one of Europe’s largest yew woodlands containing some individual trees over 2,000 years old.
These are just a few of the remarkable ancient Yews that lie across Britain and Europe. Their survival shows a Yew’s resilience to just about anything nature can throw at it and, given how so many Yews were felled in the 15th century for the manufacture of longbows, should be treasured all the more. Incidentally, the use of Yew in medieval and Tudor warfare explains why so many of our remaining ancient Yews lie on sacred ground – trees growing there were safe from the woodsman’s axe.