The yew is a more common sight in English churchyards than most other species of tree and there are a number of theories as to why this is the case.
Back in Mediaeval times, boys over the age of 16 were obliged to practise their archery skills after mass on a Sunday. As yew wood is strong and flexible, it is perfect for making bows, and so the trees were said to have been planted in churchyards for this purpose.
Another common tale went that because yews are highly poisonous to livestock, they would be planted near churches to stop commoners grazing their cattle over sacred ground.
However, both these stories are likely to be just myths, as the yew, which has a reputation for longevity, is usually much older than the church so would not have been planted in the churchyard, but rather the church would have been built near the already established tree.
This country was pagan long before Christianity came along, and in ancient lore, the yew was considered a sacred tree. Like many evergreens, it signified everlasting life with associations with death and rebirth due to its uncanny ability to not expire. In fact, even one that looks dead can often spring back to life, thanks to new shoots appearing from deep within the apparently dead tree carcass, rising up and surrounding the tree’s original trunk.
Its branches tend to grow downwards and where they hit the ground, new shoots can also spring up. A grove of yews can look like several separate trees, even though they are in fact still, technically, just the one tree.
The reason they are now commonly seen in churchyards is likely to be because when the Christians persecuted the pagans, they took over many of their sacred sites, replacing any pagan structures with new churches. The yew retained its mythical aura, and through Christian eyes, became a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.
In my dad’s column from 17th November 1979, he mentions a grant awarded from Derbyshire County Council to repair what was said to be the oldest yew in England, which was at St Helen’s Church, Darley Dale, and was believed to be 2,200 years old. He says he’s not sure if the claim is correct and cites another yew at Fortingall in Scotland which claims to be the oldest in Europe at between 3,000 and 9,000 years of age. I have also found references to other very aged yews, including at Defynnog, in Wales, which claims to be 5,000 years old, another in Ankerwycke, Berkshire, a comparative youngster at just 2,000 years, and then a middle-aged one of 4,000 years at Crowhurst in Surrey.
It is very tricky to determine which is the true ‘oldest’ yew, but their esteemed reputations have attracted many visitors over the centuries. In fact, in September 1863, the editor of The Times received a letter, purportedly from the Darley Dale yew itself, complaining about the significant amounts of visitors that had begun to arrive, thanks to the advent of trains making it easier for city-dwellers to travel into the countryside.
‘Until tourists began to multiply and excursion trains to run, I had scarcely a single scar, older than time and tempest had left, on my body. But now the Snookeses, and Tomkinses, and Joneses have begun to immortalize themselves (as is the fashion of that race) by cutting their names all over my bark,’ the letter reads.
The ‘tree’ beseeches the editor to publicise the problem so that someone might come to its aid to protect it from further damage. It took until 1876 for the ancient yew’s prayers to be answered, when parish records from May of that year show that Manchester solicitor Charles Lister Esq. had paid for a sturdy iron fence out of his own pocket to protect the yew from further vandalism. That fence, and the tree, still stand today.
One surprising fact about the English yew is that although its needles contain alkaloids that are poisonous to humans and animals, these alkaloids also contain chemicals that are effective in the treatment of some forms of cancer. Known as taxanes, these chemicals help stop new cancer cells forming, and are used in chemotherapy drugs for certain types of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.
Although taxanes can be produced synthetically in a laboratory, yew clippings are still collected today to extract the chemical naturally.
Well, yew live and learn!
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