Yew Tree: ANZAC Day tribute

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

Something unplanned an special cropped up

Submitted: April 21, 2018

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Submitted: April 21, 2018



Taxus baccata, the English Yew, once a mythical and mystical tree has slowly lost its cultural importance through the passage of time or because people have changed. Its modern importance, if importance is the word, is in topiary because of the tree’s ability to withstand severe pruning and trimming. Some varieties have a columnar habit so are useful for formal plantings.  Yew trees were planted in British church cemeteries in the past because its longevity represented the soul as being eternal. Most parts of the plant are toxic, which is also why the tree was planted in cemeteries. Farmers wouldn’t risk the death of their livestock, so were vigilant, which protected graves and headstones from being damaged. Insects are thwarted by the tree, so it was planted beside outside dunnies, ok, proper English – privies, to keep the flies away. The bright red arils, berries, are eaten by thrushes and blackbirds so the still poisonous seed is undigested and so distributed. As a schoolboy, not knowing about the toxicity of the tree, I ate my share of the berries and luckily spat the seeds out.

If the Romans and other early cultures didn’t like the idea of a sword or rope to commit suicide, they used Yew foliage or seed, as a poison. Yew timber was used for making the famous English longbows, the tension between sapwood and hardwood gave the bow added spring. Most trees that live for a long time have hard, durable wood, a Yew spearhead found in Wales has been carbon-dated as being 400 000 years old!

I happened to be staying near the New Forest in the South of England and read in a brochure that the oldest tree in the forest was a 1000 year old Yew tree at St. Nicholas Church, Brockenhurst. The New Forest had been set aside as a hunting ground by and for ancient kings, in 1079 William the Conqueror proclaimed the New Forest as a royal forest, which probably kept it pristine over the next few centuries.

St. Nicholas Church is in the Brockenhurst Parish and the area has been a religious place since at least the time of an Augustine Mission 590 – 600 AD. Records show that by 1160 Brockenhurst had become part of the great de Reduers field, and the Lord of the Manor was obliged to provide 'littler for the king's bed and fodder for his horse' whenever the king  came to the New Forest to hunt. So Norman and Angevin kings may well have worshiped at St. Nicholas.

Friends took us for a day trip around the New Forest, to show us some of the mighty trees, and they kept telling about a 'secret location' they wanted to show us.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when we passed a small sign pointing towards St. Nicholas Church. I remembered it because that was the name of a church on Barrington Street, Christchurch close to where I grew up. The Yew tree association was uppermost in my mind, but I didn’t want to spoil our friends’ surprise by mentioning it

We were indeed going to St. Nicholas church, not because of the tree but because our friends, on a previous visit, had found a small New Zealand war cemetery. It is an immaculate, small cemetery for First World War soldiers who had been injured, or had suffered an illness but had not survived while being treated at Brockenhurst No.1 New Zealand General Hospital. Of course we had never heard of the Hospital at Brockenhurst, nor of the cemetery but it was a privilege for us to be able to honour the men buried there.

Our friends had no idea that the famous Yew tree stood in the church grounds but were thrilled that they had been able to let me see it! It was a simple coincidence. The tree is not an elegant one, but it’s big as far as Yew trees go!  When it comes to famous trees, measurements are important: In 1793 the girth (circumference) was measured as fifteen feet, and by 1930 it grown to eighteen feet, at present the girth is twenty feet. Girth is measured at ‘breast height’, five feet above the ground in the UK. We must be shorter here in New Zealand because our standard measurement is diameter at breast height (DBH) which is four feet six inches above the ground. Rough rule of thumb, diameter is a third of circumference, so it would be just over six feet in diameter.

When we arrived home a large book arrived in the mail, it is titled 'New Zealand Graves at Brockenhurst' by Clare Church and it details the early lives in the way of personal histories of the men buried there. The book also details the campaigns in which the soldiers fought. There are one hundred and six graves in the cemetery, ninety three New Zealand graves, three Indian, perhaps because before the hospital became under New Zealand jurisdiction, it was Lady Hardinge's Hospital for Indian troops from the Lahore and Meerut Divisions. There are also the graves of three unidentified Belgian civilians, workers from the Sopley Forestry Camp. The book was a gift from our friends.

If I was living in the UK I would probably be tempted to take cuttings and propagate a few plants. There would be little value other than for interest sake, but I imagine descendants of those buried there might like to have a plant. It’s interesting to speculate who planted the tree, did the ancients propagate trees? Propagation, horticulture had to begin somewhere, sometime.

There’s a certificate in the church signed by experts such as David Bellamy, attesting that the tree is over a thousand years old. Say we accept the seed germinated in the spring of 1000 AD, if it did, the tree was a sapling of twenty seven years when William the Conqueror was born! Imagine that!

It is therefore fitting, that St. Nicholas Church is the place of burial for these men, and it is also fitting that the ancient Yew tree stands sentinel over the war graves at Brockenhurst.

‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We shall remember them.’





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