The Buckland Yew – Dover’s ancient tree

Marooned in the midst of a Victorian industrial landscape in an unlikely corner of Dover – the famous, unassuming town where I grew up – is an ancient European Yew tree (Taxus baccata). It lies in the valley of the river Dour (pronounced ‘doer’) from which the town takes its name. This name has a celtic root (like the Welsh word for water – dŵr), and is an echo of a place that was here even before the Roman port of Dubris.

The Yew grows in a churchyard once hidden behind the Buckland paper mill. Demolition of the mill, apart from a large brick Victorian shed screening the site, has exposed the river Dour that ran under the mill complex for more than a century. The flattened fenced-off ground is paved with factory floors and the rubble of former walls. Dereliction has allowed the Dour to become a haven for Moorhens who make a living among the newly luxurious growth of aquatic plants, bringing to mind a pre-industrial water meadow landscape with a flint church nestling next to a ford in the river.

Google’s Satellite View: The river Dour meanders through the paper mill site with Buckland churchyard to the left. The Buckland yew is a dark green blob next to the church.

The locked and somewhat shabby church of St. Andrew’s, Buckland, sits in its graveyard of greening gothic monuments – including those to former mill owners – occupying a sliver of land between the mill and a steep nineteenth century railway embankment.

The Buckland Yew (Taxus baccata) in St. Andrew's churchyard, Dover
Spreading The Word: The Buckland Yew stands with some help outside St. Andrew's church, Dover

The Buckland Yew is here, pre-dating all this Victorian order, and the current church, and marking a site that may have held significance even before the arrival of Christianity. In 1880 this remarkable tree was moved 50 feet to its present spot in order to make room for a church extension. The newly moved Yew was enclosed by an iron fence – now rusting – which I remember not many years ago in good repair and with a sign giving details of the tree, its removal and its reputed age. Now a gate to this enclosure swings open allowing access to the tree and exposing the detritus of churchyard drinking among its branches and hollows.

The tree is said to be 1000 years old and like many ancient trees, the ravages of time have caused characterful limbs to convulse and fall into awkward shapes requiring several props to keep it from becoming entirely horizontal. From a distance the tree’s crown is large and verdant and it shows the typical coniferous shape of a Yew albeit broader and lower than a younger tree.

Props holding up the Buckland Yew (Taxus baccata) in St. Andrew's churchyard, Dover
Prop Forward: A series of props now hold up the Buckland Yew

The Buckland Yew has survived removal at least once in its life, it has coped with people and animals clambering on or around it, and in the last two centuries has lived in close proximity to industry and war. It shows every sign of continued vigour in what is now a quiet and gently crumbling corner of a town whose character and urban environment is set to change once again. I hope that the Buckland Yew will become a cherished feature in the new post-industrial Dour valley landscape that with imagination and good planning could emerge in the years to come.

If you’re still interested:
St. Andrews church entry on the Old Dover in Words & Pictures website
My Dover set on Flickr
The Buckland Yew on the Monumental Trees website (needs some editing!)

Wyndham’s Oak: a great survivor

A couple of weekends ago I was staying in Dorset where I heard about Wyndham’s Oak, an ancient tree I felt compelled to seek out. It is a pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) and it is ancient, maybe 1000 years old. It is a shrinking hulk in an unlikely setting but it is a local landmark and has been for centuries.

Wyndham's Oak, Silton, Dorset
Outstanding In Its Field: Wyndham's Oak, maybe 1,000 years old and once part of a Royal hunting forest

Also known as the Silton Oak, it can be found in the Dorset village of the same name. Now it stands discreetly in a meadow by the river Stour behind St. Nicholas’ parish church. It is not visible for miles around and no road runs close by, yet it is marked on the Ordnance Survey map.

Called Wyndham’s Oak after Sir Hugh Wyndham, an obscure 17th century judge and local worthy who managed to keep a low enough profile to ensure his public service career spanned the rules of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s interregnum and Charles II. According to the story, Sir Hugh did nothing more than sit in the shade of this great tree – undoubtedly a magnificent sight at the time – forever linking his name to the tree at the apex of its height, spread and girth.

At the time of the English restoration then, this tree was perhaps 600 years old. It may have been hollow as it is now, but it almost certainly would have been considerably larger than today’s enormous bole surmounted by little more than a toupé of branches.

Wyndham's Oak bole
Burred Bole: Centuries of growth have produced huge girth and a splendid gnarled trunk

Possibly planted as a boundary marker of the Gillingham Forest, a royal deer hunting chase favoured by King John, Wyndham’s Oak survived the forest’s destruction during Charles I’s reign adding further weight to the notion that it was so remarkable that it was intentionally saved from the sawyers supplying the needs of the King’s fleet.

The UK is Europe’s hotspot when it comes to aged timber – Richmond Park in west London supports ‘more 500-year-old trees than France and Germany combined’ – Wyndham’s oak is one of the most enduring of Britain’s many remarkable trees.

There is no obvious reason why there are so many ancient trees in this country, but perhaps the feudal system allowed trees to grow old in aristocratic deer parks unmolested by fuel hungry peasants, or perhaps Britain got off lightly from the ravages of wars that brought in their wake pressing need for fuel and shelter to large parts of the continent.

Ultimately though these survivors are testament to the great fondness we great apes have for trees.

Further reading:
• Wyndham’s Oak described on the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Hunt website
• Telegraph article about ancient trees in Britain including the Richmond Park quote above
• Antiquarian description of the, even then, long gone Gillingham Forest from John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales 1870-72
• More pictures of the Wyndham’s Oak and it’s surroundings in my Flickr photoset

To find Wyndham’s Oak, go through the churchyard and out into the field beyond…