tepping off the train in leafy Hurst Green, it's hard to imagine how a short train ride from the capital can place you in a land home to some of our oldest living inhabitants. Yew trees can be thousands of years old – hundreds are older than this year's 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, during which King John and the Barons are thought to have found shelter beneath the Ankerwycke yew in Runnymede. However, map and compass in hand, its soon easy to lose yourself as the sound of the busy road becomes ever more distant, whilst bird song and the rustling of leaves in the wind grows larger along the Yew Tree Way.
St George's Church in Crowhurst, Surrey, was built in the early 14th century, but its ancient yew is thought to be double the church's age. Like many ancient yews, the tree is abound in tales and folk lore. Villagers held tea parties within its dark hollow trunk, which also provided shelter for those attending the annual Palm Sunday Fayre. A door was attached to the tree in 1820 and a cannon ball was found embedded within it. A Royalist strong hold, it was thought to be from the Civil War some two-hundred years earlier. Suddenly disappearing during the Second World War, the cannon ball returned soon after, handed back by a soldier from a nearby army camp who thought better of taking it as a memento.
But this elderly giant also provides shelter for more contemporary guests. The remains of a birds nest was found within, with ancient trees such as this gnarly yew providing the nooks and crannies perfect for wildlife to find refuge. Spider webs also adorn the interior, adding to the feeling of being in a magical and mysterious world. However it also feels like a tree on the move, ever changing but with much history to tell. The swirling ravines in the bark brings to mind a river seen from great heights, or the contours of a map revealing lands to be explored. It invites you to sketch it's contorted and textured form.
With dusk closing in, the trek started back over the stiles, leaving the contours of the bark and turning to those on our map.
You can download a leaflet of the Yew Tree Way by Tandridge District Council and Surrey County Council.
Pictures by Diana Patient