They are the sentinels of the silent cities, standing tall and often spreading out their branches to shade the last resting places of the permanent residents. Yew trees can often be older than the churches they nestle beside and may predate Christianity as many churches were built on pagan sites of worship. In fact there are reputed to be at least 500 yew trees of this vintage in the UK! And incredibly, there are 10 yew trees in Britain that are believed to predate the 10th century.
These venerable trees have many associations and traditions. So, I will concentrate on a few. They are usually associated with churchyards and burial grounds. The most common tradition is that they are nourished by the decaying bodies beneath them and, as they can grow up to 20 metres high, this could seem plausible. Another tradition states that yews were planted on plague victims graves to protect and purify them – if this were true then some churchyards would resemble a forest!
Another common tradition is that they were planted to prevent ‘commoners’ from grazing their cattle on church ground. This was because yews are very poisonous to livestock. The needles are deadly, and Shakespeare used this in Macbeth when the three witches conjure up a deadly brew that contains, amongst other unpleasant ingredients:
‘Gall of goat, and slips of yew Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,’
However, the Celts saw the yew as a symbol of immortality, death and resurrection which makes the yew’s presence in burial places more obvious. This was because its drooping branches are able to root and form new trunks where they touch the ground. The one at St James in Cooling was living inside its dead ancestor which demonstrates its ability to renew itself.
In fact, they are one of the most long lived trees in Western Europe but are not considered ancient until at least 900 years old. The oldest tree in Scotland, and possibly Europe, is the magnificent Fortingall yew in Glen Lyon. It has been suggested that it is over 2000 years old and maybe even 9000 years old. It has numerous legends attached to it and in 1769 was reputed to have a girth of over 56ft. In 1854, funeral processions were reputed to be able to pass through the arch formed by its split trunk. The yew in St Cynog’s churchyard in Wales is a mere stripling at a reputed 5000 years old. One of the world’s oldest surviving wooden artifacts is a yew spear head which is estimated to be around 450,000 years old. They are evergreens with red berries which although are edible, the seed in the berry is extremely dangerous.
One of my favourite churchyards is that of St Marys in Painswick, Gloucestershire. It has 99 clipped yew trees but according to Roy’s blog post, attempts to grow a 100th tree have always failed. They are a dramatic sight to see!
I must admit that I would feel disappointed if I visited a churchyard and didn’t see a tall, majestic yew or two keeping watch over the dead as potent symbols of resurrection and immortality and the life to come.
Loren Rhoads, author of the first ‘Death’s Garden’ and ‘199 Cemeteries To See Before You Die’, has now created ‘Death’s Garden Revisited’. This is a collection of essays from fellow taphophiles in which they express their relationships and feelings about cemeteries.
And (drum roll) I have an essay in it! It goes live on March 17 2022 on Kickstarter!
A worthy addition to any taphophiles bookshelf or Kindle!
‘I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle — I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers—pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
This is an excerpt from the first chapter of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It’s full of atmosphere and mystery as the hero, Pip, conscious that he is alone in the world, contemplates the graves of his family in a Kent churchyard. Then Magwitch, the escaped convict, comes up from the marshes and finds him. Pip’s life will never be the same again.
The churchyard is that of St James, Cooling. As I’m currently living in Charles Dickens country in Kent, I thought I should take the opportunity to visit two nearby churches which are associated with him. After admiring the restored charnel house in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, Cliffe and the container ships on the horizon which weren’t quite so interesting, I set off. The large sign pointing me to Cooling did not indicate the distance involved but it soon proved to be ‘a country mile’ away. If you’ve not heard this expression before, it means that it’s a lot further away than you thought. There was no bus service there and so I walked (why I am not a sylph like being by now I have no idea) and walked and walked along what was an empty road for most of my journey. A straggle of houses soon came to an end, and I was surrounded by fields. These were sunflower fields that had been harvested.
A few stragglers were still visible and what a sight they must have been in high summer! But hope sprang eternal as to me finding the village and at least it was sunny. I kept looking hopefully but at last the remains of the 14th century Cooling Castle came into sight. It must have been a magnificent and impressive structure in its day and indicated that there must have been a lot more of Cooling then there is now. It dwarfed the more contemporary corporate events lodge next door to it.
I never did find any evidence of an actual village but there was a small terrace of houses on the other side of the churchyard. This is named, appropriately or unimaginatively, Dickens Walk. In Dickens time the church was situated on the marshes which have now been drained for farmland. But it’s still an isolated spot and must be even more so in the depths of winter. On the horizon were the Coryton oil refineries and the town of Basildon in Essex. Not very inspiring I thought. In Dickens time, the church would have been surrounded by the marshes and quite desolate and yet it inspired one of his greatest novels.
‘Pip’s Graves’ as they are known are in a prominent place near the church door – a group of small graves clustered together as if for company. These are the children, aged between 1 month to 18 months from two families who all died during the late 18th and 19th centuries. It was a poignant sight to see so many and there were 2 more child’s graves on the other side of the church. The table top tomb where Dickens liked to set out his picnic lunch is still there and I wondered if the churchyard had changed much since his day.
Also in the churchyard, there was a wide, spreading yew that was growing inside its dead ancestor – no wonder they are seen as symbols of resurrection and on one wall there was a mass dial. These were the only way of telling the time before the invention of mechanised timekeepers in the 14th century. Mass dials featured in a recent Symbol of the Month.
St James’s is a closed church in that it’s no longer used for services and is managed by the Churches Conservation Trust. On its website it calls itself a ‘church of great expectations’. Inside it was bright and airy and much of it dated back to the 14th century although there is a 13th century font. It retains the remnants of a rood screen and loft – obviously the iconoclasts weren’t as enthusiastic in their wrecking sprees here. The main nave aisle has four memorial slabs of which one had retained its brass inscription to Thomas Woodycare who died in 1611 and the other one was dedicated to Feyth Brook, the wife of John Brock, Lord Cobham and she died in 1508. The other two were blank or missing their brassware.
Sadly, I missed seeing another of St James’ claims to fame – the 19th century vestry which is covered from floor to ceiling in cockle shells. The shell is associated with pilgrims who were on the trail to St James’s shrine at Compostela and there is a brass shell on the church’s weathervane. I may have to make a return visit to see the shell clad vestry. However, it has been suggested that the scene at the beginning of Great Expectations may be a combination of churches in the area but St James does have the sad little graves.
The churchyard also has a reputation for being haunted. Female figures in Victorian dress have been seen drifting across it. I can only say that I did feel watched all the time that I was exploring but when I saw my observer, I knew someone had a sense of humour……