The Immortal Yew- Book Review

Tony Hall

Kew Publishing. Hardback. £25

ISBN: 978 1 84246 658 2

I’ve often walked under cathedral-like arches of ancient yew trees and wondered what stories they could tell. Their dense evergreen canopy means low light levels- adding an air of drama and mystery. It’s easy to let imagination run wild. No wonder the yew is linked to so many strange myths and legends.

Here’s my view of the yew walk at Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire on a cold January day a few weeks back. Almost a living sculpture. Hundreds of years of history captured in every twist and turn. I stood and marvelled at its strangeness and beauty.

Tony Hall, Manager at Kew, started on a quest to record our ancient yew trees after a visit to Devon where he found a huge male yew tree in a churchyard in Kenn. He was amazed by its immense size, and wondered just how many other trees there were like this. He set out to travel around Britain and Ireland in search of these venerable trees, and The Immortal Yew is the resulting book.

The book profiles 75 publicly-accessible yews, with details on their appearance, location, folklore and history, accompanied by 100 colour photographs. Each tree has its own story to tell- from fragmented, sprawling trunks, to ones you can sit inside. And there are some that have possibly inspired writers.

Author J.R.R. Tolkien is said to have found inspiration for the gateway to Moria in the Lord of the Rings from visiting the two guardian yews at Stow- on-the -Wold. The two yews flank the door at St Edward’s Church, like a pair of giant lion’s paws. Their photo makes a stunning cover picture for the book.

The Ankerwycke Yew near Wraysbury, Middlesex, is thought to be up to 2,500 years old, making it the oldest known tree on National Trust land. It’s possible the tree was the one under which the Magna Carta was agreed. And where Henry VIII courted the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. In 2002 it was chosen as one of the ’50 Great British Trees,’ to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Not far from the tree are the remains of St Mary’s Priory, a Benedictine convent built in the 12th century in the reign of Henry II. The yew would already have been a notable ancient landmark, substantially more than 1,000 years old, when the priory was built.

Much Marcle Yew, in St Bartholomew’s Church, Ledbury, Herefordshire has an unusual feature. The hollow interior is fitted with wooden benches which seat 12 people and were installed in the 18th century. The bulbous, fluted trunk has a circumference of over 9m. Some of the lower branches are still held up by old Victorian gas lamp columns.

A timeline highlights some key dates in the history of the yew. I have selected just a few of the dates which caught my attention.

  • 140 million years ago Taxaceae (yew family) fossils formed
  • 200BC Herbalist Nikander describes the painful death caused by yew toxin
  • 1066 Battle of Hastings: King Harold killed by an arrow that supposedly pierced his eye, fired from a Norman yew longbow.
  • 1215 Magna Carta signed under the Ankerwycke Yew

More modern dates include

  • 1986 anti-cancer drug Docetaxel, extracted from the leaves of European yew, was patented and later approved for medicinal use.
  • 1994 synthetic cancer drug Taxol was developed.
  • This book is a wonderful celebration of our native yew trees, and all the stories that go with them. It would be a fabulous starting point to a journey around Britain and Ireland. I for one would love to have the opportunity to visit these trees and stand and wonder at their beauty. Perhaps one day I will get the chance to set out on an grand tour. For now though, I’ll dip into Tony’s book and enjoy all the fascinating stories of mythology and folklore. It’s a journey into the past. And also, it would be interesting to see what scientists discover in the future, as I’m sure we haven’t learned all there is to know about these strange and much-valued trees.

    Tony Hall is Manager of the Arboretum and Gardens at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where he has worked for the past 17 years. His fascination with natural history began at a young age. He has been working in horticulture for 40 years. Tony is author of Wild Plants of Southern Spain (Kew Publishing, 2017 ).

    The publishers have one free copy to give away in a prize draw for readers of this blog. Please leave a comment below, by Sunday 27th Jan, to be included in the draw. The publisher’s decision is final and there is no cash alternative. UK and international entries are welcome.

    Here is the Amazon link for Tony’s latest book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Immortal-Yew-Tony-Hall/dp/1842466585/ref=sr_1_1/258-7276364-2203519?ie=UTF8&qid=1548447890&sr=8-1&keywords=the+immortal+yew

    Have you any favourite yew trees? I regularly visit Easton Walled Gardens near Grantham, where evidence of the Tudor-style walks and walls indicate there has been a garden on the site for at least 400 years. The yew tree tunnel is a much-photographed focal point of this historic restoration project started in 2001.

    Links:

    Melbourne Hall Gardens https://www.melbournehallgardens.com/

    Easton Walled Gardens https://www.visiteaston.co.uk/

    Kew Gardens https://www.kew.org/

    Kew publishing https://www.kew.org/about-our-organisation/business-services

    35 thoughts on “The Immortal Yew- Book Review

    1. Pingback: The Immortal Yew by Tony Hall – The Renaissance Gardener

    2. Pingback: Prize draw winners – The Immortal Yew | Bramble Garden

    3. Karen that beautiful words to describe the yew walk of Melbourne Hall. The cover of Tony Hall’s book is a marvel with those magnificent yew trees on either side of the entrance to St. Edward’s Church. The photos of the book are magnificent and how much history there is in millenary yews – up to 2,500 years – of which the author speaks. It has to be a very interesting book and at the same time entertained by the stories it tells. Karen I am with you that making a trip visiting those yews would be wonderful. Yes, I have a favorite yew 20 minutes walk from the country house. It is big and tall and underneath they have put a rudimentary wooden bench to sit on, which in the summer is much appreciated. It has spectacular views: the mountains with oaks, yew, lavender, rosemary, thyme and a lot more bushes; On the other hand, cereal crops and sunflowers flank the road. And now that unfortunately I no longer have a dog, if you are silent and you are lucky you go out to graze or drink in a small pond, rather pond, some young deer or you hear the sound of the female roe deer that are with their young hiding among them. cereal crops and they seem to bark. Thank you very much for the links, I have entered all and they are wonderful. Karen gives your Mother memories and love from me. For your family love and health. For you love, health, strength and rest. Take care. Very loving greetings from Margarita.

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      • Thank you Margarita. I can see your tree in my mind! What a beautiful picture you paint. Isn’t our ability to share these places, and experience them vicariously, just amazing and special. I feel like I am there with you, seeing what you see. When I was young I was in the church choir. There’s a yew in the churchyard that we all used to hide in and laugh and play games around while waiting for choir practice. I go there quite frequently now, as my grandparents and father are buried in the churchyard. I always look inside my special tree and I’m instantly transported back to those times when I was little and had no cares in the world. I can almost hear my friends’ laughter ringing out. Thank you, as ever, for your lovely, descriptive comments. I so look forward to your commentary. Wishing you and your family health, strength and love in return. Loving greetings from karen xx

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      • Thank you Gill. I love Tony Hall too. His passion for the subject really shines through in this book. I’m ashamed to say that I hardly know any of the trees he mentions. I’m determined to have a grand tour with my Mum. When my children were little we were always pointing out trees and naming them, hoping the kids would take an interest. Luckily they did. One day, I pointed and said, “ and that’s a yew tree…” My daughter , aged 4 said, ‘ Really, look Dad, it’s a me tree!” xx

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    4. Stunning photos, fascinating facts and history… As you note, this book may well inspire many a quest to see at least some of these ancient iconic beings…. Hadn’t realized there were so many of that tremedous age, in locations accessible to the public! Thanks for your write up Karen… Hope many people have a chance to peruse this fabulous tribute to some UK ancients of the genus…

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      • Thank you Jo. It’s a captivating read. I couldn’t put it down once I’d started. I’m ashamed to say I know hardly any of the trees he mentions. I’m planning to put that right with a grand tour with my Mum. Thanks again for reading xx

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    5. It is a lovely cover. You can see how it would inspire a fantasy writer. Tolkein stayed in my local area during WWI when he was recovering from Trench Fever. Lots of inspiration came from the area. I know a couple of the acknowledged influences, but reading the books I always feel there are other sites I walk along all the time that inspired him.

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      • What a lovely picture you paint. It’s certainly fascinating to see where writers get their inspiration, particularly when it’s from nature. I can quite see how Tolkien might have been drawn to the “lion’s paw” yews. They are amazing. Thank you for reading and for getting in touch. There’s lots more gardening books to come. Suddenly there’s an avalanche of new titles.

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      • Thank you Mark. I loved reading the book. My teachers always said I had too much imagination and were always telling me not to gaze out of the window, dreaming. Thanks for reading the blog and getting in touch. There’s lots more gardening books to follow.

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    6. Immediately intrigued when I read the title of the book on your IG picture. I’ve seen old Yew trees in the UK on my garden visits. I love to see them at the beautiful old Church yards. Also Yew is my favourite for adding structure in a garden and I love Yew topiary. And for me the old trees are monuments, what’s not to like about Yew!

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      • Thank you Petra. I used to be a choir girl at our village church and every Sunday and choir practice day we would all climb inside it and have a giggle. I’ve obviously grown up now, but the tree is exactly as it was when I was little. I often visit the churchyard now as my father and grandparents are buried there, and I always take a look at “my yew tree,” brings back such happy memories when life seemed simple. Thank you for reading. Good luck in the prize draw. There are lots more gardening books to come. Suddenly there’s an avalanche here.

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    7. Thank you for this review, in particular I found the story of the Ankerwyke Yew fascinating. As well as the great age of this enormous male tree, its setting on the River Thames, opposite Runnymede, connects it with the oath swearing, agreement and sealing of the Magna Carta, giving it immense historical significance.

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      • Thank you for reading John. I found it a fascinating book. I was surprised I had never heard of most of the trees. I’ve discussed with my husband the prospect of going on a tour to see them all, in person. I feel like it’s something I must now do! Thank you again for replying.

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      • Thank you Mike. And thanks for letting me know. Hope you are enjoying the weekend. I’m digging up and dividing pollie’s lilies. They’ve not been touched for years and needed doing. Mild today. Thank goodness xx

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    8. If only trees could talk – they would have such tales to tell. I imagine that yews would have a deep voice, talk slowly and wisely and perhaps talk for ever. What a brilliant idea for a book. Must find out if any of the yews featured are near here. Would love to win a copy.

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      • Thank you Philippa. I agree with everything you’ve said. It really is a fantastic book. Well researched and well written. Good luck in the draw and thanks for reading. xx

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      • Thank you Pauline, my father in law is a super talented wood carver too. There’s quite a few in our family. We have wood turned pots made of yew. Very beautiful indeed. Thanks again for reading and good luck in the prize draw.

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    9. Morning Karen. I was going to comment anyway, long before I reached the mention of the giveaway! I just wanted to share my wonder at the image on the front cover. I’d seen it elsewhere sometime over the last week or so as well. It hardly looks real! Have a great weekend, best wishes, Sharon Moncur

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      • Thank you Sharon. I couldn’t take my eyes off that photo on the cover. I really must go and visit those yew trees in person and stand next to those “lion feet.” They are straight out of a fairytale aren’t they. Thank you again for reading and good luck in the prize draw! xx

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