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Those three little words….

 

’I Love Yew’

 

That’s ‘Yew’, as in Taxus Baccata, not as in ‘You’.

 

An account of European Yew, its place in folklore, its historical use and its use today.

 

It all started over 50 years ago in a history lesson about one of the incursions into the east of Great Britain by mainland European invaders. I was informed that the English bowmen – arguably the best in the world – would gather in the local churchyard where the church served as the strongest, most heavily constructed building in many a community, thus providing their stronghold. There, in the grounds of the churchyard and cemetery, would have been planted many a yew tree to supply the bowmen with an inexhaustible source of yew to make new longbows from, should one of their bows become damaged in conflict.

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Those readers who are still awake and attentive, might well have spotted a flaw in that history lesson. Just imagine Johnny Bowman, his longbow newly snapped, as he pops over to Marcel, or Claude, or whoever it is who is intent on capturing the wealth in the church, and says to him (and I paraphrase) ‘I say chaps, do you think that you could put this conflict on hold for a few weeks whilst I fashion a new longbow from yonder yew tree’. Had he done so, we might well have lost that conflict! Undoubtedly, yews and churches go together in UK, but of course, my teacher was talking tosh and I was far too respectful and impressionable a youngster to question it; on the contrary, I went home, took the hand-axe from the coal-shed and made for the nearest woodland, where I cut down a hazel pole and fashioned a very crude bow out of it. Regretfully, the very first time that I strung my bow, it snapped.

At about this time, the woodworking bug had bitten hard and my Woodwork teacher (the aptly named Mr Whittle) was my immediate target upon reaching school the next day, when I asked him why my bow had cracked and what it was that made yew so special. ‘It’s all in the cell structure….’ he said, ‘…highly flexible cell walls, tightly packed together make for a strong, but flexible shaft’. He then took a piece of yew off the timber rack, passed it through a thicknesser and cleaned up the end grain on a disk sander. I was blown away! The depth of colour, the contrasts and the contortions in the grain made it unlike any wood I’d seen before. Mr Whittle (Reg) appreciated my interest and gave me a little piece to take home to show my mum. ‘Don’t eat it, it’ll cause hallucinations’, he said.

Yikes! So there I was, a spotty adolescent in the mid-60s, with all that was going on in the sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll world, psychedelia looming down upon me, and I had the most colourful piece of wood on earth, and it was hallucinogenic  – how much more kudos could a youngster handle! Well, that’s how it started, an interest in yew that I hold to this day, but how about that history lesson; what was the true reason for yew trees being planted in churchyards?

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Saturday the 16th. Thanks for visiting Woodturners Unlimited.