Old Yew, New Yew, Renew Yew

Although in the UK the yew tree (Taxus baccata) is often called English Yew it is, in fact, very widespread in its distribution growing throughout Europe as well as parts of Africa, Iran and Asia. It can live to a great age and there are several, mostly growing in churchyards, that are thought to be a thousand or more years old. One such tree grows in the Chiltern village that I lived in before moving to the Cotswolds; it is enormous having a girth of over 5.5 metres.  Despite being a British native that has grown naturally in the wild for thousands of years, yew woods are very rare – I can only think of two (although there must be others): one in the Chilterns behind Watlington Hill and the other in Sussex.  One of the reasons for this is that yew was the favoured timber for making longbows – by 1294 yew stocks were so depleted that imports were being sourced from mainland Europe.

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The yew forest at Kingley Vale, Sussex, England – one of the finest examples of this rare habitat in Europe [photo credit: Ben Shade]

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The huge girth of the ancient yew in the churchyard at Ibstone , Chiltern Hills, England

Yew is unusual in that the individual plants can be male, female or a combination of the two.   All-male trees release huge clouds of pollen whereas all-female produce none and can be identified by their glowing red berries.  It has even been known for individual trees to gradually change sex with all-male specimens becoming all-female and vice versa.  Although the pollen clouds can be extremely irritating if caught in one, in the average garden situation where mature trees are less likely to be found the pollen release is much more limited.

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The glossy red flesh is the only part of yew that is non-poisonous. It’s still not advisable to eat it!

In its natural condition yew is a spreading, evergreen tree, wider than it is tall.  However, for many centuries it has been clipped and shaped into hedges and topiary for which its regular, and when treated in this way, tight growth makes it ideal.  It responds well to being kept low, say around 45cm, or can be stopped at any height required.  Likewise, it can be clipped into neat cubes, intricate spirals as well as the ubiquitous peacock beloved by stately homes.

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Yew topiary at Hidcote, Cotswold Hills, England

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Intricate yew topiary at Farmleigh Gardens, Dublin, Ireland

One of the characteristics of yew is its ability to send out new growth from old branches and even from its trunk.  This can be readily seen when the branches are parted or the main stems are exposed.  To maintain a clean trunk these growths should be pruned away before they become established.  With hedges and trees it means they can be reduced in size as drastically as you might wish although it is important to bear in mind that a heavily pruned tree may never be restored to a thing of beauty.

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Yews ability to regenerate from old wood means that it can be pruned as hard as you dare

If reshaping trees is a skill difficult to master, restoring overgrown or gappy yew hedging only takes courage although for best results it may take a few years to achieve perfection.  Begin this process by removing all growth back to the trunk on one side only.  The hedge will now look ugly but new growth will soon sprout and the following year or in year three the other side of the hedge can be given the same treatment.  Apart from the benefit this staggered pruning has to the health of the yew another advantage is that the screening from the unpruned side means there is no loss of privacy.  The height of the hedge can also be reduced at the same time as side two cutting 6-12 inches below its required finished height to allow for regrowth.  By year five, if not sooner, the hedge will be a manageable, healthy screen once more and will continue to be so for very many years.

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The first stage in regenerating an old yew hedge

As with all plants, especially those that are long-lived, careful planting is essential to give them a good start.  Yew copes with most soil types including chalk but hates waterlogged or compacted soils.  Whatever the soil, enrich with good quality compost or well-rotted manure; if any parts are excessively damp create a low bank at least six inches high to ensure the roots establish in the marginally better drained soil.  Pot-grown yews can be planted at any time of the year providing the ground isn’t frozen; the best time is mid-autumn and spring when the soil is warmer. The optimum size for quick establishment is 2-3 feet and this size also makes planting a hedge quite economic too.  With a bigger budget larger plants may be purchased.  These in the photo below are over six feet high and create an instant hedge when planted closely together.  Because of their size they are usually ‘root-balled’ and only available during the cooler months.  The hessian and wire mesh root ball should be left intact as they quickly decay once planted although the wire collar may be released if it fits too snugly against the stem.  In windy situations they may require staking; they will certainly need careful watering for the first two years of their life.

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Rootballed yew waiting to be planted – they will make a fine, if somewhat costly, instant hedge

However you chose to use your English Yew, whether as hedging or as topiary, there is one common rule to clipping and that is accuracy for nothing looks worse than a formal hedge or piece of topiary that does not have clean, sharp lines.  The ideal time for clipping is August although spring is the time for restoration pruning.  One word of caution – all parts of yew are highly toxic if ingested.  It is essential that clippings are disposed of carefully for it can be fatal if livestock such as horses have access to them.  Yew clippings from regularly clipped hedges can be sold for use by pharmaceutical companies to make cancer treatment drugs.  In the past, when I was the Head Gardener of a large country estate with extensive yew hedging, we secured a not-inconsiderable amount of money over time which the estate donated to cancer research charities.  I believe that, for 2020, collection has been suspended but hopefully it will be resumed in future years.

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A beautifully clipped yew hedge creates the perfect backdrop to any garden – Kiftsgate Court, Cotswold Hills, England

 

 

 

 

The Glories of a Beechwood

Buckinghamshire, one of the so-named Shire counties, lies to the north-west of London.  A long, narrow county; the southern part is renowned for its beech woodlands.  Although greatly diminished in size over the centuries, many of them are still there, remnants of the ancient woodlands that once covered much of Britain, although the industries that they supported are long gone.

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In the Chilterns the beechwoods can almost engulf the lanes

Straddling the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire borders the Chiltern Hills extend diagonally northwards into neighbouring Bedfordshire where they change character from dense woodlands to more open downland.  It is within the shadow of the southern woodlands where I was born and where I lived for the greater part of my life before moving to the secret valley in the Cotswolds.  Inspired by Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, my childhood was spent crawling around the fields, woods and hedgerows learning as much as I could about the wild birds and animals that lived within them.john david shortland 1965 watermark

Although nowadays the woods appear mostly deserted, they are still made use of.  The old tracks and paths that were once used by the men and women that worked and lived there are trodden by walkers, and by the wildlife that remains elusive for only those that move quietly have the pleasure of seeing anything other than a glimpse of a fleeing animal.

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This centuries old track leads down into a deep valley

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Fallow deer can often be seen at rest in clearings if you walk quietly

The making of chair legs to keep the flourishing furniture industry of High Wycombe, the local market town, was carried out within the woodland by men who would set up shelters there.  Known as chair-bodgers, a local dialect word originally confined to this immediate area, they were highly skilled craftsmen who could earn relatively high wages for their work.  The Second World War virtually ended the centuries old tradition, the last being Samuel Rockall who died in the early 1960s.  I had been unaware of Rockall’s life until I researched for this blog post and it seems as if we may have been related for I have Rockalls in my family tree.  In the 1851 census return one of my ancestral cousins is described as a chair turner living in the village where I spent much of my adult life.  More research required!

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Jonathan Rockall, chair turner and ancestral cousin in the 1851 census return.  His wife, Ann, a lace maker,- another local craft

Some of my cousins?! Photo from an old book ‘English Country Life & Work’

It is, perhaps, springtime when the beech woods are most visited for the forest floor is carpeted with bluebells.  The intensity of their colour plus the iridescent green of the tree’s unfurling leaves almost hurt the eyes.  With early morning sunshine the scent is unique and difficult to describe – gentle is the best I can come up with.  As the day progresses the scent is quickly lost.Chilterns Beechwood copyright

During midsummer, the woods become visually silent: the leaves have turned a dark, leathery green and the bluebells gone to lie dormant for the rest of the year.  With autumn, the trees become alive once more with colour, this time as their leaves turn into every shade of copper, gold and brown before they drop to the ground for winter.  It is then that the smooth bark of the trees come to the fore with a silvery sheen that catches the low light of a winter’s day.  Although it may seem as if the woodlands are sleeping, in places the first bluebells are starting to poke their noses through the leaf litter.  Spring is on its way.Autumn colour watermarkIbstone 1984 watermark

Reincarnation or Just Coincidence?

I have written about the ‘dream’ house before but recently the mystery of it took an unexpected leap forward. 

I am a small child running through the countryside when I arrive at what appears to be a derelict house.  At least I always assumed it was derelict for the two windows looked as if they had silted up and instead of being full length they were only one-third of their normal height.

The windows are at the back of the house but initially I approached it from the front.  There is a long driveway and as I run around a bend suddenly there, in front of me, is the house.  It is huge but very symmetrical – just as a small child would draw one if asked.  No sooner have I seen it than, in that typical disjointed dream way, I am around the back by the windows.

 I manage to wriggle through one of them and as I do I fall a short distance to the floor.  It is a small circular room with several doors leading off it; as I stand up I lift my head to look at the ceiling: it has stone vaulting just like an abbey might be.  And then … I wake up.  I don’t feel scared, I feel happy and warm inside as if I’ve come home after a long time away.

The dream recurs regularly from my very early childhood right through to the day in my late twenties when I awake and for some reason decide to draw the house.  No matter how hard I try, I can only draw it as a small child might but, somehow in doing so, I break the spell and I never dream of the house again.
Fast forward fifteen years and a career change to gardening for a living.  Now a trained Head Gardener I apply for a post in a village I have never heard of and arriving for my interview I proceed up a long, half mile driveway, round a bend and, yes you’ve guessed correctly, there is the house of my dream.  I am shown around the gardens and finally, at the end of the interview, approach the house from the rear.  There are the two windows…      

Having successfully got the job, part of my remit is to tend the house plants.  The room with the two windows is a small circular library with three doors leading off.  When I pluck up the courage to talk to my employer of the dream she tells me that the house was once a convent and this room is adjacent to the old chapel, now used as a dining room.  As for the vaulted ceiling she says there could be for the present plain one is false although they have no intention of changing it to find out.  I ask her what the tall obelisk at the front of the house commemorates.  She tells me it is rather a sad story: it is a memorial to the only son of the family for whom the house was being built in the early 1700’s.  He died before it could be completed and so they gave it to the nuns to live there.

I officially left the job – and I thought the house – thirteen years ago to take up a new position in the Cotswolds.  In many ways I was sad to go for I loved being there but a change had beckoned. Some months later I receive a telephone call asking me to act as a consultant on an occasional basis – is it the house that has prompted this – and I have returned regularly ever since.

Move to the present day after a gap in visits of several months where I admire the new building set in the grounds close to the house, an indoor swimming pool.  I am told that there were a number of problems in completing the work for when they started digging the builders dropped into an underground room.  Its existence had not been known of before and yes, you’ve guessed correctly, it had a stone vaulted ceiling…

Reincarnation or coincidence – I’ll leave you to decide.  I’m happy either way and if it is reincarnation I am delighted with the obelisk that has been placed in my memory.  I shan’t be asking for it to be taken down just because I’ve returned…

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