Skip to content

The Yew Wood

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

The Yew Wood

The Wiltshire antiquary John Aubrey, who often came riding across the downs of Cranborne Chase was the first person to mention this yew wood, for in 1685 he wrote

‘Yew trees naturally grow in chalkie countrys. The greatest plenty of them, as I believe in the west of England is at Nunton Ewetrees. Between Knighton Ashes and Downton the ground produces them all along; but at Nunton they are a wood’.

On the extensive chalk plateau, although well managed, Aubrey’s yew wood is the nearest thing we have in Britain to the dense yew groves that covered parts of the downland of this region in the early Neolithic. The yew wood is encircled by the earthworks of our prehistory, built when much of the woodland was cleared. There are Neolithic long barrows, Bronze Age tumuli and Grim’s Ditch, which is now thought to have been a huge livestock boundary enclosure. Grim’s Ditch, which was built in the later Bronze and early Iron Ages, forms the northern boundary of the wood. Stretching for miles across the downland, an old track passes along the western edge of the wood and here this is part of the county boundary.

Many of the yews have girths between 17 and 18 feet, but a few are larger in what may be the oldest part of the wood. Young yews are rare here, deer eat any seedlings and branch layering is suppressed. It has been said that because many of the yews are pollarded, the wood has its origins during the years of bow mania. A number of strangely shaped low pollards and coppiced yews along the western edge of the wood probably date from this period, but the inner core of larger trees may easily predate that time.

One acquaintance with the yew wood was on a bleak winter’s afternoon. Entering the yews dark shade, all was still and silent. Nothing grew under the yews closed canopy and I moved freely through the ancient groves. After aimlessly wandering, I came to the centre of the wood where the path was overshadowed by an avenue of huge yews. Where the avenue ceased, I found a clearing with a line of three yews, two with large cavities showing internal roots, the other a very fine tree with the greatest girth of any yew in the wood, measuring 21 feet. While I rested here at the heart of the yew wood, two roe deer, unaware of my presence, passed slowly through. The unwelcoming harsh screech of a jay broke my peaceful spell, a tawny owl called and the approaching gloaming beckoned. Reluctantly I left this enchanted wood.

Two of the yew woods ancient trees, the yew in the background is the largest here
Two of the yew woods ancient trees, the yew in the background is the largest here

It seems yew woods are not to everyone’s liking. Local Wiltshire writer, the late Ralph Whitlock wrote, ‘Yew trees are even more inhibitive of the woodland floor vegetation than are beeches. In a mature planted yew grove nothing else grows, and there is not even a covering of dead leaves to hide the chalk. The atmosphere is eerie, even sinister’. Although the ground flora is nonexistent under the darkest groves, many animals and birds inhabit the yew wood. A badger sett has been built under several yews and such is the power and tenacity of these animals, they have removed pieces of roots obstucting their tunnelling without any apparent harm to the trees. Hares often take shelter here from the surrounding downland and will browse the yew, as do the roe deer which are often seen here. The varied birdlife includes sparrowhawk, mistle thrush and goldcrest and the cavities of the yews provide nesting sites for tawny owls, and roosting places for bats. In Autumn, flocks of fieldfares and redwings visit to feed on the yew arils, as do a number of our resident birds.

An avenue of ancient yews
An avenue of ancient yews

A smaller yew wood lies half a mile to the north. Many large yews here were victims of the great storm of January 1990 and their decaying stumps are a stark reminder of that terrible day. Only two pure areas of yew remain and here the largest is l7½ feet in girth. This small wood is exclusively managed as a pheasant reserve and there has been less tidying up of the yews to provide cover for the game birds. Dense undergrowth and ash saplings quickly take advantage of the clearings created by fallen yews. In one such clearing two old yews have long clean boles that are almost hidden by branches hanging down due to storm damage. Where these branches have touched the ground they have layered, rooting at intervals to produce a number of young yews that have formed a circular grove around the parent trees. In the same clearing a fallen yew, victim of a long forgotten storm, has sent up a several vertical trunks, while the uppermost branches have layered to add to the marvellous array of regeneration. Both yew woods are part of a private estate.

Copyright: Peter Andrews

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

<< Area surveys of Non Churchyard Yews