The two questions that I get asked most about the church are firstly, how old is the church, and secondly, how old is the yew tree? The answer that I give to the first question is that the current church was built around 1310. The answer to the second question is more difficult and I generally say that it could be as old as the church if not older, but I don’t really know.
I was talking with Lesley, one of our regular visitors at coffee in the Cloisters from the Chestnuts care home in Meopham. She did some research for me which confirmed that the dating of yew trees is a notoriously difficult thing to do. However, it seems that some ancient yew trees have been accurately dated, like the one in the churchyard of St Digain’s at Llangernyw in North Wales. That tree has a certificate authorised by the Yew Tree Campaign and signed by David Bellamy that says: ‘According to all the data we have to hand the tree is dated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old’. Evidently, there are a number of yew trees (particularly in churchyards) that predate the 10th century and there are many between 400 and 600 years old.
One of the reasons that the yew tree is difficult to date is that unlike an oak it tends to develop several distinct trunks (flutes) which mitigate against conventional dating methods like ring counting. Therefore there is a challenge in front of us, to find out the true age of the Stansted churchyard yew tree and if anybody reading this article has any ideas about how we might further this investigation, then I would be pleased to hear from you.
I thought that the conclusion to the article Lesley gave me about yew trees is worthy of reproduction, so here it is:
‘There is so much that can be identified with the yew. The tree has guarded its secrets that have fascinated and mystified generations. Some of these trees will still be watching and observing events and occasions for hundreds of years to come. Therefore, the next time you are walking through the countryside, or visiting ancient sites and churches, take a little time to stop when seeing these old and trusty historians. Take in what they have accomplished and been privy to, and marvel that they are still silently listening to our words and deeds in this, our ever-changing world’.
Rev Dr Christopher Noble – Rector