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The Ancient Yews of Cranborne Chase

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


Thomas Hardy wrote of Cranborne Chase in his novel, Two on a Tower, ‘a country of ragged woodland, which though intruded on by the plough in places, remained largely intact from prehistoric times, and still abounded with yews of gigantic growth and oaks tufted with mistletoe’.

Historically Cranborne Chase, a hunting domain of kings and nobles, covered parts of Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire. To gain an impression of the large size of the Chase, the area forms a rough quadrangle with Shaftesbury, Salisbury, Ringwood and Wimborne at the four corners. Physically this region is a chalk plateau bordered by the valleys of the Stour and Avon. Where clay with flints mantles the chalk, the Chase is heavily wooded. Cranborne Chase was disfranchised in 1829 and remains a relatively unknown and therefore less frequented part of England.

The Great Yew of Cranborne Chase
The Great Yew of Cranborne Chase

All the ancient yews are found in an area of the eastern Chase and here the wealth of yews includes all of the following: an ancient yew wood and other huge trees on downland hilltops, yews growing in a hidden grove, yews next to sites of antiquity, and also those in hedgerows by footpaths and those marking boundaries. Westwards in the vast woodlands of Rushmore and Ashmore, and on the chalk heights of Win Green and White Sheet Hills, ancient yews are presently unknown. Ancient yews are slow growing trees, particularly those in exposed places and on poor soils. A Chase hillside yew, 22 feet in girth has only increased by one inch in the last 88 years. From the late Saxon period the ancient yews growing here were protected when much of the land became large ecclesiastical estates, and doubtless as excellent horticulturists, the monks planted others. When the monastic lands were dissolved, the yews fell under the guardianship of wealthy landowners, a situation which continues to the present day. Other yews were planted, including many in the 18th and early 19th century to shelter the droveways, as well as landscape specimens, trees for our future appreciation.

Hidden along footpaths and in woods of the Chase, other yews await discovery. One private estate is reported to have at least one large ancient yew. An elderly naturalist wrote in 2000 of her father’s work on the estate and of her lost childhood: ‘This great park, the playground of my childhood, a paradise of chalk wild flowers and butterflies is no more. The great expanses of grassland are now partly arable and partly used for pheasant rearing and there is no public access. However I imagine the oldest yew known to me is still there. It was hollow in my childhood and I used to play house in it. It was seldom visited, in fact solitude and silence, save for the humming of bees and high pitched serenades of grasshoppers and bush crickets in the grassland around my ‘yew’, are what I remember of summer in that vanished parkland.’  For now this and other yews must remain hidden.


Bevan-Jones, R. (2002) The Ancient Yew: Windgather Press
Chetan, A.  and Brueton, D (1994)  The Sacred Yew: Penguin  
Field, John (1972) English Field Names
General Pitt-Rivers (1888) Excavations in Cranborne Chase. VOl 11.
Green, M (2000) A landscape revealed
Hageneder, F. (2007) Yew: A History: Sutton
Hawkins, D. (1983) Hardy’s Wessex
Hawkins, J (1980) Cranborne Chase : London: Gollancz,
Hudson, W.H. (1910) A Shepherd’s Life
Lane Poole, E.H.(1976) Damerham and Martin. A study in Local History
Massingham, H.J. (1936) English Downland: B.T.Batsford
Sumner, Heywood (1913) The Ancient Earthworks of Cranborne Chase
Watts, Ken (1998) Exploring Historic Wiltshire. South: Ex Libris Press
Whitlock, Ralph (1979)  Historic Forests: Moonraker Press

A special thanks to fellow yew enthusiasts Allen Meredith and Tim Hills.
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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