Ancient Yew Trees of Kingley Vale, Sussex

Kingley Vale is the site of one of the most impressive natural yew woods in Europe. This national nature reserve is nestled in a south-facing valley in the chalk hills of the South Downs. (Google Map) In the dry valley bottom one can find a score of ancient yew trees: gnarled, twisted and strange. A short walk allows one to visit a grove where a dozen of the oldest trees grow in close proximity. The ground beneath them is almost bare, except for a carpet of dried needles, creating a cathedral-like space: silent, monumental, spirit-rousing.

Yew trees can be very long lived. The age of the oldest yews in Kingley Vale is uncertain, but is given by various authorities at between 900 and 2000 years old, although the upper figure seems unlikely. I know the yew in Crowhurst churchyard (East Sussex) which is considered the oldest tree in Sussex. It was recorded as a notable specimen in the Doomsday Book of William the Conqueror, indicating that that yew is well over 1000 years old, with estimates placing it at 1300 years of age. The Kingley Vale yews are certainly younger than that old fellow, but still very impressive.

Yew trees can regenerate from all parts, even pushing out fresh shoots from the surface of bare trunks. As they age they develop complex surface features with scars, dead wood, flaking bark, dry lichen-stained surfaces and new foliage.

When the heart-wood rots the trees survive as a ring of living tissue around the outside. They can even grow new aerial roots which descend through the eaten-out centres enabling the ever expanding ring of remaining trunk to go on for centuries more. It is believed Ancient Britons planted them as symbols of immortality. Once the heart wood is lost so are the annual rings which are the most reliable way of determining the age of a tree.

Muted shades of purples, grey-greens and oranges infuse the bark, trunks and branches. Once the eye adjusts there is colour everywhere in these shady groves.

Roots snake across the woodland floor, polished from centuries of footfall as visitors come to wander and wonder.

Tangled branches: The living and the dead weave together. Where branches cross they often join together, sometimes fusing adjacent trees.

In other places branches plunge into the ground, rising again a few feet further off like the coils of a sea serpent.

(All photos taken on an iPhone SE)

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