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Yews at Sites of Antiquity

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

Yews at Sites of Antiquity

Hambledon Hill, Dorset

Above the Stour Valley on a spur of Hambledon Hill below a hillfort, a pure yew wood clings to a steep southern slope. Martyn Waller of Kingston University has used peat deposits at the southern base of the hill to produce a pollen and vegetation history of the area. From about 3400 BC to 2000 BC the hill was covered by dark yew woodland. One can only wonder at the size of those Neolithic yews. A painting of Hambledon and Hod Hills by Heywood Sumner shows a fragmentary yew wood with open areas of scrub that today are completely covered by yew. Ann Horsfall believes the present yew wood has its origins in the later medieval period and an inner core of old coppiced yews does suggest this. A stunning photograph of this private yew wood taken at sunrise by Edward Parker graces the cover of Fred Hageneder’s ground breaking new book ‘ Yew- a History’.

The Yew wood on Hambledon Hill
The Yew wood on Hambledon Hill

The Winklebury Scragg, Wiltshire

Augustus Henry Lane Fox ( 1827-1900) inherited the large Chase estate of Rushmore at Tollard Royal, on the simple condition he took the name of Pitt Rivers. General Pitt Rivers is regarded as the father of modern archaeology. He started his pioneering first season’s work in 1881-1882, close to his home at the promontory Iron Age hillfort of Winklebury. During the excavations, the general opened a number of British barrows and removed an ancient yew tree. The yew grew on top of the round barrow at the edge of the hillfort and was a prominent landmark. It was carefully maintained by the people of Berwick St John, the village at the foot of the down, who held that its existence was a charm against witches and evil spirits. Pitt Rivers had suggested to his hired colleagues that the contents of the barrow would be spoiled by the tree’s roots, and went ahead with the yew’s removal, much to the indignation of the local people. Close to where the yew grew the general surprisingly uncovered a small Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Because the yew was called a scragg, it is usually thought to have been a dead tree, but growing in such an exposed place, the yew may well have been damaged and hollow but still living. The yew was mentioned in Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine of 1839, indicating that it was alive then. To appease the villagers, a local dignitary reinserted the yew in its barrow, but no trace of the tree remains today.

Whitsbury Castle, Hampshire

Exploring this beautiful countryside is a constant delight and ancient yews still turn up in unexpected places. During a recent visit, a previously unrecorded yew with a girth of 21 feet was found growing just below the top of the steep ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort of Whitsbury Castle. This is a significant find because yews of this size now only survive on one other British hillfort, at Merdon Castle, also in Hampshire. Surprisingly, this yew was not mentioned by the county archaeologists, J.P. Williams Freeman and Heywood Sumner, who were friends and both came here and usually recorded old yews that they found at sites of antiquity.

Courting Tree of Whitsbury, Hampshire

Reaching the wooded ridge of Whitsbury on a hot summer day in 2007, we were astonished to find an enormous yew. The trunk of this tree has almost split in two, and being covered in much ivy and twiggy growth, is very difficult to measure. Below a height of three feet, it girths approximately 28 feet, but above where four huge limbs have replaced the upper central trunk the tree is smaller. The large measurement gives a true indication of the age of this yew, for it includes the far older original part of the trunk. This solitary male yew grows by the path leading to the British hillfort of Whitsbury, a short distance away.

The Courting tree, the huge yew of Whitsbury
The Courting tree, the huge yew of Whitsbury

Whitsbury Castle, with its recently discovered ancient yew, encompasses Grim’s Ditch which forms a boundary of the yew wood to the north. Grim’s Ditch exits the hillfort’s south eastern corner and continues along the ridge, passing just beneath the large yew. Parts of this earthwork remain in woodland nearby. On the Whitsbury ridge, the Reading beds again meet the chalk and the yew grows on the much poorer acidic soil. There is a possibility that this yew tree was here when both the hillfort and boundary ditch were still in use, and may belong to their history. The Romans occupied the hillfort and it was again used by the Romano-British when the legions were recalled from this country. Together with Clearbury Rings, the massive triple defences of Whitsbury Castle held up the Anglo-Saxon invaders for fifty years or more. During the long period when the hillfort was in use, the ridge would have been cleared of most of its woodland and the yew tree may have grown in an open area. The yew is well known to local people who call it the Courting Tree. A large hornets nest inside the hollow trunk would certainly deter any romantic liaisons there now.

Duck’s Nest Tump, Hampshire

On the top of the Duck’s Nest Tump, a Neolithic long barrow near Rockbourne, a large yew sprawls across the earthwork like a giant spider. The yew was recorded by J.P. Williams Freeman, and its presence was often felt by the solitary figure of Heywood Sumner as he worked on his dig at the nearby deep blue Spring Pond. To H.J. Massingham, who liked an old tree as much as he liked an old barrow, it was a ‘priest like yew rising from the undergrowth covering the mound’. Reaching the earthwork’s centre through dense stinging nettles is no easy matter, but once here it can be seen that the large yew has been cut down a long time ago and  regrown as a coppiced tree. Judging from the thickness of its many limbs, this must be a far older tree than the other yews which grow on the mound. The yew’s large dome shaped crown is quite a landmark when seen from the heights of Damerham Knoll in the west.

The Yew on Duck’s Nest Tump
The Yew on Duck’s Nest Tump

Knowlton Circles, Dorset

At Knowlton on the eastern boundary of the Chase, a line of ancient yews cross a Neolithic henge site. The alignment of Bronze Age round barrows to the south indicates that the henge had a long period of ritual use. Beginning in Saxon times, the Knowlton court of the hundred met here and the Normans built a church in middle of the only complete earthwork to have survived the plough. The now ruined church, which may have replaced an earlier one, belonged to the village of Knowlton, which was situated nearby on the banks of the River Allen. Together with its close neighbour, the settlement of Brockingham, Knowlton was depopulated by the Black Death of 1348 and abandoned.

The church henge with its ancient yews
The church henge with its ancient yews

The church or middle henge, which is under the guardianship of English Heritage, has two ancient yews close together on its outer embankment. There used to be a third yew here but it was damaged by fire and removed. The yews continue across arable fields to end in the middle of the north henge, which is now only visible in aerial photographs in times of drought. Recently there has been concern about the amount of chemical spraying of the crops grown in these fields and the effect it is having on these yews. Robert Bevan-Jones in The Ancient Yew (2002) believes that the yews, which reach 23 feet in girth, are the remaining part of a hedgerow boundary and are Anglo-Saxon boundary markers. Allen Meredith’s gazetteer in Chetan and Brueton’s The Sacred Yew (1994) considers the yews to have a far greater age. Whether boundary and church markers or an earlier processional way, the ancient yews greatly add to the atmosphere and veneration of this sacred place.

All Hallows. Dorset

One and a half miles north of Knowlton Circles is another impressive ancient yew site that until quite recently was unrecorded. At All Hallows, a hamlet in the delightful River Allen valley, ancient yews surround a small semi-circular churchyard where the church has vanished. The largest yew here is 29 feet in girth, which I believe dates this site to a pre-Christian period. The 22ft. 2in. yew growing on the opposite roadside bank may suggest this was once a larger burial place. Finding unrecorded yews of this size so close to the well documented specimens at Knowlton was surprising, but what makes All Hallows an even more exciting find are a number of ancient yews marking a disused routeway coming down the hill from that direction. At the bottom of the hill, a huge yew with a girth of 27 feet stands as a sentinel at the southern approach to this unique and enigmatic site. A short distance away, in the tiny churchyard of Wimborne St Giles, there is a magnificent spreading yew with a girth of 23 feet.

Ancient yews above All hallows
Ancient yews above All hallows

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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