The All Saints' churchyard yew tree
In common with most churchyards a yew tree can be found to the east of the church in All Saints’ churchyard. The English yew (Taxus baccata), also known as the common or European yew is commonly found on limestone and chalk in southern England and can form dense woods on sheltered parts of the chalk downs. In other parts of the UK yew trees are rarely seen in the wild but are more often found in cultivation as hedging and are a particular feature of churchyards. Yew is a berry-bearing evergreen, small to medium tree, slow growing up to a height of around 10-20 m. All parts of yew (except the red fleshy aril or fruit) are poisonous. They can reach a great age, as old as 4-5,000 years. However, as old trees lose their heartwood there is no solid trunk, so accurate dating by the traditional method of aging trees by counting the annual rings is not possible. Yews are therefore dated by their trunk girth and it is generally accepted that yews with a trunk girth of 9m (30ft.) or more are at least 1,000 years old and classified as ‘ancient’.
The yew tree at All Saints, has a girth of 3.7m and is classified as ‘notable’, which means it is around 300-700 years old (source: www.ancient-yew.org).
Reasons for the widespread planting of yews in churchyards are not clear. They may have been enclosed in churchyards to stop livestock eating the poisonous trees or to stop farmers using churchyards for grazing. Churchyards may also have protected trees so the wood was available for bow making, but this is unlikely as the large quantities of wood required would more likely have come from woodland. The botanist Robert Turner (1626-1687) suggested a possible reason in that as the yew is ‘hot and dry’ it is able to draw and imbibe poisonous vapours from bodies buried in the churchyard.
The yew, like the holly and mistletoe, was one of the ‘holy’ plants of the ancient Britons and so its association with sanctified ground may have derived from this pagan origin. Most likely yews were deliberately planted on sacred religious sites, known to occur as early as the bronze age. Pre-Christian priests and druids used yews as places to gather and, where ancient yews grow, were original sites of druid or Celtic worship and later Anglo-Saxon churches. The name Yew is said to come from an old Celtic word ‘Iw’ meaning green. In the UK and Northern Europe, where there are no natural palms, the yew tree also often played a central role in Palm Sunday celebrations. In medieval times Palm Sunday was also known as Yew Sunday. The link between the yew and the church was so well established that when a new church was built a yew was often planted next to it.
The yew was a symbol of death and resurrection in Celtic culture due to its ability to re-sprout and put-on new growth after years of inactivity. The tree is also said to symbolise death and resurrection in Christianity.
Yew wood has many uses today – in archery, wood turning, furniture making and musical instruments and in topiary. It is also a source of an alkaloid used to manufacture the anti-cancer drug docetaxel.
British trees and shrubs R D Meikle, Kew series 1958
The immortal yew, 2019 Tony Hall, Kew publishing
The Ancient Yew Group www.ancient-yew.org