I’m an architectural photographer and writer.
On my van-life travels through the British Isles I’m building up a word and photo-hoard of material culture that celebrates the value and distinctiveness of our built heritage and contributes to a sense of place.
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The Tree of Life? Perhaps one of the most evocative yew trees in the country at Crowhurst, East Sussex.
"Yggdrasil, the mythological tree of life, was originally thought to be a giant ash tree. Ancient sources, including Eddas (a collection of Old Norse Poems), mention vetgronster vida, meaning evergreen tree, and an Old Norse word, barraskr, meaning needle ash. These both suggest that the Yggdrasil is evergreen and needle bearing. An Ash is neither of these. So it is thought Yggdrasil was most likely a giant yew."
The Yew Tree
"I’ve visited yews half the size of this tree that are reputed to be a thousand years old. From its bole rises an incoherent massing of branches, spurting upwards like a volcano suspended in animation. The air is still inside, but the tree is animated — the flux of it, its life force. It owns this spot — more than we do. It has survived our flaky systems of barter and enclosure and cost-benefit. In many ways it’s more successful than us. It has seen great civilisations pass by. It has seen Roman, Saxon and Norman." My words on the yew tree at Llanfair Kilgeddin.
Visiting an ancient yew tree is both an emotive and a spiritual experience which is hard to put into words.
Curiously, at every tree that I've visited, I've been able to put my worldly worries to one side and exist in the present.
The tree has a wisdom that is exonerated by its survival - its great gnarled branches are witness to every human act. In the twist of its growth there is a truth and purity that nobody can object to or deny or deceive.
Here are some of my photographs of yews that I've visited recently.
A visit to St. Mary's, Breamore in Hampshire is very special. It feels like a treat. The tree is on the path to the church and is reputedly a thousand years old. The branches rise up like a cupped hand, so you can get inside.
My visit to St. Mary and All Saints in Dunsfold, Surrey was full of anxiety. It was my first trip out after the lock down. I was experiencing a kind of agoraphobia which didn't work well within the rolling fields of Surrey. It took me a several months and some online therapy to help me work through the feelings. My visit to Dunsfold helped me get purchase on my anxious thoughts.
The male yew stands close to the south porch of the church and is reputed to be 700 years old. Not far away is another male yew tree planted in 1977 to commemorate 25 years of the Queen's reign.
Access to the churchyard is, rather appropriately, via a yew tunnel.
A remarkable tree at St. Mary the Virgin, Llanfair Kilgeddin, Monmouthshire. I'll just leave you with some words from my diary:
"Along the churchyard boundary is a yew. Its great size has made it invisible — the boundary is enshrined in flecks of green and, through most of the day, the yew is camouflaged, part of a mass of trees to the south. When I first recognise it, there’s a sharp intake of breath. Surely that isn’t one tree? It’s so big and so part of its curtilage that its textured countenance seems to be locked into the ground. I can’t see a way into the heart of it. I move closer and find a gap in the canopy, but instantly I’m rejected. My bag snags on a fallen branch that rises from the leaf mould like a briny serpent. This tree is a labyrinth — it’s testing me."
Patreon link: the full story behind my visit to Llanfair Kilgeddin.
I parked up the camper right outside the flint tower of St. Andrew and St. Mary at Watton-at-Stone in Hertfordshire. The tree is to the north east of the chancel. This tree has a vast, spreading canopy which reaches out horizontally along the churchyard. The trunk is a solid mass of tangled branches and vine.
All photos shot on iPhone and DJI Mini 3 Pro.
Crowhurst, East Sussex.
It's been on my bucket list for some time. Talk of the great yew at Crowhurst often comes in hushed tones of reverence. I've heard about this tree from so many people and had it recommended to me so many times - that I was a little anxious upon my arrival in the little village of Crowhurst. And, as if to turn my journey into a saga, I struggled to find anywhere to park the camper. I switched to Viking brain and launched it up a dry verge. I'd come this far and nothing was going to stop me from seeing this tree.
But first...the church.
St. George, Crowhurst.
St. George has a medieval core. According to the listing the chancel was purified in the mid C17th - "repaired and made plain in 1657". Our churches are vessels of communication - they tell us of the people of the past by what they took away and what they left behind.
The spire was rebuilt after a fire in 1947. But, oh, what a beautiful spire: of the broach type with shingles for weatherproofing.
Before I entered the church I was struck by the wonderful mix of natural materials - all different and yet connected by a harmony to the patterns, textures and patina. Horsham slab for the lower roof and hand-made plain tiles for the upper all finished off with dashes of timber, course-rubble stone and kiln-fired brick.
Below: View from the churchyard of Mansion Farmhouse which has a C15th timber framed interior with C17th additions.
Below: Pre-Raphaelite style painting on the chancel wall and reredos.
The Yew Tree at Crowhurst
How do you go about photographing such a thing of beauty? It is a building, a biota and a time-capsule.
I can't really remember the photography - the tree drew me in and for several minutes I felt like a puppet on strings with my camera in hand.
The tree brought about a kind of focused frenzy on the minutiae. There are so me words in Alice Munro's "The Lives of Girls and Women" that touch upon the spirit of the day:
“…for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pane, crack, delusion, held still and held together, radiant, everlasting."
My interaction with the tree revealed a kind of visual and tactile storyboard. It told me that it was venerated because of its size and age, because of its gnarled associations with deep history, and because its surface, from certain vantage points, appealed to our innate Pareidolia.
I went inside and stood and looked up beneath the arc of its pan-millennium growth. I was at the centre of a living organism of reputedly four thousand years old. There was a strong sense of being embraced not only by the boughs of the tree but also by the past, the present and the future.
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Join me from behind your duvet on my travels through the winter months with immersive content, the full Treasure Hoard Index, VR views, free downloads and more...
I have a growing compendium of reference material in the van and I've added some more of the lovely, shiny fold out info sheets on natural subjects including sheets on bats, birds and butterflies.
On My Coffee Table
From the Charo's
Ancient , Veteran, Notable Yew Trees in Great Britain
The oldest trees in the UK with pictures. From 5,000 year old yew trees to 3,000 year old oaks.
Film and Sound
All yew trees are steeped in remarkable natural history. For this Living World, Lionel Kelleway visits two very different yew trees in Scotland. The Fortingall Yew is possibly the oldest living thing in Europe - it's estimated to be at least 5000 years old. Lionel Kelleway meets Mike Strachan of the Forestry Commission by the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland, and discovers that though the tree has fragmented over the centuries it is - remarkably - still going strong. Scientist and broadcaster Aubrey Manning has a Great Yew tree in his garden in East Lothian. In comparison with the Fortingall Yew, the Ormiston Yew is intact making it, in many ways, far more impressive to visit than the Fortingall Yew. Though it looks like a 'green mound' from the outside, Lionel and Aubrey venture inside the tree and are filled with wonder at what they find.
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