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The Yew Grove

Introduction The Yew Grove The Great Yew
The Yew Wood Yews at Sites of Antiquity Marker and Shelter Yews

The Yew Grove

Near Cranborne in rural Dorset there is a yew grove of great antiquity. Five of Thomas Hardy’s ‘gigantic yews’ grow with others in a small wood which lies on a calcareous loam. The impressive size of these woodland yews and a close examination of their trunks reveal them to be of considerable age. The largest yew here is 23 feet in girth and has a big internal stem inside a hollow shell that has disintegrated. The few pieces of the inner shell that remain have become encompassed by new wood over a long period of time. Close by a pollarded yew is only slightly smaller in girth.

The largest yew in the grove at sunrise, with the strange Butcher’s Broom growing beneath it
The largest yew in the grove at sunrise,
with the strange Butcher’s Broom growing beneath it

At the north end of the copse above a farm, there is a storm battered yew with broken branches and a thin foliage; this tree seems to be struggling, The aged trunk with a girth of over 20 feet, also contains a large internal stem. Nearby in a dell is a contrasting yew that is strong and healthy. This male yew has a clean reddish bole measuring over 18 feet around its base, but the girth rises steadily to give this tree a huge appearance. The thick vines of traveller’s joy, known locally as devil’s guts, hang from its many branches. The fifth and last ancient yew in the grove is another fascinating example of the yew’s regeneration ability. The trunk of this yew has completely disappeared leaving a substantial central inner stem surrounded by a ring of others. These internal stems are all that remains of a possibly much larger yew. A number of other yews in the copse, some reaching 14 to15 feet in girth, are likely to be descendants of the far older trees.

During the first half of the last century, the yews grew here in hazel coppice with oak and the occasional field maple and ash. The coppiced woodlands of this area were traditionally used for hurdle making, but with the decline in this trade, the coppice was replaced with cash crops of quick growing conifers. Only the woodland margins and other small areas survived the clear felling, a sad reminder of their former glory. Thankfully the yews were spared in what must have been a deliberate policy of the estate to safeguard these ancient trees. Today, with incentives from the government, the estate is replanting parts of its woodlands with the original hardwoods.

When I found the yews in the summer of 2005, they were almost hidden by larch trees, but a year later many of these had been felled. Revisiting the yew grove in the spring of 2007, the felling of many of the closely planted conifers had brought forth a spectacular resurgence of the ground flora. A beautiful carpet of bluebells lay throughout the woodland with a fine mixture of other wild flowers including wood spurge, ramsons and woodruff. All these wild flowers in southern England are recognized indicators of ancient woodland and in the past a regular rotation of hazel coppicing would have produced similar displays. The most unusual plant here is butcher’s broom, which is able to grow under the dark shade of the yews. Butcher’s broom is a strange evergreen member of the Lily family, with very sharp leaves and large shiny red berries.

Ann Horsfall is a widely experienced field naturalist, botanist and lecturer who has extensively studied the distribution of the Dorset flora and a history of the county’s woodland. The yews she has seen in other Dorset woods are not ancient and appear to have been planted or introduced by birds.

Detail of ancient yew in the Cranborne grove
Detail of ancient yew in the Cranborne grove

Early one morning before dawn, I walked up from Cranborne to the yew grove. The clear sky held a promise of watching the rising of the sun. A low mist hung across the fields in which hares and roe deer were busy feeding. As I approached the wood a group of fallow deer moved away from the shelter of a yew. Entering this mysterious wood, I sat beneath an ancient yew and listened to the crescendo of the dawn chorus with the scent of thousands of bluebells sweetly perfuming the air. As the sun rose slowly on the horizon and shafts of light pierced the woodland, transforming the aged trunks of the yews from darkness to a reddish glow, I took a series of photographs. Satisfied, I rested again to contemplate the yews, thinking that perhaps in the distant past of a forgotten age, others once visited these trees at sunrise.

Copyright: Peter Andrews

Introduction The Yew Grove The Great Yew
The Yew Wood Yews at Sites of Antiquity Marker and Shelter Yews

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