At Kingley Vale in the South Downs North West of Chichester sits one of the oldest gatherings of Yew Trees in Western Europe.
It’s hard to date yews. They hollow in the middle so you lose the rings, and they can pause their growth in bad years. These ones are old. There are many of them, and they have lived long – a gathering of ancient twisted giants. Surely some of the oldest living things in England.
You know me and trees, oh constant reader. Here is a memory of my quest in Northern California. That trip was for redwoods – another ancient spirit. Today I went home, to the yew – the home grown. The temple tree.
Often they can be found in churchyards, single specimens, older than the church. Plaques will occasionally try to persuade you that they pull miasma from the air so they are put there for that reason. Common sense will tell you that they are in places of power – the yew is a canopy. It is a natural temple. There are many beliefs much older than the one we see most frequently. Go quietly under your next yew tree. Listen to it.
Just don’t eat any of it. They kill you nice and fast. Although … I hesitate to say it but the berries are okay. So long as you definitely don’t swallow any of the seed in the middle of the berry, which is mercifully large… Swallow that and you might experience a spot of sudden death. Do you like those odds? Don’t mess with yews.
People liked the wood for bows, although apparently the shape of the branches in Southern Europe were preferred and imported in large numbers in time for us to shoot all the French with longbows at Agincourt. Still I’m sure we lost most of our old growth yews to war, so the ones at Kingley are even more of a welcome survivor. Believe it or not, half of the ones that survived the rise and fall of fletching got taken out by Canadian troops training in the area during World War 2. “Target Practice”. Somebody didn’t like the oojie-boojie druidic slant to these gorgeous trees. The iron child of the bow cut into its ancestor.
They entwine with one another there in the vale, seeming to writhe with ancient life, dappling the light beneath their twisted canopies. I would never want to shoot one. Their trunks are alive and strange and eloquent, torn with mouths and noses and bright shocks of colour. They feel wise, they feel thoughtful and they feel old. A plaque on the trail oversimplifies their genesis. It tells us they were planted in the 860’s to celebrate a victory against the vikings. We may have had that victory, and some trees may have been added, but my instincts and my reading tell me that most of those trees are much older than a mere grand and a bit.
Places like Kingley Vale are powerful and important – plugged into a deeper meaning about how we used the natural world before we complicated it. Once you start to see our yews as our natural temples, it is hard not to confer them with that power. Strange twisted poisonous beauties, squat and stripped and bright and gnarled, green needles and red berries, holding their space in the plant world through light theft and poison, providing outdoor temples to our early faith structures, ingredients for our witches, wood for our bows. A good time of year to go as well. When it’s hot and the sap is flowing they can get into your head. You’re not gonna keel over from breathing them though – otherwise they’d be fenced off. Just be wary of eating, and I’m told mushrooms growing from them should be avoided…
Lou and I spent a few hours in delighted contemplation of our natural and spiritual history through these beauties. Then we drove back to Brighton. And watched Iron Man 3.