In April 1991, the oldest feature of our church was nearly destroyed by fire. Prompt action by the fire brigade and sensitive pruning by the tree surgeon, saved our ancient yew tree. The cause of the fire was put down to inquisitive children igniting the dry tinder inside its hollow trunk. The Rector, Clive Slaughter, used his persuasive powers on the firemen to leave their hoses running to ensure that not only would the smouldering ashes be truly subdued but also to make sure the roots had a good soaking to encourage prompt regrowth.
Photo from Herts
and Essex Observer
Two years earlier Marcia Slaughter had taken several measurements of its girth circumference for a David Bellamy / Country Living magazine campaign to produce a date database for the most venerable of churchyard trees. The computer was unable to come up with a definitive age for our tree except to say that it was over 1,000 years old and we have the certificate to that effect. Our tree therefore predates any other structure in the church with the exception of the possible Saxon foundation dimensions on which the nave and chancel are built.
Yew trees have always proved to be mysterious features in churchyards. Scholarly debates exist as to how to accurately measure their age as yews grow at different rates and in different trunk configurations. Our single elderly yew to the south-west of the tower has a hollow centre whilst those to the south-east of the sanctuary form a circular grove of four trunks. I was contacted recently by a researcher who believed that these were the regrowth remnants of a single ancient yew planted at the same time as our south-west specimen. He suggested that if I were to measure the inside girth of this grove it would equate with the girth of the single yew. This I did and the circumferences, at one metre from the existing ground levels, were 5.90 metres and 6.10 metres respectively. His hypothesis is that Saxon builders planted yews as long-lasting windbreaks for the vulnerable corners of their church buildings.
Other traditions for churchyard yews include the markings for ancient burial plots, waymarks of ancient saints, provision of timber for medieval longbows and substitute palms for Palm Sunday processions. These customs derive from the yew's great tensile strength, its longevity and many ancient rituals, often pagan in origin, attached to it.
One fact, which has sadly been proved within the parish, is that of the poisonous effects of yew foliage. In 1802 Sir John Grant, whilst living in Twyford House, attempted to improve 'primitive Hertfordshire farming practices' by bringing down over one hundred fine young black cattle from his estate in Scotland. 'They were put to rest in the small paddock between the orchard and the River Stort bordered on the shrubbery side by the yew hedge. Poor beasts it was heart breaking to see them all next day dropping one after the other .. dying from the effects of the poison.' 'Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, Memoires of a Highland Lady'.
However, the tradition of planting Taxus baccata in churchyards continues. As part of the Christian Millennium celebrations we have obtained a young yew tree propagated from an ancient yew estimated to be at least 2000 years old. It is being nurtured in the safe custody of our own churchyard tree surgeon, Tim Fuller, and will be planted in the fullness of time.
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