Leaf forever: The ancient yew tree

PUBLISHED: 17:18 08 October 2013 | UPDATED: 17:18 08 October 2013

The yew tree has needle-like leaves and produces vibrant yellow pollen sacks

The yew tree has needle-like leaves and produces vibrant yellow pollen sacks

Hans - public domain

Gwent Wildlife Trust volunteer Andrew Green considers the most ancient of trees – the yew.

If you think nothing lives forever, make a pilgrimage to the parish church in Bettws Newydd (pronounced Bettus Newith, if that helps), a tiny Monmouthshire village. Looming over the gravestones here you’ll find something that may convince you immortality is both attainable and, interestingly enough, highly sexed.

The craggy yew tree by the church gate is as old as… well, no-one really knows how old he is. Five hundred years? A thousand? Two thousand? Maybe more. He’s definitely ancient though. And come the spring, the old codger will be rarin’ to go. Tim Hills, a 60-something-year-old who seems so small besides this enormous girth and grandeur of tree describes how tiny yellow sacs of pollen will cluster all over the dark green needle-like leaves.

“This tree will be sowing his seed from here to the English border. When yews release their pollen, there’s so much blowing about, sometimes it makes the whole tree look like it’s on fire.”

Few people know yews better. After retiring as a schoolteacher, Tim searched for a hobby that would combine his love of natural history and British history. On his many walks through the countryside, he saw the yews standing sentinel in churchyard after churchyard and found inspiration. He helped found the Ancient Yew Group, an organisation devoted to raising awareness of the great tree. Tim travels far and wide throughout Britain checking yews. He’ll measure their girth, photograph them, and update the extensive Ancient Yew Group database of yews. The Bettws Newydd yew (the grandest one of the three in this churchyard) is a favourite of his.

The twisting reddish bark is a sculpture of monstrous shapes and dark shadows. Whereas other trees grow high and elegant, and branch out as if raising their arms to the sky, this one grows any way he wishes. Limbs and bark patterns spiral and weave about in odd angles, like butterfly trajectories, or Celtic knot work unlaced. He’s about 33-feet around, has overwhelming desire to procreate, and he’s hollow. You can actually grab a picnic and sit inside. If it’s raining you and your picnic will stay perfectly dry. Inside this canopy is a large shaft; a trunk within a trunk. And this tells an interesting story. Hundreds of years ago, the tree developed some weak spots and parts of the trunk started to decay and crack. Within the fracture, the tree formed a shoot. But instead of growing toward the heavens like most tree branches, this one headed straight down, through the heart of the decaying tree and into the ground. And it grew and grew forming a new tree and, in a way, reincarnating itself. Theoretically, there’s no reason for a yew tree ever to die.

Tim says: “I think the whole tree could be two thousand plus years old. But I don’t know. And that to me is part of the wonder. I hope we never know, because you lose the excitement.”

The British yew is, for the most part, a church tree. About nine out of every ten British yews are found beside a church. Among the graves, they are a great ancient symbol of mortality and rebirth, death and resurrection. There’s one theory that says maybe the canopies under the branches were natural gathering spots for pre-Christians, so churches took root near the community yew.

Historically yews were protected in their churchyards. Nowadays, that protection can be lacking. The fate of an ancient yew might be in the hands of the vicar acting alone, a few members of the church congregation, residents of the local community, the local authority, or the tree surgeon. Many of these will not realise the significance of their ancient tree. Their yew is in their hands. If they want to neglect it, or get rid of their yew altogether, there’s not much anyone can do.

So when a branch starts encroaching on a church window or spreads over a beloved gravestone, out come the chainsaws and, Tim says, all too often the entire tree is hacked to bits. Up until recently, a rusty oil tank rested in the base of what many consider to be Wales’ oldest yew, the Llangernyw Tree, which some experts say might be four to five thousand years old. The tank was removed once a forestry expert told the church warden the tree was a national treasure. No one had any idea they were living by one of Europe’s oldest living things.

“We win more than we lose,” Tim says. “The problem is we don’t know how many we lose. You don’t hear about the ones that have been felled or burnt down until years later. Someone might point out to me, ‘do you know that tree you were looking at a while back? It’s gone. Someone lit a fire inside it.’ And that’s another lost yew.”

Nowadays, more and more churches are being sold to private sources who don’t want them in their back yard. They aren’t oaks, the quintessential British tree, strong and enduring. But Tim says the British oak pales in comparison with the British yew, even stronger, more enduring, a steadfast witness to history.

Incredibly the Bettws Newydd and Llangernyw trees might be mere children compared to others nearby. Tim says: “There are scraps of yew on the remote mountainsides, sprouting from the rocks and cliffs in the limestone crags, growing in the tiniest of soils. We think that is where the true ancients live.”

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