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The Great Yew

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

The Great Yew

After spending an idyllic summer’s morning on the downland of Cranborne Chase in the early part of the last century, W.H. Hudson wrote ‘Just as the air is purer and fresher on these chalk heights than on the earth below, and as the water is of a more crystal purity, and the sky perhaps bluer, so do all colours and all sounds have a purity and vividness and intensity beyond that of other places’.

Not far from where Hudson visited, in a remote hilltop field, a great ancient yews looks out to a panoramic view of the downland and woodland of Cranborne Chase. Despite growing in an exposed situation, this is a magnificent tall and spreading yew. The extraordinary bleached and skeletal trunk has a girth of over 26 feet at its base, but there is evidence that it was once larger. A more accurate measurement for this male yew is I believe at a height of both two and four feet, either side of a bulge, where the bole reaches 28 feet in girth. During a recent visit, I found that in the severe gales of the previous few days, a branch had fallen from the upper canopy, which is thinning out due to such occurrences. I also saw that the spray had been cut right back on the upper bole and it was now possible to look inside its hollow interior. At the very heart of the yew were two large squat internal stems. The vast hollow trunk together with the internal growth help to anchor this mighty tree during the frequent storms which sweep across these chalk uplands.

The trunk of the ‘Great Yew’
The trunk of the ‘Great Yew’

The great yew grows on clay with flints, which in this location cover the chalk. Gorse growing on these chalk hills is a good indicator of this type of slightly acidic soil and here the plant occurs in quantity along the borders of the adjacent woodland. Growing on this windswept downland on a poor soil, the great yew must have a very slow growth rate. This is highlighted by another large yew growing in a similar situation on the south-eastern boundary of Cranborne Chase. Here an ancient yew is also growing on an impoverished soil, the acidic Reading Beds, which in this region intrude into the chalk. In 1919 the writer and archaeologist, Heywood Sumner (1853-1940) measured this fine yew and recorded a girth of 22 feet at a height of four feet. At the same height in 2007, I found that the girth had only increased by one inch. In the 88 years since Heywood Sumner came here the yew appears to have been practically dormant on its hillside, and how long the tree has remained in this state is impossible to say. Dating ancient yews, by whatever means, cannot take into account that the tree’s girth might not increase for decades or even centuries, while the tree is sustained by growing internally. In my estimation, the great yew may have an age of at least two thousand years.

The Yew Heywood Sumner measured in 1919
The Yew Heywood Sumner measured in 1919

In the surrounding countryside other yews have obviously been planted as markers along boundaries and footpaths and to shelter the droveways. Many younger yews have seeded in woodland and on downland by birds eating the fleshy red fruits of these planted trees. On a large expanse of nearby unimproved chalk downland, yews have been able to grow because the grassland is no longer used as a large sheepwalk. Given the yew’s high toxicity to livestock, it is nothing short of remarkable that this huge yew has survived on downland where there has been a long history of the grazing of cattle and sheep. To have reached such a size in this location, this yew must always have been a highly venerated and protected tree. Such protection may indicate that the yew was planted, perhaps to mark an important event or boundary, or quite possibly this tree is an indicator of a lost settlement.

It is always a privilege to visit this ancient yew and spend some time in the quiet sanctury of this lovely place. Here I began to realize what an amazing number of events, through times of peace and war, this yew has stood silent witness to. It is staggering to think that this yew may have been here when the smoke was rising from the cooking fires of the Celtic, Durotriges settlements on these hills. In antiquity these open grasslands had a much higher water table and therefore a much higher population. Today the yew grows in an arable field, part of a large private estate. There is no reason to believe that this great patriarch yew may not survive for millennia, for within the tree is the power of immortality.

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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