I love old things. My house was built in 1500, that was before Henry viii came to the throne and started chopping off his wives’ heads He was only nine at the time. But there are older buildings in Suffolk. The pretty little Norman church at Wissington was built in the 12th century. When the wool trade enriched this part of Suffolk in the 15th century many of the churches were enlarged and embellished but this little church in the middle of nowhere was overlooked.
The carved tympanum over the south door is beautiful and dates from the early 12th century.
The church even managed to be overlooked by ‘Smasher’ Dowsing, the enthusiastic Puritan iconoclast who was responsible for much of the destruction of pictures and Catholic imagery in East Anglia during the reformation. There are 12th century wall paintings, including one of the earliest depictions of St.Francis of Assisi in England and an early 15th century painting of the dragon which was said to have appeared from the River Stour in 1405 and terrorised the locals.
In these days there appeared lately an evil dragon of excessive length with a huge body, crested head, saw-like teeth and elongated tail in land near the town of Bures near Sudbury, which destroyed and killed a herd of sheep. The servants of Sir Richard Waldegrave who owns the land haunted by the dragon came forth to shoot it with arrows which sprang back from its ribs as if they were metal of hard stone and from the spines if its back with a jangling as if they were hitting bronze plates, and flew far away because its skin was impenetrable. Almost the whole county was summoned to slaughter it but when it saw that it was to be shot at again, it fled into the marsh, hid in the reeds and was seen no more.’
It was a joy to find this little clump of Galanthus elwesii nestling in the churchyard when I went to photograph it this afternoon on a bitterly cold January day.
But older than any building, yews have always been part of the British landscape. They are one of only three native conifers. Fossil remains show that Taxus baccata is at least 15 million years old. But many living yews are an incredible age. They were venerated by Druids and many of them were planted on sacred sites which Christians then took over. Longbows made of yew were used by English archers at the Battle of Agincourt. In 1911, a yew spear tip was found in Clacton, Essex. It is 420,000 years old and the oldest wooden artifact ever found. Yew trees rot inside with age so you can’t count rings to tell their age, instead you have to measure their girth. There are yews in the UK which are over 1000 years old, they are the oldest living organisms in Europe. They constantly regenerate by rooting from their branch tips when they touch the ground and also roots grow through the hollow centres.
Suffolk doesn’t have the ideal conditions for yews but nevertheless we have one or two old ones. This beautiful tree is in the churchyard of Preston St. Mary quite near to where I live. It is 800 years old and predates the 14th church by a long time so presumably this was always a sacred site. I find it sobering to look at a living tree like this one and imagine that it was there when Genghis Kahn and his Mongol hordes were sweeping across Eurasia and crusaders were on the rampage killing the poor Cathars in south west France and attacking moslems in Jersualem.
Irish yew known as Taxus baccata ‘Fastigata’ is an upright form. Irish yews are not ancient at all. Every one dates back to a mutant form of Taxus baccata found in County Fermanagh in 1780. I had one in the middle of my lawn which had to go, as it stuck out like a sore thumb and anyway it got in the way of the croquet.
But even older than the oldest yew tree are the amazing puddingstones which are several million years old and the world’s rarest rocks. They are a conglomerate stone which is a mixture of mostly flint pebbles which started off mixed with clay in a river bed. They became bonded together when they were compressed and rolled around by glaciers in the Ice Age. They have the appearance of plum puddings because of all the pebbles bound up in what looks like rough cement. When the Ice Age ended they tumbled into rivers and were scattered round the countryside. Here in Suffolk which is a stoneless countryside apart from flint, they were thought to be magical stones. They were often used in the foundations of churches or as markers at crossroads or fords. There is one in the beautiful village of Kersey which nearly got destroyed a few years ago.
Workers from Suffolk Highways department were just about to start attacking it with pickaxes when a local man spotted them and it was saved. It has sat there since the Pleistocene Age bothering nobody and it’s not until the 21st century that it’s suddenly considered to be a ‘tripping hazard’.
I am not surprised that stones have been venerated. I am sure I’m not the only one who loves them and carries stones back in their pocket from wherever they visit. I grew up in the Peak District of Derbyshire and miss having rocks to clamber on here. In my previous garden I had a massive rock installed with great difficulty and planted birch trees in a circle round it. I used to wash the birch trees every year so they were gleaming white; they could do with a wash now. I moved away 16 years ago and I have since heard that local gossip has it that I was a Druid. I don’t know if they thought I sacrificed goats and cockerels or what. Actually nobody knows exactly what Druids did or believed as they left no written records. Anyway, I am not a Druid; I am just someone who loves ancient buildings, rocks and trees. And that is why I decided to write this post.