Beacon Benefice

Our Historic Yew Trees

Our Historic Yew Trees

It has been the custom in English churchyards for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years to plant yew trees.  Painswick's yew trees date only from the late Eighteenth Century, but because they have been kept clipped regularly it is possible to see the great width of the trunk of the trees which is a unique shade of yellow-brown.

Legend ?

Legend suggests that there are just 99 trees growing in Painswick churchyard and that the devil would destroy the hundredth if it were ever planted.

In the year 2000 Painswick church was faced with a dilemma. Every parish in the Diocese of Gloucester was given a yew tree to plant to mark the millenium. Painswick was chosen to host a special service when all the young yew trees were blessed and given out. Parish officials bravely planted the 100th yew on the north side of the church near the bus stop. Contrary to legend it is doing well.

One of our yew trees toppled over in July 2007 during the widespread flooding in the Gloucestershire area. Though the tree had to be extensively cut back it is now recovering well.

Our trees were all planted in the early 1700's and so are only about 300 years old. Many yew trees are much older - up to 900 years old. Apparently yew trees were considered sacred when Christianity was introduced to Britain. They were used a bit like a modern advertising logo to make the new religion familiar.

How many ?

There are more than 100 trees in the churchyard - do count them for yourself - no two people get the same answer!! The trees were planted to form avenues from the Lychgate (where coffins were rested on the way to Church for funerals) depicting the hope of resurrection. In Painswick churchyard the avenues of trees probably followed the paths of ancient thoroughfares.

How do they grow ?

The trees enjoy longevity due to their unique growth pattern. The branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then rise up around the old central growth as separate but linked trunks. The central part may decay, leaving a hollow tree, but with the new growth giving life around the original tree. So the yew tree has always been a symbol of death and rebirth - the new that springs out of the old  ... resurrection life.

Protection of yew trees ?

Yew trees were planted in church yards partly because they were more protected there from archers who  liked to cut off branches to make arrows. Also yew trees are poisonous to animals and so the planting of yew trees effectively prevented farmers using the churchyard as grazing land.


The main regular work on our yew trees is the clipping by specialist contractors in September each year. We also have to occasionally prune back the trees if they grow too large - the close foliage holds large amount of water and snow making them vulnerable to toppling over especially where the roots are shallow.


A modern use for yew tree clippings ?

Every year in September the clipping of the yew trees produces over 2 tons of material. It turns out that fresh yew tree clippings are a good source of the basic raw material for the anti-cancer drug paclitaxol.  Thus every year specialist contractors come to the churchyard to collect the clippings and ship them off for processing.


Yew Tree Sponsorship

The cost of maintaining the yew trees each year is  runs to several £1000. We are thus grateful to many folk from Painswick and wider afield, and some local businesses, who have agreed to sponsor a yew tree. Quite a few people are proud to say that this is my tree - and they make sure we look after it properly. All the trees are numbered so that sponsors can readily identify their tree. Sponsorship is normally done on a three year cycle at a cost of £99 for three years. The first renewal cycle started at Easter 2009; the next cycle will be from Easter 2021.  Very occasionally there may also be "vacancies" at other times. If you are interested in becoming a sponsor (or indeed renewing an existing sponsorship) please send an e-mail to our Yew Tree Manager via the Lychgate Office giving your contact details and requesting details.

Many thanks



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