Saturday, 21 July 2018

I Remember Yew

21st July 2018

Took an afternoon stroll to see the oldest living thing around here , The Ankerwycke Yew. Standing on the opposite side of the River Thames from the popular Runnymede memorials to Magna Carta and JFK this ancient tree has been witness to centuries of history.
The Ankerwycke Yew
The tree is at least 1400 years old and could be as much as 2500 years old. That's extraordinary. It was here when Magna Carta was being "signed" across on the other bank of the Thames. Or maybe closer according to some arguments which say the signing was done on the Ankerwycke side of the river. It is also said to be the location where Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn in the 1530s. Though I'm not sure who says it, lots of things seem to get attached to the "history" of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, especially if it attracts visitors. That said Ankerwycke is much less busy than Runnymede which is just as well as the parking area, in Magna Carta Lane, Wraysbury, is very small. From there a permitted path leads through fields to the Ankerwycke Yew and the ruins of St. Mary's Priory. Today following this summer's prolonged dry spell the ground was firm, dry and dusty although on a previous visit it was quite muddy and thanks to the presence that time of a herd of cattle, not just muddy. There's a sign at the gate where the path starts but after that it's not well signposted. Keep the hedgerow to your left through two fields until you get to a broad path lined with mature trees. Turn right and follow this avenue which will take you to the yew and priory.
Under the Yew

The tree is hard to miss having a girth of 26 feet (8m) but just in case you're unsure it's the one with a semi-circle of wooden bench seats around it.

The main trunk is riven with splits and almost hollowed out and the branches hang down almost to the ground on all sides. If you stand underneath it's nicely shaded - which was welcome today with the temperature in the high twenties celsius - and the thing has... presence,  particularly if there's no one else about. Not exactly spooky but you can sort of sense the weight of history. Despite the over-flying jet airliners departing Heathrow Airport it feels rather peaceful and between the jets at least it's hard to believe that you are so close to London. Close to the yew tree are the ruins of St. Mary's Priory, small and fenced off alas but the path runs right alongside so you can see it close up. You can also just see the ruins from the other side of the river at Runnymede. 
St. Mary's Priory
On the subject of St. Mary's Priory the Source Of All Knowledge (a.k.a. Wikipedia) says:

Ankerwycke Priory was a priory of Benedictine nuns in BuckinghamshireEngland. It was established around 1160 and dissolved in 1536.

The priory is in the care of the National Trust whose website says:

These crumbling walls were once a nunnery, built during the reign of Henry II and dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. Following the dissolution of the monasteries the priory passed into private hands, and was patched up many times over the years. During the 19th and 20th centuries much of the surviving building fell into disrepair, and today only a few overgrown walls remain.

There is a lot more information about Magna Carta and Ankerwycke on the site including evidence that Ankerwycke, then a small island belonging to the nunnery, might have been the actual site where King John and his barons met to sign Magna Carta rather than the flat marshy meadow at Runnymede where the barons were camped. 

There are more photos of the Ankerwycke Yew and St. Mary's Priory on my Flickr feed.

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