There are thousands of churchyards and cemeteries in England and Wales where yew trees can be found, so clearly there is a strong link, but it is an inescapable fact that more than 500 of these yew trees pre-date the buildings around them, so clearly, the trees weren’t planted there because of the religious significance of the buildings. Consider the pre-Christian inhabitants of our shores; to them, it was the forces and the wonder of nature that provided the structure for their spiritual beliefs, and what else was there around them that could come anywhere near to matching the age or the grandeur of the yew tree? The yew tree entered into mythology and spiritualism, it became revered and even worshipped, both for the good and for the evil for which it could be used; thus the yew was seen, simultaneously as a symbol of immortality and as an omen of doom.

However, we need to delve even deeper into pre-history to discover the roots of man’s involvement with yew. A little over 100 years ago, in 1911, in the town of Clacton on the east coast of England, archaeologists discovered a wooden spear-head, fashioned from yew and believed to be in the region of 450,000 years old, making it one of the oldest known wooden artefacts. Fast forward to a few centuries BC and the ancient Greek philosophers such as Theophrastus, ponder over the origins of yew, and especially of the derivation of its name. Indeed, the very name of Taxus has had its lead-syllable of ‘tax’ adopted by numerous ancient languages, as their stem for the word ‘toxic’. In 1735, when Carl Linnaeus wrote his dissertation on plant classification, and then founded his renowned and universally accepted system of the classification of living things, he adopted the Latin term of Taxus for yew, giving credence and gravity to the fact that yew was known for its poisonous properties.

The greatest difficulty in determining the age of a yew tree is its growth pattern. Yew trees can reach a great age and are generally accepted to be amongst the oldest living organisms on our planet. However, the original tree rarely exceeds 2,000 years, by which time it has become prone to decomposition of the heartwood, and many suffer this fate by the time they reach a few centuries in age, thus making growth-ring counting an impossible task. Indeed, most of our ancient yews become completely hollow, a fact which is often exploited in localities where tourism is an important industry.

03 Much Marcle thumb

 

At Much Marcle, in Herefordshire, England, the parishioners set about cleaning up their ancient yew in a bid to restore it to health. Their parish records state that, “We estimate that we have probably removed about 6 ton of dead timbers and unnecessary branches, which were resting on the ground. It took 45 Man hours, and more than 8 trailer loads of rubbish to do this work. We think the Tree will appreciate what we have done to lighten its load”. When the work was complete, a set of 3 benches was constructed inside the trunk, so that visitors to the church could sit inside it.

Fortunately for the decaying yew, it has a regenerative trick up its sleeve; it develops new growth from the outer margins of the trunk, at ground level, surrounding the original trunk with new growth. Effectively, the yew tree has the ability to regenerate itself from the roots upwards, which accounts for the ten known examples in the UK of yew trees which first grew in the 10th Century. In Scotland, at Fortingall, there is a yew tree which is understood to be the oldest tree in Britain, although experts disagree regarding its true age, placing it at somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 years.

Little wonder that yew trees became so revered, that superstition took a hold, and that yew became the centre of many a tradition and belief. Many a rural location, with homesteads scattered about, would need a meeting place where local and topical matters could be discussed, thus the site of the yew tree, with all its spiritual significance, became the site of local meeting places and local courts of justice. Such sites were frequently chosen as cemeteries, with the belief that the great age of the yew tree offered immortality to the soul of the deceased, whilst it was also believed that the roots of the yew would grow through the corpse (especially, through the eye sockets), thus trapping the body and soul underground and preventing evil influences from releasing it back onto a more earthly world. It was, therefore, a natural progression from this, that when Christianity was introduced, many such meeting places were chosen as the site for building a place of worship.

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Friday the 23rd. Thanks for visiting Woodturners Unlimited.