Beside the river Thames, a stone’s throw from Runnymede where King John signed Magna Carta, stands the ancient Ankerwycke Yew. In 2002, the year of Her Majesty the Queen’s historic Golden Jubilee, the Tree Council nominated the Ankerwycke Yew as one of fifty Great British Trees in recognition of its place in the national heritage.
The current best estimate puts the age of this venerable yew at 1500-2000 years old, but perhaps the best evidence of its age is that it was significant enough in 1085 to be recorded in the Domesday Book of William the Conqueror. Henry VIII is said to have met Ann Boleyn under its layering branches in a secret assignation and in the late 1880’s it was famously visited by the ‘Three men in a boat’. Quite a tree celebrity.
Tree hunting too has an extremely long history. The Anglo-Saxons regularly recorded landmark trees in their chronicles and much later John Evelyn in 1664 in his book Sylva or Discourse on Forest Trees listed all the known remarkable trees in Great Britain for the very first time. Since then tree hunting has captured the imagination of many. In August 2011, the Ancient Tree Hunt had reached the amazing total of 100,000 ancient, veteran and notable tree records on the database, many of them recorded in a Wiki-approach – ordinary people uploading their favourite trees details to a live website.
Ancient yews are rarely ‘discovered’ these days thanks to the diligence of the Ancient Yew Group who have brought to light the many 100s of extremely ancient yews that remain in the UK. One of those yews, the Fortingall Yew is thought to be the oldest tree in the UK. However since the 2012 New Year, eight ancient oak trees with a girth greater than 7m have been recorded on the Ancient Tree Hunt database. These oaks are likely to have started life in or before the reign of Henry VIII and it is astounding that there are so many still being found across the UK today. Knowing the location of an ancient tree is the first step toward securing their future.
Leading ancient tree arboriculturists from the Ancient Tree Forum have recently visited the Ankerwycke Yew together with the National Trust, who now owns it, to discuss its care. In 2015 it is the 800 year centenary of the signing of Magna Carta and the National Trust are keen to ensure that the tree is looked after in the best possible way especially if visitors to see it are set to increase. Hopefully this tree has many centuries of long life ahead of it if we give it the space and conditions in which to grow on gracefully.
Jill Butler, Conservation Adviser (Ancient Trees)