Ancient Suffolk. Yews and Puddingstones.

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.

St. Mary’s Church, Wissington

The carved tympanum over the south door is beautiful and dates from the early 12th century.

South Door, Wissington Church.

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.’

Wall Painting, Wissington Church

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.

Galanthus elwesii Wisssington Chuurchyard.

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.

Taxus Baccata, Preston St. Mary Churchyard

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.

Taxus baccata ‘Fastigata’

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.

Kersey, Suffolk

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’.

Puddingstone, Kersey

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.

My previous Garden.
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39 Responses to Ancient Suffolk. Yews and Puddingstones.

  1. pbmgarden says:

    Had no ideas yews were so long-lived. Puddingstones are quite the curiosity. Ancient buildings, rocks and trees. You are a fascinating storyteller.

  2. This is the first I have heard of Puddingstones. Quite interesting. And I forgot that yews grow into trees. We have an upright yew hedge on one side of our courtyard, but our gardener keeps it clipped and shaped each year. Yes, I’ve known that ancient yews grow in church yards and even in Colonial Williamsburg Virginia. Great as garden enclosures, to me they represent safety and stability.

    • Chloris says:

      Yew trees were traditionally planted in churchyards. In the Middle Ages it was believed they would absorb the vapours produced by putrefaction. And they were associated with death and rebirth.

  3. P.S. This month, the yew hedge is terribly misshapen by heavy frozen snow because we neglected to tie it up in the Fall. I suppose we can tie and stake it once spring arrives, then leave it supported for a year. What do you think?

    • Chloris says:

      One of the reasons I got rid of my Irish Yew was because snow would ruin the fastigate shape of it. It needed tying up but was too big for me to manage. I think if you tie your hedge up in the spring and leave it supported it should be alright.

  4. Kris P says:

    This post conjured up a few chuckles half the world away so maybe you are a Druid! Was that belief by your former neighbors based on the creation of your birch tree circle punctuated by a hefty stone, or was there other “evidence”? Owning a house dating back to 1500 is inconceivable to me. That’s a good century before the first English colony was settled in North America in 1607. My own house was built in 1951, which makes it “old” by local standards. Old churches are also relatively uncommon here – the first mission church in California (south of us in San Diego) was build in 1769.
    California does possibly have the UK beat on old trees, though, with a Sequoia called “The President” estimated at 3200 years old. Whether it an the other ancient Sequoias will survive another 100 years, much less longer, is a concern, especially after “The General”, over 2200 years old came close to going up in flames during one of last year’s severe wildfires.

    • Chloris says:

      Everbody used to ask me what my birch circle and stone were for and I was always rather vague in my answers as they were not ‘for’ anything. I just like the look of them. I don’t think I ever did anything Druidy, I wouldn’t know how. But clearly even after I left people still thought it must have been ‘for’ something weird.
      Sequoias certainly beat yews for longevity, but yews are the oldest trees we have here in Europe.

  5. Wonderful. I enjoyed reading this and how funny people thought you were a Druid. I am probably a bit of a Druid myself, loving trees, though I don’t believe I have washed any. I think people get wiggy about circles – Stonehenge, crop circles, ET, etc. The plant life in the UK amazed me, the age and size of some of it. Love those Yews, too.

    • Chloris says:

      I am glad you enjoyed it Amy. A neighbour once called in and caught me washing my birch trees; she gave me a funny look, specially as my kitchen floor was less than pristine when we went in for tea. I’ve no doubt the tale was spread round the village. But I have never heard that Druids washed trees.

  6. How wonderful to be mistaken for a Druid! Great post.

  7. Veronica Voiels says:

    Fascinating stories . So enjoyed finding out about the yews and pudding stones . Thanks for that
    Veronica

  8. germac4 says:

    Lovely post, and thanks for going out into the cold to take photos for us. When we were in Fermanagh following up some family history, we came upon the most enormous Yew trees, on the Crom estate near Lough Erne. Coming from Australia I was amazed! Although we do have lovely aged Eucalyptus trees in the Snowy Mountains.

  9. Brilliant! I love that you are a local legend. Keep on being fascinating and loving ancient buildings, rocks and trees!

  10. How wonderful! This post has so many intriguing things to think on! Thank you for sharing and for the wonderful photos. ♥️🌿

  11. A fascinating post Chloris. So much history behind your house – do you know much about the previous occupants? I have never ventured much into Suffolk despite having a Norfolk born father and must try to remedy that. I do hope that the Kersey puddingstone does not fall victim to the dreaded ‘Elf and Safety’ mentality.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Anna. The deeds to our house only go back to the early 20th century. I imagine it was built as a yeoman’s house. I hope you will come to Suffolk, it is a beautiful county. And please call in here if you do. The Kersey puddingstone is safe now, the council apologised for nearly destroying it.

  12. I love old things, too. Wow–1500! That was just one of the amazing things we experienced during our couple of trips to Europe…the history, the beauty, the old things. Thanks for sharing the stories. 🙂

    • Chloris says:

      Have you ever been to Greece? It is a wonderful place to soak up really ancient history. But we are lucky here in Suffolk as we have many medieval villages.

  13. Frog says:

    Loving old things, a sign of a good soul! 😊 I had never heard of puddingstones and am very glad to have learned about them. The dark flame of the yew tree is for me one of the symbols of Britain. When trees are so old, I feel they are an incarnated form of memory, and we should sit and touch and learn from them. I love that you were thought to be a druid – who knows what stories must have been wrought from that circle of birches!

    • Chloris says:

      Ancient trees have a special power, you can see why Druids revered them. Yews see special but then so are all old trees. I have a thing about oak trees too.

  14. Fabulous, you tell a great story. I also love old things. It puts it all into perspective, doesn’t it?

  15. Cathy says:

    What a great read, Chloris, and you are such a good storyteller – I wonder if the writing you have been doing recently is anything that might be published? I am sure you deserve to be published writer, or is that we deserve to have you as a published writer – or is it all part of the same thing anyway?! In the meantime, those of us who read your blog are already in the know and lap up with great relish all your posts….😉

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Cathy. As you know I am always scribbling away for various publications. But so far, only a monthly column in the Parish magazine, and regular contributions to the East Anglian Garden Club News Letter and Plant Heritage. I have written for The English Garden, but that was years ago in another life. But as you guessed I am getting material together for something more ambitious.

      • Cathy says:

        I am really pleased to hear about the latter, but am sure you will keep it well under wraps until it is published/broadcast so will try not to keep prying… 😉

  16. Lavinia Ross says:

    A beautiful post, Chloris, and I like your rock garden and tree circle.

  17. snowbird says:

    You’re a born druid! This is a lovely read, I was fascinated to to hear of puddingstones, something new to me. I love old things too, especially yew. They have some ancient ones in The Lakes that I always chat too. Love that church and dragon….and you!xxx

  18. hb says:

    Delightful. Thank you!

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