Britain’s ancient churchyard yews

As part of We Love Yew

This short digital tour tells the tale told by just a few of Britain’s yew trees.

We’re home to the largest collection of ancient yews in the world and the sanctuary offered by churchyards, which hold the majority of ancient yews, makes them particularly important sites for this natural heritage. Here, we’ll fly through twelve of Britain’s churchyard yards and glimpse at the story they can tell.

Find more ancient yews on the map at weloveyew.org/map

Share your local yew with #weloveyew and @ConservationFdn

Words by The Conservation Foundation and photos by Diana Patient and from Geograph. The map was created by The Conservation Foundation as part of the We Love Yew campaign, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.



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St Andrew's, Totteridge, Barnet

One of the oldest trees in London, an ancient yew, can be found in Barnet. It is thought the local Hundred Court, a medieval administrative body, met beside this yew, and the tree has changed little since the earliest recorded date of measurement in 1677. A little “TLC” can go a long way to help ancient yews, which often have a large mass but little foliage to produce energy, and the Totteridge yew is no different, with mulch recently applied to its base to support its growth.

More on the Totteridge yew

St Peter's, Tandridge, Surrey

The huge and ancient Tandridge yew in St Peter's Church was struck by lightning and pronounced dead in the mid-19th century. However the yew recovered and now towers above the medieval church. Thought to be over a thousand years old it is one of the oldest trees in Surrey, and was immortalised on Royal Mail stamps as part of millennium celebrations.

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St George's, Crowhurst, Surrey

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. The tree is rich in tales and folk lore. A door was attached to the tree in 1820 and villagers held tea parties in its hollow trunk, which also provided shelter for those attending the annual Palm Sunday Fayre. A cannon ball, thought to be from the Civil War, was found embedded within the tree’s trunk. It disappeared during the Second World War, but was handed back by a soldier from a nearby army camp who thought better of taking it as a memento.  The Crowhurst yew has been documented since 1630 and is one of the ‘50 Great British Trees’ chosen to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee year.

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St Peter, Molash, Kent

St Peter’s is home to 6 large yews over 500 years old, and was one of 7 sites used by The Conservation Foundation to propagate saplings which were distributed to 8,000 churches across the UK to celebrate the Millennium. St Peter’s church dates from the 13th century, but the site is thought to be considerably earlier and at least one of the yews is thought to predate the church. This yew separated into two and a rod is bolted to both fragments to prevent further separation.

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St Mary, Eastling, Kent

The gigantic yew looming over the porch of St Mary’s church is the oldest of a dozen younger yews in the churchyard. The bulging trunk is hollow inside but full of internal growth and the earliest recorded mention of the yew is found in an 1838 edition of The Farmers Magazine which notes its huge girth, although an 1807 water colour painting of the church also shows a large tree by the church thought to be the yew. In 1936’s The King’s of England, Arthur Mee wrote that the yew “is said to be as old as the throne of England, and it looks as flourishing”. The church itself also has a long past, with parts dating from the 11th century, and subsequent construction in the 12th, 13th, 14th and 19th centuries.

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St Mary & St Peter, Wilmington, Sussex

Supported by props and chains, the immense yew tree at St Mary & St Peter in Wilmington looks every bit as antique as its age. This exceptional ancient tree grows near the ruins of Wilmington Priory and the ‘Long Man of Wilmington’.  A stone sits at the base of the tree, reportedly from Roman times and uncovered by the local well-digger whose grave is below. The yew has two trunks which were originally thought to have been from one tree until it hollowed and split, and has a vast canopy spreading across the churchyard.

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St Mary, South Hayling, Hampshire

This imposing ancient yew, some 11m in girth and one of the finest in southern England, is now protected by railings, part of which has buckled under the weight of a huge limb resting on it. St Peter’s is an early 13th century church, little changed since it was built, and the tree is well documented. The churches candles sticks were turned by one of the parishioners from wood removed from yew. Its heavy limbs are supported by giant props and a post card from a hundred years ago shows the giant ancient yew. The props, visible in the postcard, are now rotting and the church is fundraising to replace them.

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St Mary's, Linton, Herefordshire

Close to the path leading to Linton St Mary’s church near Ross-on-Wye you can find an ancient female yew. The yew was badly damaged by fire in 1998 but has been recovering well. The yew has a substantial girth with a large cavity that reveals an internal stem. The Linton community have done much to celebrate their yew, including hosting an exhibition on the tree.

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St Bartholomew's, Much Marcle, Herefordshire

The 13th century church of St Bartholomew’s is just the latest companion of the ancient yew found in the churchyard. Thought to be some 1,500 years old it has seen a medieval castle and Norman church, fragments of which are still visible. The yew has hollowed and a bench placed inside it and as with many ancient yews props have been installed to support its great limbs.

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St Winnifred, Gwytherin, Conwy

Four standing stones, thought to be pre-Christian, stand towards one of the three yews found in Gwytherin churchyard. Two yews flank the entrance, whilst a third, badly damaged by fire, is found overlooking the valley. The yews were likely here when Saint Winnifred, a seventh century noblewoman from which folklore abounds, came here to become a nun. The church was built on the foundations of the covenant and Saint Winnifred was buried here until, 500 years after her death, monks from Shrewsbury travelled here to transport her remains to their Cathedral.

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St Cuthbert's, Beltingham, Northumberland

The Grade I listed church in Beltingham is a treasure trove of British history. A large yew in tree in its churchyard, the trunk of which is twisting as if to escape from the brace that prevents it splitting, is accompanied by a Roman alter, as well as a Saxon Cross from which the church dates. Despite extensive restoration work in Queen Victoria’s reign which transformed much of the church you can still find a medieval font, used to baptise Nicholas Ridley, a former Bishop of London who was one of the three Oxford Martyrs burned at the stake during the English Reformation. The yew would have provided ample shade in the sixteenth century for Nicholas, as well as the soldiers that took part in the nearby Battle of Flodden, one of the largest Scottish-English battles, with yew a favored wood at the time to make bows.

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Fortingall Parish Church, Fortingall, Perth & Kinross

Thought to be the oldest living tree in Britain, and one of the “50 Great British Trees” declared as part of the Queen’s Jubilee, the yew in Fortingall, near Perth, is now only visible behind a wall, built to protect it from souvenir hunters. Thought to date from a post-Roman Christian site, the yew, fragmented in two, is peculiar not just because of its age but also, as noted by researchers at RBG Edinburgh in 2015, that one branch had changed sex, from male to female. Today’s church is on a site of early Christian worship and contains a number of historical artifacts, but was only built in 1901, in the decorative “Arts and Crafts” style popular at the time.

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