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Country diary: The churchyard yew is an entire universe by itself | Environment

Country diary: The churchyard yew is an entire universe by itself | Environment

An ancient yew tree in the churchyard at Hope Bagot in Shropshire.

IThis beautiful, cliff-enclosed village is encircled further by a dozen of yews that create a dense green palisade surrounding the churchyard. It has created an inner sphere that surrounds the building. This may be what is responsible for the beautiful shape of the yew next door.

It’s a multi-stemmed veteran with a large trunk. The invasion by light has caused a lot of growth along each branch, from trunk down to twig-end. The new stuff has grown straight up and at right angles with the limbs. These older and newer parts reminds me of a whole wood with thick dark trunks and an understore of green twiggy, but all emanating one organism.

The mysteries and magic of churchyards yews are deep-rooted in ancient magic. One legend states that the wood was used in making longbows. The trees were also placed in medieval churchesyards to prevent livestock from getting their poisonous leaves. The wood, including the red arils, is toxic. A farmer friend shared with me how a gardener inexperienced in the art of yew threw cuttings across a wall that killed nine cattle.

An ancient yew tree in the churchyard at Hope Bagot in Shropshire.
An ancient yew tree found in the churchyard of Hope Bagot, Shropshire.Photograph: MH Country/Alamy

Derbyshire limestone is a favorite of the Yews. However, their bad reputation has forced many to move out to the bare cliffs or crags, where neither cattle nor farmers can reach them. These Cromford churchyard trees were not planted to make bows because the timber was mainly Iberia-sourced.

It is home to some amazing ecclesiastical leaders. The medieval waistline of a yew at St Helens, Darley Dale, is over eight metres. Another nearby tree, Betty Kennys Tree was said to be 2,000 years older and was credited with the creation of the nursery rhyme Bye Baby Bunting. Cromford yews are famous, even among naturalists, for their abundance of seeds that are a winter lure to the most beautiful, mysterious, and sought-after bird in Britain, the misnamed hawfinch. However, this little bit of yew magic is still elusive to me.

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