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Ancient Yews celebrated in new book

September 24, 2007:

Three ancient yews in a Northumberland churchyard, one of which is said to have protected St Cuthbert when he preached underneath it in the seventh century, have inspired a new book of writings and poetry by visually impaired people, titled Sacred Yew: the Ancient Roots of Beltingham. See below for extracts from four poems.

The preface was written by popular TV ecologist and botanist David Bellamy, who has been a great supporter of the sacred yew project.

“Beltingham is a magical place where you can step back into time as it was when people made lives and livelihoods within their own purlieu of land and landscape, thanks to a heritage of common sense, hard work and local community,” Mr Bellamy wrote.

Actor Robert Hardy, CBE, an expert on the history of the longbow, wrote the introduction to the book. As he explains, when Henry V was preparing for the Agincourt campaign he ordered his master bowyer, Nicholas Frost, to gather yew wood from all over the country to make war bows. But he forbade him to take yew from ecclesiastical land. “The tree at places of worship was still sacred.”

The Beltingham Yew project was initiated by the Hexham Club for Visually Impaired People, and conceived and written by Mandi Harris. The idea was that each club member would come and visit the tree, accompanied by a sighted partner or volunteer, and would then translate their sensory perceptions the tree into poetry or prose.

The book is being sold for a suggested minimum donation of £5.00 plus £1.00 postage and packing, with every penny going to the Hexham Club for Visually Impaired People. Please contact Mandi Harris at
At first the aim was simply to produce a small booklet for the partipants, but through the involvement of Volunteering Tynedale, the project grew. Children at the local Church of England primary school spent a day doing archery and learning about the church and its yew trees before writing their own poems back at school, some of which were published. The book grew, and so did the project.

Since yew wood was used in the north of England to dowse for hidden objects, the group held a dowsing workshop for the visually impaired group. “The dowsers passed on their skills to the whole group with much excitement and astonishment that they could find the course of a water pipe under the floor!” reported local PCC member Libby Scott, who wrote an article about the project for the Parish Pump magazine. Meanwhile there were other questions about the age and relationships of the trees (their DNA was sent to the University of Hamburg to test whether they are related to each other) and about the age of the church itself. As a result of the questions, the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church, possibly dating from the time of Cuthbert, are believed to have been located.

“The tree was incredibly inspiring and it was wonderful to see the effect it had on everybody” said participant Anne Leebrick. The book is being sold for a suggested minimum donation of £5.00 plus £1.00 postage and packing, with every penny going to the Hexham Club for Visually Impaired People. Please contact Mandi Harris at

ARC has in the past been strongly involved in yew projects throughout the UK, including the Millennium Yew project, in which cuttings from trees that were alive during the time of Christ were distributed to thousands of churches around the country. We also supported in 2000 a programme to explore, through poetry and music, the 3,000 year old Ashbrittle yew in Somerset.

When St Cuthbert was a boy, he tended sheep on the Northumberland hills, and when he was sixteen or seventeen he was said to have received a vision of the soul of St. Aidan being carried to heaven by angels. He spent some years as a soldier, probably defending the Kingdom of Northumbria, and then he took monastic vows. His life as a monk, then a prior, was divided between the political roles that he was asked to perform as head of various monasteries, and the meditational life that he wished to lead, as a solitary hermit. After his death, his tomb, initially at Lindisfarne Priory, attracted many pilgrims. So many miracles were reported at his grave that he was called the "Wonder-worker of England".
Extracts from poems about the Beltingham Yew

To Describe, by Mandi Harris and Janet Robinson

To have eyes and describe the yew
To a person who cannot see
It makes me realise what I missed
On my first visit to the tree

Whisper To Me, by Sheila McDonald

Whisper to me from deep in your heart,
Whisper - for I am so near.
Whisper to me all the secrets you know,
Whisper – I am ready to hear.

Forgotten, by Mandi Harris

The things I have seen standing here
Over the centuries, through good and bad
But now I’m all alone
Hidden and forgotten.

Shaking Hands with Yew, by Joan Short and Claire Heaviside

You can shake hands with the yew
Don’t be afraid, it has comfort to share
Allow it to guide you on your life’s journey,
Who knows where?

Donations and proceeds from book sales benefit the Hexham Club for Visually Impaired People.

Additional Links

Link here to read about the Millennium Yew project.

Link here for general page about ARC's Sacred Land Project, and here for advice about how to set up your own sacred land project.

Link here for more details about ARC’s work with trees, faiths, and environmental groups.

Link here for the article about the Beltingham Yews in Parish Pump magazine. It is on page 8.

Link here for the Conservation Foundation website.

And here for information about the Conservation Foundation's ancient yew project.

Link here for more details about the life of St Cuthbert.

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Christian quotations
Quotations and prayers about the connections between Christian beliefs and the environment.
Celebration of the Ashbrittle Yew
The Somerset village of Ashbrittle has a 3,000 year-old yew growing on a mound in the churchyard. As part of the sacred land project a series of solar lamps, carved from local stone, were installed symbolising themes of past and future in the millennium year. They light villagers to the church and village hall on long winter nights.
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