By Paul Greenwood
Kings Howe Grove
To return to the features click here
I am a photographer (and member of the Forum). I have seen
that my fellow founder member of the Ancient Yew Group, Andy McGeeney, has
contributed a feature item on the Borrowdale Yews and I am keen to add to
that. My story involves the Borrowdale trees but also other yews in the
valley and in northern England in general.
Generally speaking the largest tree of the Borrowdale Yews is the one which
gets the most attention. However I feel that all three yews of the group are
visually spectacular in their own right and should receive equal attention
as they are part of one original grove. In particular the tree which stands
about 10 metres south from the other two (yew c on the attached images). It
is indeed remarkable as it shows the amazing regenerative powers of the yew.
It seems to have survived what seems to surely be a severe wound resulting
from the loss of a major limb, no doubt to a storm, - you can see this by
the difference in appearance from it's north and south faces.
In 2000 similar damage was caused to the main tree of the group when a large
branch was blown down with the result that the canopy is now depleted by 50%
to the west. So the image of the grove, which appears in Thomas Pakenham's
'Meetings with Remarkable Trees' is sadly no longer to be seen in such
glory. However yew C shows that despite what appears to be a horrendous
wounding to us, is not so to the yew and left alone it will survive without
any human help.
In John Lowe's 'Yew-Trees of Great Britain and Ireland' a photo on page 69
shows the depleted grove recovering from the Great Storm of 1868. Although
yew B lost a 9ft girth portion of it's trunk ( still in situ ) the
regeneration of the site as described in Thomas Pakenham in word and images
is very self evident.
When Wordsworth visited the grove at the beginning of the 19th century it
was, like the yew at Lorton vale, much larger. At that time there was a
fourth tree which was subsequently lost in the 19th century. The grove is a
diminished remnant of what it was 2 centuries ago but is still an awesome
location and 'holy spot'(see Pakenham). The storm in 2000 also removed a
similar sized limb from the Lorton vale yew and so Wordsworth’s descriptions
are not just poetry but also a historical record and perhaps a sad symbolism
of what is happening to the environment in general.
Near the grove, below on the riverbank, is another yew, probably also very
old/ancient and a direct offspring. This tree is undamaged by wind but
stands on the pebbled bank of a beck. The beck can turn into a raging
torrent at any time of the year and rage for days on end because this
location, specifically a place called Seathwaite, is, after all, the wettest
in England. So it too is a remarkable survivor as it has stood for certainly
centuries at least and therefore in my opinion worthy to be included as part
of the site as a whole.
However the Borrowdale valley, as I have discovered (I actually played a
small part in the rediscovery of the Borrowdale Yews in the early 1990's
because back then they were 'lost'according to the National Trust in a
severe flood some decades before)has other yews. Some of these are large and
have been estimated to be ancient. They can be found in a valley spur known
as Stonethwaite. Some certainly old (at least 300 some probably 500 years
plus) trees are by houses and farms and up on the mountains there are some
small stunted yews which could be very ancient indeed.
The upland yews, lone trees and groves (King's Howe) include a 9ft girth
tree at Low Scawdel which I photographed in 1992 and which appeared on page
165 of The Sacred Yew in 1994 mistakenly captioned as one of 'the'
Borrowdale Yews. It has been since estimated to have the chracteristics of a
very ancient tree and to support this radial growth rate for specifically
cliff growing yews on Whitbarrow Scar in south Cumbria found 210 rings in
1.3cm of dead yew branch wood (Doug Larson, Cliff Ecology Research Group,
University of Guelph, Ontario Canada 1997). Thus upland yews in Cumbria
could be extremely slow growing generally and yews in this habitat could
provide our oldest consistent ancient wild yew population.
My concern for these trees is that before they can be professionally
investigated further and their probable enormous botanical and historical
significance fully demonstrated (Doug Larson's work is the only specific
study to date and his specimens were taken from cliff sites rather than
scree slopes) we could lose them. Last year severe forest fires broke out in
neighbouring valleys due to drought and irresponsible humanity and this is a
trend which is predicted to continue. Professional protection at an
emergency level is surely the minimum to ensure that the trees survive
because they may well be not just some of the oldest yews in Britain but
some of the oldest on the planet and as yet they are unrecognised in the
main for their true potential.
Borrowdale is a microcosmic example of what could be found throughout
Cumbria and northern England, especially in the areas of upland limestone in
north Yorkshire and Durham. It shows that there is a lot of looking yet to
be done and I am looking for support, I have a list of 1500 sites so far
with yew potential that need to be visited. Any advice in this regard would
I also attach an image of the yew at Beltingham, Northumberland which is
reputed to be Saxon, at least 900 years old and the oldest tree in the
county. The site of St Cuthbert's church is so named because it s one of the
places the saint's body rested (for over a century)on it's way from
Lindisfarne and eventually to Durham. It was also a place of pre Christian
sanctity and known to the Romans as such.
In addition I am attaching some images of a yew I discovered at an anonymous
site in Northumberland. Having had some confidential feedback about this
huge and unique yew based on images and measurements of the base(around 33ft
girth )-no one has apparently seen the like of it elsewhere in England so
far. The tree has not layered any branches but has curled them about 12 ft
up in the air at the edge of its 30 yard wide canopy and hence looks like a
weeping willow. It has been estimated as at least 1500 years old. If this is
the case then it is probably older than Beltingham and perhaps 'the' oldest
tree in the county so far found.
It seems likely that ancient yew potential in northern England is very
great. It is also very likely that a Northumbrian yew would have a slower
metabolism than say a similarly sized one in a Hampshire churchyard. It
therefore begs the question that given comparative girths the northern yews,
especially those not in churchyards, could well be older than their southern
cousins based clearly on colder climatic factors restricting growth.
To return to the features