Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Great Trees of Wales #1: The Llangernyw Yew

Wales is old.

You may think it takes an age to get served in a pub wearing an England rugby shirt, but that's nothing compared to the age of the ancient passage tombs and dolmens that dot the countryside.

Modern geology started in Wales, and geological ages still bear the names of the country and its Celtic tribes; The Cambrian, The Silurian and Ordovician Eras.

The place is also home to the oldest tree you are likely to meet.

Although it's a touch difficult to date a tree when the main bit of it is missing, the Llangernyw Yes is generally recognised to be four to five thousand years old. That's older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids, which is pretty amazing.

Only two individual trees are known to be older, both American pinus longaeva - which sounds like Latin boasting but which is actually a type of pine tree - but seeing as how Prometheus's age was only discovered posthumously after it was chopped down in 1964, and the exact location of Methuselah is a secret, the Welsh yew is the only one you can be sure you've met.

And meeting this Bronze Age tree is easy, located as it is in the quite churchyard of St Dygain's Church in Conwy County Borough. We don't know who Dygain, or Digain, was, although the story is that he was a fifth century writer and preacher. The church he allegedly founded is now mostly nineteenth century, but Christian worship on the site started in at least the thirteenth century.

Which you imagine is but yesterday to this tree. It was still more than half its current age when the Romans, perhaps on their way to sack the sacred groves of Anglesey, built the road that runs near to the village.

The yew would have been a venerable old thing when the stones that stand next to the church, with a third lying between them, were erected. They have crude crosses carved on them and they too are a bit of a mystery. An ancient Christian alter, or standing stones hastily claimed by the new religion?

You need a bit of mystery doesn't go amiss in places like this, nor does a good ghost story, and Llangerwyn doesn't disappoint, for we have the story of Angeystor - the 'Recording Angel'.

This innocuously named entity apparently used to appear in the church at Halloween and in late July (Lammas possibly?) to read out the names of the parishioners that weren't going to make it through the winter.

A sort of super-efficient Registrar, the story adds that those who were sceptical of its powers generally found themselves on the list.  The last reported time of this happening was actually 1969!

If the angel made an appearance this year I missed it, as the yew was enjoying a peaceful late summer's afternoon when I called by. Encountering the oldest thing I'm likely to meet made of wood - dead or alive - is a humbling experience.

Standing in the hollow centre of the tree, on the spot where until recently the church oil tank stood, you can imagine the modern history of Wales passing you by, the Christians colonising the pagan places, Roman, Saxon, and Norman, Punk, New Romantics and Rap all coming and going whilst it slumbers on.

It has witnessed the rise of what we term human civilisation and maybe it will even live long enough to see our self-induced fall.


byron smith said...

Sorry - as amazing as it is, it's not quite in 3rd place...

Martin Porter said...

So are you telling me Wikipedia is wrong!!!?!

My whole world has just fallen apart!

I might have to do some actual research here!

Martin Porter said...


You're including clone trees - that's cheating.

That's like claiming Dolly is the world's oldest sheep!

byron smith said...

All depends what you think "tree" means. I guess you did say "individual tree".

Though I do note that Wikipedia puts two others with the same estimated age as the Llangernyw Yew.

byron smith said...

Or rather you do now say... ;-)
(Some RSS feeds preserve changes.)

Martin Porter said...

Ha ha ha (said in a menacing tone of voice)

You can never beat me at these comments because I can change the original post!