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!)

Old St. Pancras’ Hardy Tree

The graveyard of Old St. Pancras church is full of interest: tucked away behind the station, it contains several things worth missing a train for, not least some venerable old trees.

The churchyard has survived much as it must have appeared in the mid 19th century when the last significant alterations were made. Its architectural treasures remain gently crumbling in Victorian aspic, while its botanic notables have been left to grow old gracefully. Here’s a glimpse of the St. Pancras Road entrance courtesy of Google Streetview:

 
The church itself has ancient roots although the current building is largely Victorian. It was originally perched on the banks of the semi-mythical river Fleet which, thanks to 19th century railway development, is now culverted and entirely hidden from view. This railway work also resulted in the churchyard being built on and the consequent need to move graves from the path of progress.

I do not know whether any campaigning took place to stop the new railway slicing through this consecrated land, but I wonder if moving the graves and deconsecrating the land would have caused emotions to run high?

The job of removing the gravestones and exhuming the interred fell to one Thomas Hardy (yes, the Thomas Hardy) who, to cut a long story short (you can read the longer story here) created a deeply fascinating architectural installation…

The Hardy Tree, an Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) surrounded by gravestones, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London
Fraxinus Excelsior: The Hardy Ash Tree forms the focal point of Thomas' visionary tombstone wheel

It is a remarkable, ambiguous memorial reminiscent of a 20th century art intervention. A wheel of tombstones, each spoke made up of two rows back to back, at its apex is an Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) now grown so large that its roots ooze over and through the stones, the slow force of growth has cracked and broken them in places. The tree must be at least 163 years old – a youngster compared to how old the species can become. The whole ensemble is now known as the ‘Hardy Tree’ and takes an unconventional form inspired by expediency rather than the conventional architectural aesthetics of the day. Its purpose was surely to provide a fitting monument for the relatives of the moved, for some of the disinterred may have been recently buried judging by the style of the gravestones.

And the other things to look out for in Old St. Pancras churchyard? See below:

Burdett-Coutts monument, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London
The Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial: Grade 1 listed high camp gothic pinnacle featuring Portland stone doggies, mosaic pansies and some lichen covered remnants of wrought iron railings.

 

Sir John Soane's masoleum, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London
Sir John Soane's Memorial: An interesting, somewhat deconstructed assemblage of architectural elements carved from stone of varying hues. Allegedly the inspiration behind the red London phone box (a four-cornered low dome is featured in the centrepiece), it might also have inspired the inventors of Lego.

 

London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia), Old St Pancras churchyard, London
London Plane: A massive and splendid two hundred year old London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) encircled by an iron bench.

And if you’re still interested, I have posted more photos (including one of the Portland stone doggie) in an Old St. Pancras churchyard Flickr set.