AS THE Year 2000 beckoned, while some prepared to party and others anxiously pondered the malevolent potential of the Y2K bug, a motorbike courier was busy transferring precious cargo, swaddled in damp newspaper, to a nursery in Bedfordshire.
The Church of England had decided that it would mark the Millennium by distributing thousands of yew trees across England. Every parish that requested one would get one.
David Shreeve, director of the Conservation Foundation, the Church’s partner in the project, explained at the time: “We want to ensure the survival of this special tree, and to help people to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Jesus’s birth by thanking God for the continuity of his creation” (News, 27 September 1996). “They will be symbols of community and signs of creation.”
Today he admits: “We had no idea how many people would want a tree.” Although the Bishop of London at the time, Richard Chartres, had given his blessing to the project, and the Archbishop of York agreed to host an initial gathering (“Quite honestly, I think most people came just to see Bishopthorpe, not hear about our trees. . . ”), Mr Shreeve says that the Foundation was amazed by the number of requests from parishes. “We put out a story when we had received 2000 of them, but they kept coming. . .”
COLLECTING the cuttings was a somewhat “last-minute” operation that “sort of took over our lives a bit”, he recalls. The first task was to get permission from the incumbents of churches in possession of ancient yew trees. Eventually, six-inch cuttings were taken from about 60 — some of which were estimated to be 2000 years old.
“We had a tree expert that went around to the tree, and, at the end of the day, a motorbike courier would come with one of those picnic boxes on the back to keep things cool. Cuttings were placed in newspaper and things to keep them damp, then the motorbike would go to Bedford where we had nursery where they would be unpacked and put into greenhouse. . . Then we had to pray that they would all grow.”
As 1999 drew to a close, 7000 seedlings were given away in 40 services up and down the country, many of which took place in cathedrals (News, 17 December 1999). Graham Preskett, a TV composer, wrote a song for choirs, “The Yew Tree Hymn”, celebrating these “immortal markers of God’s estate”, and Waitrose produced a specially-designed carrier bag in which the seedlings could be transported. The initiative even featured on the Royal Mail’s first-class stamps.
CLIVE BARDAMuch Marcle yew at St Bartholomews Church
More than 1000 people attended a distribution service at St Paul’s Cathedral in which 136 yews were blessed. Cost prohibited sending a lorry to the diocese of Truro, so Mr Shreeve arrived with the delivery by car. (“They got rather small trees.”)
The yew tree could be seen as “a metaphor for the life of faith in this country over the last four thousand years”, congregations heard. “It can mirror the personal experience, the ups and downs of most people of faith. . . a symbol of the spiritual life with its dormant periods and the its coming to life.”
At Coventry Cathedral, the story of Christianity was told through the eyes of a yew tree, while readings included an extract from The Dream of the Rood, a ninth-century poem that gives voice to the Cross on which Jesus was crucified.
In the run-up to the services, not everyone was convinced, Mr Shreeve recalls. One bishop, with an eye on a sporting fixture, was “very unhappy” that he had been called in to preside on a Saturday. “He said afterwards: ‘This has been amazing — so many people who would not normally have come to a service in my cathedral — but they have come for a tree.’”
The project changed minds in the Church, Mr Shreeve thinks, helping to pave the way for a greater emphasis on caring for creation, including the appointment of more diocesan environment officers.
THE Vicar of St Mark’s, South Farnborough, the Revd Ian Hedges, has “vivid memories” of collecting their tree. “Not knowing what we were collecting, in terms of size, we borrowed a large estate car, thinking that we would just about get a sapling into its boot, only to be presented at the ceremony with a tiny carrier-bag containing an even tinier little shoot,” he says. Today, “Markie” is spreading outwards rather than upwards.
“It was lovingly brought on by a couple of keen gardeners from the congregation, and eventually migrated from its flower-pot to a tub to the ground. As those who were originally responsible for it have now all died, the tree provides us with an affectionate reminder of them and their ‘adventurous’ day out.”
Richard Southwell QC reports that the three yew trees planted at St Augustine’s, Upton Lovell — on the south side of the church, in good soil — are “competing vigorously” and now almost 20-foot high. The success has been particularly welcome given the sudden dramatic collapse of one of the churchyard’s old yews
“It was most astonishing,” he recounts. “We were standing outside the church and suddenly there was a crack which sounded like a gun going off and then a bang as a huge branch hit the ground — all causing somebody to levitate off their deck chair.”
The shared longevity of churches and yew trees is a good match, he suggests: “One is thinking of the church being there for a very long time, so it’s best to grow trees which have long lives. . . Deciduous trees, by and large, do not have a particularly long life.”
YEWS are the oldest living things in Britain. The Woodland Trust reports that they are only considered “ancient” after 900 years. The oldest tree in the UK, the Fortingall Yew, is estimated to be between 2000 and 3000 years old.
CLIVE BARDAMuch Marcle yew at St Bartholomews Church
Mr Shreeve says that one of the aims of the Millennium project was to draw attention to this timeline: “They were planted in the spirit of a living link with the birth of Jesus, and as a symbol that, if we wanted this millennium yew to live for another 2000 years, we would need to care and cherish our local environment.”
Today, many are concerned that their continued longevity is at risk.
“The reason why we have so many ancient yews is that they have been protected in churchyards,” says David Alderman, director of the Tree Register. “But in recent years, there has been more pressure on development — the development of the church itself, whether through building extensions, or churches going redundant and not being managed by the same people, or being sold off completely. In that sense, they [yews] are more under threat now than just 100 years ago.”
Some form of legislation will be required, he thinks. “Without it, all the good will in the world will not protect yew trees threatened by development.” Grants would also help people to better look after trees.
An online petition — “Save Britain’s ancient Yew trees before we lose any more” — addressed to the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has been signed by more than 230,000 people.
“We have the largest collection of ancient yew trees on earth, including some considered to be among the oldest trees of any kind on the planet,” the organiser, Janis Fry, writes. “Some are over 5000 years old. They are incredibly precious and a vital part of our heritage — but we are gradually losing them one by one as they currently have no legal protection. This must urgently change.”
She reports that more than 500 ancient yew trees have been destroyed since the Second World War. There remain 157 aged over 2000 years in the UK, the vast majority of which are in churchyards.
Dating yew trees is notoriously difficult. The Tree Register is currently trying to find yew branches on which it can conduct dendrochronology. “Most of our ancient yews are so hollow that you do not get more than a couple of hundred years of live wood, but some branches may be lot older,” Mr Alderman explains. “In the past, people have cut branches off, and not thought too much about it, and they could have valuable information we could take advantage of.”
He reports that the Millennium Yew at St Nicholas, Wilden, is still going strong. Louise Mardlin, a volunteer tree warden in the area for more than 30 years, confirms that it is “going great guns”, perhaps now eight-foot tall. A governor of the local school, she involved pupils in the care of the yew, which is protected by a tree guard and marked by a plaque. In total, she’s helped to plant more than 10,000 trees and shrubs in the parish, including a 100-yard “tree church” in a cruciform shape in the land behind her house.
“I’ve always been interested in planting trees since I was a child,” she says. “Someone’s got to stick up for the trees.”
TODAY, the Conservation Foundation is keen to find out what became of the other Millennium Yews.
Not all enjoyed a happy fate. In 2008 it was reported that one of the yews blessed at St Paul’s Cathedral had died after just two or three years in the Spanish sun, at St George’s, Malaga (News, 11 January 2008). Laura Garnham, a worshipper at All Saints’, Wrabness, reported that the parish’s had had to be “discreetly replaced” (Letters, 25 January 2008). “My suspicion is that those little twigs sent out were sub-standard, and no bishops’ blessings could renew them. Our replacement has flourished.”
Yet others, like those at Upton Lovell, are soaring, and Mr Shreeve is keen that the story of the project not be forgotten. The Foundation has issued a simple online survey that asks parishes to report on the fortunes of their seedling. It also asks respondents to comment on what other steps they have taken to care for the environment.
“It was such a fantastic project 20 years ago,” he says. “It would be great if we could somehow keep the interest going. . . These are special trees, and it would be great to think a church could always look back to think it has got a tree which maintains a link with the time of Jesus.” He is encouraging parishes to mark the tree with a plaque, and consider having another service of celebration.
IAN HEDGES“Markie”, the Millennium Yew at St Mark’s, South Farnborough, named by its original caretaker, Joan Randell
Twenty years since being pictured eyeing one specimen with David Bellamy, then president of the Conservation Foundation, Lord Chartres shares his attachment to the Millennium Yews.
“As memories of the embarrassing scenes at the Greenwich Dome and the Cool Britannia project fade, I hope that at least some of the yews cuttings that were planted in 2000 are flourishing,” he says. “I remember in particular planting one in Lambeth Palace garden, but have not been to inspect it recently.
“Planting a tree is one of the ways of demonstrating faith in the future, and they are superbly indifferent to the hype and passions of the passing moment.”
Fill in the survey here
If you have a yew-tree branch, contact the Tree Register at firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen to more about this story on The Church Times Podcast. Also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and most other podcast platforms.