We’ve been expecting ‘yew’... for a long, long time
PUBLISHED: 11:56 19 August 2017
They are symbols of longevity – and abiding mystery. Trevor Heaton looks at the life and times of the yew, and how it links in with East Anglia’s ancient story.
We’ll never know who made it. We’ll never know who lost it. But sometime around 450,000 years ago – so long ago that it was between ice ages - one of the ancestors of modern mankind lost their fire-hardened spear in East Anglia.
The spear was lost in what became, aeons later, the coastal town of Clacton. And the tree that provided the wood for this presumably once-precious item was one of the most fascinating of all species: yew.
The 1911 discovery, now in the Natural History Museum, remains the oldest wooden spear to have been found in the British Isles, a remarkable find which is testament to the fact that the interaction of the tree and mankind (and, as here, the ancestors of mankind) goes back an astonishing long way.
This mysterious tree is famously long-lived. But quite how long is a bit of a – yes – mystery; that word again. And it has no business growing in our area anyway, as its natural habit is on well-drained limestone and chalk soils.
And yet they do appear, often in company with some of ancient churches. The one at St Mary’s Church, Whissonsett, near Fakenham, is one that has often intrigued me. This link between churches and yews, in fact, is one that has fascinated commentators for centuries (see panel).
“Yew have never flourished in East Anglia because they thrive on barren soils,” Gary Battell, Suffolk County Council’s tree officer, explained - but if you looked at the magnificent yew tree hedges that flank the approaches to the National Trust’s Blickling Hall, near Aylsham, you’d be forgiven for doubting that. They must be some of the best in the country, vast architectural hedges that beautifully frame the heart-stopping sight of the 17th-century house.
Keeping them clipped and tidy is a huge undertaking (a lot easier since mechanisation and cherry-pickers though) which takes place every August and takes a fortnight.
The vast number of clippings produced are gathered up for a very special purpose: they are used in the production of a drug called Taxol, which helps in the treatment of some cancers – just another surprising feature of this tree.
Our ancestors had no idea of all this. But they were all-too-aware of the power of the tree to harm. Livestock were kept away from eating the leaves, or humans from sampling the sweet-looking red berries. For poison lurks in these leafy corners.
And not just the livestock either: Norfolk squire Sir William ffolkes, of Hillington Hall in West Norfolk warned fellow landowners in 1892 of the dangers the tree posed to his game. Some of his pheasants, he warned, had been found dead under the branches of one of his yews. None had been shot, so the only conclusion was that they had fed on some of the shoots of the tree, with fatal effects.
“We now always drive them off the yew trees when they go to perch at night,” he said. The ‘we’, it’s fair to say, being his long-suffering gamekeepers, rather than the squire. I wonder how many years they had to keep up that regimen.
Taxus baccata is one of only three native British conifers (the Scots pine and juniper being the others). And is famous for living a long, long time. But quite how long is a matter of fierce debate.
“They do live to a very great age, but they are very hard to date from tree rings and they are a tree that looks older than they really are,” Mr Battell pointed out.
After a few hundred years the heartwood of the tree starts to disappear, making estimates based on tree rings impossible. Its growth rate seems to change too.
So researchers have to fall back on measuring the girth of the tree. The oldest tree in the British Isles is thought to be the famous Fortingall Yew in Perthshire which could be anything between 2,000 and 5,000 years old.
The greatest English tree was the Selborne Yew in Hampshire. Richard Mabey, in his marvellous book Flora Britannica, said the tree might have been planted in Anglo-Saxon times. Sadly, the tree – which had a girth of 25ft 10in in 1981 - was fatally damaged in a storm in 1990.
East Anglia struggles by comparison. Our oldest may well be the one in the churchyard at Preston St Mary, near Lavenham. Its trunk measures 363cm (11ft 11in) wide, and could be 850 years old.
The Ancient Yew Group has identified three more old yews in Suffolk – at Coddenham, Ickworth Park, and Christchurch Park in Ipswich, but only one in Norfolk (in the garden at Reydon Hall, near Harleston). There must surely be more.
But there is a catch: not all yews are the same. The ones we need to look for are the ones that have a spreading canopy, as these are the native species.
By reading Mabey’s account I discover - rather disappointingly - that the Whissonsett example is not one of these. And, as a consequence, not that old at all. For this is the fastigiate or Irish yew, every example of which is descended from two trees discovered in County Fermanagh in the 1760s.
The give-away is the way its branches sweep upwards, like the end of some giant’s broomstick thrust carelessly deep into the earth. So although this tree is planted on what is clearly the old southern boundary of the churchyard, it is not an ancient one.
Unless, of course, it was planted there to replace a much older tree that had died...
See what I mean about the mystery bit? The yew is definitely a tree that seems to relish keeping its secrets across the years. And I have a feeling it’ll be ages more before we discover them all.
My thanks to Gary Battell for his help with this feature.