Skip to content

Introduction

December 2011 - `Out of the darkness and into the light of scientific scrutiny` - Toby Hindson

As I reflect on the last few years of AYG activity a certain sense of awe and excitement creeps over me. A group we are, but what a range of individuals! And our association with each other, the meeting of minds around the ancient yew, has in many cases brought out some of our best qualities and achievements. We have become a veritable league of extraordinary gentlemen. That’s not just a throwaway quip either, for that is in great part how the organisation works. Each of us became members because we already had something unique and relevant to offer, and in the AYG individually conceived and realised work towards the common goal is the general modus. We do our work unhindered, and when asked our fellows unselfishly rally round using their particular skills to help us critique and polish it, or give opinion on the direction of a new project. Imagine what the world would be like if this were a common ethos in industry and politics.

The last few years of our work has seen the yew come out of the darkness and into the light of scientific scrutiny. Fifteen years ago when I began my own yew investigations the British scientific and arboricultural press would hardly touch work on old yews; their image was tainted both by a “mythic” element, and also by a very long running and unresolved debate over ageing, both of which it was generally felt could injure the reputation of a purely scientific journal. Articles on yews that should have been acceptable to the mainstream were often, of necessity, carried by Neo-Pagan publications and consequently angled to suit the editor. This propagated and perpetuated the “way out” image of the subject. Only a sustained coherent and science based effort could change that, and the AYG website has provided the platform that a disillusioned scientific press so often denied to supporters and serious researchers of the yew.

Now the taint appears to be lifting, and questions about protection are being asked in the right quarters because materials that celebrate the religiously important mythic and poetic reality of the yew can at last be easily distinguished from the legitimate ethno-botanical and the rigorously scientific materials which are needed by law makers and arboriculturalists, and which are provided by the AYG.

So the triumph is twofold, the presence and impact of the excellent website, which is the tip and the flower of the AYG iceberg exposed to public view, and the remarkable and productive working environment generated by the largely informal association of talented, cooperative and self-motivated people from diverse organisations and backgrounds. In some ways it is no great surprise that this should be, the yew is a great rallying point, and the cause is an important one. The campaign to protect this part of our heritage in Britain and Europe has never been questioned or trivialised by anyone that I’ve explained it to, and I trust that our sponsors are pleased with the return that they have seen on the confidence that they placed in us.

Ultimately, it would be wonderful to realise the trite message that pops up from time to time on a certain television advertisement: “we all love trees”. If that were truly so, and the bulk of the general public had not become rather disconnected from such things, our work would not be necessary. Funding would have been provided for public bodies to look into the question of our oldest trees, and protection would be absolute across Britain, as in parts of the rest of Europe. As it is, there is AYG, and we can be extremely proud of the strides that we have, together and in our individual ways, made towards the goal of seeing our ancient and beautiful yews revered and protected as they should be. There is further to go, but I for one have high hopes.

Members and contributors of The Ancient Yew Group– thank you all for your unselfish gifts of time, energy and expertise.

Toby Hindson

Founder and full members of the Ancient Yew Group

Tim Hills
Since 1997 Tim has visited approximately 1,500 sites where old yews have been recorded. This has enabled him to build a picture of the state of health of our oldest trees. He has also collected information about the steady and often unnecessary decline in their numbers.
With more than 1,700 yew entries on his data base and a photographic record of 800 of the most significant, his work has created the most up to date gazetteer of Taxus baccata L. in England and Wales currently available.
Alongside the first hand observations and photographs gathered at site visits he has collected a wealth of additional information from historical sources. The gazetteer presents a glimpse of this collection.

Andy McGeeney
The natural world has always held a fascination for me in so many ways. Acknowledging there is only time in life to go deeply into a fraction of what is offered has meant me spending more time being with dragonflies and yew trees rather than anything else in nature.

I was initially drawn to yew trees by the sculptural beauty of the old ones, marvelling over their living antiquity. I have, possibly because of my psychology background, researched and speculated on the reasons why yew trees have been revered from prehistoric to modern times. I first wrote about this in:  The Millennial Tree Resurgence no189 July/August 1998 p34, reprinted as one of their 100 pieces celebrating the Millennium. In 2010 I presented a paper to the international conference in Ponferrada Spain, Tejo, Cultura y Biodiversidad, entitled ‘What does the yew tree mean for us today?’ Published in III Jornades Internationales sobre el Tejo (Taxus baccata L.) ed & publ. AATT Amigos del Tejo las Tejedas 2013 Madrid.
I have exhibited my photographs of the yew in many galleries and festivals both nationally and internationally. Many have been published in books and magazines across the world; for example over 90 of appeared in Fred Hageneder’s Yew A History 2007. A joint project in 2012 with poet Jehanne Mehta and Fred lead to the Heart of Yew book and CD.
I currently live in Brentwood in Essex and divide my time between wildlife photography, writing and working as an ecotherapist. www.andymcgeeney.com

Fred Hageneder
Born in 1962 in Hamburg, Germany, Fred Hageneder has studied trees since 1980, in conjunction with comparative religion, cultural history, mythology and archaeology. Fred has become a leading author in ethnobotany and the cultural and spiritual history and meaning of trees. So far, his work has been translated into Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Czech and Japanese. He has given lectures in various ecology centres in Germany and Switzerland, and at the Abant Izzet Baysal University in Turkey. Since March 2009 he is an external reader at the Pacific Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California, USA, for a dissertation on the World Tree in the department of Mythological Studies.

His publications include `The Spirit of Trees - Science, Symbiosis and Inspiration`,bridging natural science, myth, history, and the fine arts, and `The Heritage of Trees - History, Culture and Symbolism`, a deep survey of the role trees have played in ancient culture and religion. `The living Wisdom of Trees` is a major publication on living tree culture and myths around the globe (Duncan Baird, London 2005), enhanced by stunning photography by award-winning tree photographer Edward Parker. His most important book, `Yew - A History` (Sutton Publishing, Stroud 2007), presents completely new insights about the Tree of Life or World Tree, and redefines the standards for tree monographs.

He is a co-founder of Friends of the Trees (www.friendsofthetrees.org.uk), a registered charity which aims to promote modern tree sanctuaries as oases of peace as well as cross-cultural and inter-faith meeting places. He also plays several traditional harps and has composed music for various (European) tree species (see CD `The Spirit of Trees`, www.earthheartmusic.com).

Fred lives near the Black Mountains in Wales as an author, musician, graphic designer and lecturer. For other ideas about spiritual ecology, see www.spirit-of-trees.de/index_e.html

Paul Greenwood
Paul Greenwood has been pursuing yew research since 1991 and formed the voluntary group Yew - Trees in 1992 to concentrate on raising awareness
about yews in the northern UK. Apart from an obvious interest in how old yews are Paul particularly concentrates his research on the historical aspects of yew as a sacred tree in Britain and Ireland since the Bronze Age.
As well as being a founder member of the Ancient Yew Group he is also Secretary and a Trustee of the UK registered charity Friends of the Trees. Paul is credited with photographs in the books The Sacred Yew (1994) and Yew - A History (2007) and made a written contribution to Sacred Yew - the
Ancient Roots of Beltingham
(2007). He has also contributed research to various organisations including the Woodland Trust, Conservation Foundation
and Eibenfreunde in Germany; media such as BBC television (including an episode of Inside Out which featured his work for yews in northern England
in 2004) and BBC radio. He continues to be consulted by yew enthusiasts throughout Britain and articles by Paul can be viewed on this website. He
also is continuing to explore possibilities of raising funding to continue his research.

Toby Hindson
Toby has researched the intractable problem of discovering the ages of ancient yews since 1996, producing a number of field reports for the Conservation Foundation, then The Yews of Alice Holt, which is a collection and analysis of a large number of cut stumps and surviving yews. Also Studies of Felled Yews, another collection of yew stump analyses from various locations in England, and The Growth Rate of Taxus baccata, which is a theoretical work on the relationship between the growth rate and the physical state of the yew. Toby presented the original version of the latter at the Allen Mitchell Memorial Lectures in 2000, and to Eibenfreunde at Winchester University in 2006, ably interpreted into German by Fred Hageneder.

All of these works are available on the AYG website, and help to underpin the latest writing, in collaboration with Tim Hills: Ancient and Veteran Yews: Classification Protocols: part 1. Part 2 goes into the specifics behind the assertions made in Part 1, which outlines the means by which the AYG are able to formalise the categories Ancient, Veteran, Notable and Extraordinary.

Toby’s yew dating theories also appear in The Ancient Yew by Robert Bevan-Jones, and in more detail in Fred Hageneder’s Yew: a History. His own book, Approaching the Immortals is also in preparation.

Toby has a good BSc Hons., including an Honours year in research methodology with statistics, and works as a private gardener; thus enjoying both the creative life of the body and of the mind. While firmly scientific in approach, he is driven to do the yew work by a strong poetic and spiritual connection to the natural world, yews in particular.

Russell Ball
Russell Ball is a graduate Botanist and Chartered Biologist with 20 years experience in the tree care industry.

Peter Norton
Trees have always been a fascinating subject for me, particularly yews, whose smooth boles and sometimes distorted shapes make great subjects for photographs. I have many fond memories of walks around the Ebble Valley with a stop off in Great Yews for a packed lunch, sitting on one of the lower limbs and listening to the silence.

Over the last thirty years I have explored and photographed extensively in the New Forest. One inclosure near Fritham known as Sloden, has large numbers of yews, and finding so many dead or dying led me to explore why this should be so.

It was during this research that I came across the Ancient Yew Group and after looking at their photographs and articles I came to the conclusion that little recording had been carried out on younger churchyard yews and that I could make a contribution by systematically recording these along the valleys of south Wiltshire.

I have also come across many references to yew trees at non - churchyard sites, including an ornamental garden in Downton, a ruinous castle near Tisbury and Stonehenge Barrows. I look forward to making further discoveries in the coming years and sharing that information with visitors to this website.

Contributory Members of the Ancient Yew Group

Peter Andrews
Many years ago I developed a keen interest in Natural History. Through a study of British Botany I began to look at the different species of trees and I saw for the first time at Tisbury in Wiltshire, a magnificent churchyard Yew. Soon after I began to visit different churchyards and other sites to see and to photograph the Yews which grow there.

On one of my excursions I took my bicycle by train to Salisbury to visit Knowlton Henge in Dorset. During my outward journey I was between Damerham in Hampshire and Cranborne in Dorset when to my amazement I saw a number of large Yews in woodland by the road side. It was only later that I discovered these to be previously unrecorded yews. Further south above Cranborne I saw roadsides lined with Yew and knew many of them would have been planted there for a special reason. I have since returned to this lovely area a number of times and have found equally interesting yews, many of them boundary and route markers.

I believe that these old Yews growing outside of churchyards are also important and they need to be recorded and protected. To understand the Yews better you need to study the history of the area in which they grow. The English Heritage Records Centre in Swindon has been particularly useful in being able to consult old books and maps of this area.

Russell Cleaver
Was trained in arboriculture and employed in countryside management from his twenties to his fifties. First as a countryside ranger and later as a manager of a historic park. Employed by Hampshire County Council he is now predominantly involved in raising external funds for recreational and heritage projects in the county.

For many years Russell has studied native woods and ancient trees, especially yews, which in Hampshire are so common on chalk soils they are popularly called the ‘Hampshire Weed’. However it has become clear from his observation of many veteran trees, that as such organisms age they gain in character and intrinsic interest. A situation that he takes great solace from as he tip-toes towards his own sixth decade.

Cliff Hansford
Like many people, I grew up in the understanding that yew trees grow in churchyards and were planted there to supply timber for arrows and long bows. Standing next to a yew tree reputed to be 1500 years old, in a country churchyard attached to a church 800 years old, raises doubts as to this understanding: here is a yew tree which occupied this space some 700 hundred years before the founding of the church. Does this then mean that churchyards embrace the yew rather than the former definition?
It was after expressing these observations to a colleague that I was introduced to the work of Allen Meredith through the book The Sacred Yew by Chetan and Brueton, and then also to Robert Bevan-Jones’ book The Ancient Yew. So began my interest and subsequent involvement with the yew. Many yews it would appear are of a great size and may well predate the church to which they are assigned.
Impressed by the size of these churchyard yews I began in 2003 to visit more churchyards in Kent in the hope that I would discover an undocumented one but soon realised that most were already recorded.
Further reading proved most rewarding and I learned of the Tree Register, which in turn led me to “Yew Trees” (established by Paul Greenwood) and finally to the work of The Ancient Yew Group. Through the support and encouragement from Paul at “Yew Trees” I moved on to fieldwork research in areas away from churchyards. Such research has introduced me to wonderful yews in places as varied as private gardens, the North Downs, local park lands, surroundings of a religious nature, an original monastic site and stately homes to name but a few.
Discovering and sharing my finds with others, be they fellow enthusiasts or custodians of yew themselves has meant sharing much more than just the discovery of another yew. Owners and custodians are always grateful to learn more about these wonderful enigmatic splendours of our heritage and I’m just as thrilled by their enthusiasm.
Many yews are potential Ancient Monuments in their own right, with possible significant links to our ancestral past and its players, but in many cases remain unrecognised as such. In my own little way, and with the guidance and support of those far more experienced than myself, I can only hope that my contribution will help to raise the profile, significance and understanding of our yews here in Kent.

Tim Laurie
Tim has been concerned with the survey and interpretation of archaeological sites of all periods in Wensleydale, Swaledale and on the Swale-Tees and Greta Uplands over a period of almost forty years. He is mentor and President of the recently formed Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeological Group, see www.swaag.org . His current interest is in recording woodland communities throughout this region of the East Pennine Fringe, but with special regard to the wealth of relict woodland on the many limestone scars and within remote tributary gills of the Swale Catchment which include many locations with ancient yews, juniper and aspen. This stems from his conviction, as an Archaeologist, that a reconstruction of the contemporary prehistoric woodland environment is prerequisite to the understanding of the natural controls and the character of human activities in the Pennine Uplands through time. To this end, he has been and is actively engaged in collaborating with the Woodland Trust, The Tree Register and with the Ancient Yew Group in the collation of records, not only of individual trees, but also of the surviving fragments of woodland vegetation on the often remote and seldom visited limestone cliffs of this fine Dales Landscape.

Minutes of the AYG meeting 16th March 2008

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

David Alderman of the Tree Register, who recognised the significance of the information gathered by members of the Ancient Yew Group and has worked tirelessly to oversee the development of this web site.

The Conservation Foundation, for instigating many projects associated with the yew and providing support in our efforts to save threatened trees.

Authors of the books featured in the Bibliography, who have advanced the knowledge of ancient yews in the British Isles:
Trevor Baxter: Robert Bevan-Jones: Anand Chetan and Diana Brueton: Vaughan Cornish: J.Daryll Evans: Hal Hartzell,Jr.: John Lowe: Ken Mills: E.W. Swanton: Richard Williamson

Allen Meredith, whose gazetteer (appendix 3 in Chetan and Brueton’s The Sacred Yew) lists 404 ancient yew sites in the British Isles and inspired many to carry out further yew research.

Arthur Mee, author of The King’s England Series, who travelled the country to record architecture, but was aware of the significance of old yews in churchyards.
Originally published by Hodder and Stoughton his guidebooks have become historical documents in their own right and many are now available in reprints of the originals, produced by The King’s England Press.

CPAT – The Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, whose Historic Churches Survey Database can be found at www.cpat.org.uk. Their detailed observation and recording of ancient churchyards has uncovered many undiscovered ancient yews. Making their findings so accessible sets an example for others to follow.

The Buildings of England series by Pevsner published by Yale University Press:
Nikolaus Pevsner – Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Dorset, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Shropshire, Somerset, Sussex, Wiltshire and Worcestershire.
David Verey and Alan Brooks - Gloucestershire
John Newman – Kent
Ian Nairn - Surrey
The Buildings of Wales series published by Yale University Press:
John Newman – Glamorgan, Gwent/Monmouthshire
Richard Haslam – Powys

Yew recorders
Contributors to the Tree Register’s data base
Robert Bevan-Jones – Hertfordshire
Phillip Burbury – particularly yews on cliffs and escarpments in North Yorkshire and Durham
Lin Carter – Berkshire
Steve Dennis – Herefordshire and Derbyshire
Owen Johnson – Trees of Sussex
Andrew Morton – Trees of Shropshire
Yew surveys carried out in Brecon and Hampshire

Owners/finders of exceptional yews
D.J.Beer, Roger Benner, Adrian Bruce-Smythe, Tony Hackett, Sheila Hardiman, Stephen Horn, Mike Jenkins, David Knapp, Lalit Kumar, John Knight, Andrew Locke, Donald Rice, Colin Roberts, John Scudamore, David and Anne Seabright, John Shaw, Tina Smale, Paul Strike, Roland Trafford-Roberts, Sir Humphry Wakefield Bt., Sue Watts, Luke Wilson

Tree professionals with an interest in yews
Russell Ball, Kevin Hand, Fergus Kinmonth, Andy Moir, Donald Rodger, Paul Tabbush
The Cliff Ecology Research Group, University of Guelph, Canada – Doug Larson, Uta Matthes, J.A.Gerrath and Peter Kell

Thanks also to:

Jan Fry, who hosted the meetings that brought together those involved in this enterprise.

Tony Titchen, whose enthusiasm for sharing tree knowledge was the gazetteer’s starting point.

Dave Foster – Northpoint Multimedia Ltd for invaluable technological advice and assistance in digital imaging.

The Bristol Naturalist Society librarians.

Long suffering and generous family members who allow us to pursue our interest in the conservation of Ancient Yew Trees.

Copyright and Permission for Use