Driving for an hour out of London, past grey, chewing gum-stained pavements and increasingly graffitied recreation grounds, towards the goal of reaching what is essentially an old tree may sound like a bit of a mad undertaking.
But the 1500 year old yew tree which stands, propped up by wooden stakes, in the graveyard of Crowhurst church is an old tree worth visiting. Although yew trees are a common sight in British graveyards, this tree probably dates back to the 6th century which would mean that it predates the construction of the church in whose graveyard it stands. As my dad pointed out, there aren’t many 1500 year-old anythings left in the world and it is certainly humbling to stand next to a tree that has withstood so many years.
The bottom section of the tree is an undulating hollowed-out cylinder of bark which is an awe-inspiring 33 feet in circumference. It is possible to climb through this and, indeed, as Christopher Somerville alleges in his book Best Wild Places: 500 Essential Journeys, it was used in the 19th century as a pub to allow a few contemporary hipster drinkers the chance to revel and get happy in a tree! Unfortunately, this was rapidly shut down by church officials on the grounds that it was inappropriate to be getting happy next to a place of worship. The door of the old pub still remains in the entrance to the tree, looking extremely like the entrance to Frodo’s home (well, they do say people used to be shorter!)
As you scramble up the tree, you can get up close and personal enough to notice the beautiful textures of the bark, the swirls and patterns of the colours that make this tree truly stunning. Rusty nails protrude from the branches at various points, suggesting the loss of an old platform of the former pub. Although the lower part looks as though it may keel over at any moment and, given its age, you wouldn’t be surprised if it did, the top part has plenty of new growth. I remain optimistic that this hidden wonder will be around for many future generations to enjoy.
If you want to extend your trip…
The church next to the tree is usually left unattended and can therefore be viewed in all its silent creepy glory at any time. Having viewed the tree, the church presents itself as slightly underwhelming, although the late afternoon sun streaming through the stained glass windows does hold a sad sort of beauty. The wooden steeple is its only architectural feature worth seeing. The surrounding countryside around the sleepy village is not thrilling to explore although the feeling of being underneath a open sky with the occasional skylark rising out of the scrubland to sing, seemingly just for pleasure, can never get old. If you are looking for more of a view, it is worth driving to the North Downs which is close by and the ridge offers a few short walks, peppered with sheep and the occasional pony, as well as some wonderful views of the Shard and Wembley stadium glinting in the distance.