The UK has a surprising number of very ancient yew and oak trees, some of which survive from the Bronze Age. We take a look at the most venerable trees that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have to offer.
List of the UK’s Oldest Trees:
- The Fortingall Yew, Perthshire, Scotland
- The Llangernyw Yew, Conwy, Wales
- The Ankerwycke Yew, Berkshire, England
- The Ashbrittle Yew, Somerset, England
- The Crowhurst Yew, Surrey, England
- Big Belly Oak, Savernake, Wiltshire, England
- The Bowthorpe Oak, Lincolnshire, England
- Major Oak, Nottinghamshire, England
- The Belvoir Oak, Belfast, Northern Ireland
The Fortingall Yew, Perthshire
The Fortingall Yew is estimated to be somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 years old, making it the oldest tree in Scotland. Tree experts dispute what its actual age is.
If the Fortingall Yew is more than 4,000 years old, it’s both the oldest tree in Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and the oldest tree in the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
However, recent estimates suggest the Fortingall Yew is no more than 3,000 years old. That makes the Llangernyw Yew in Conwy, Wales, the oldest tree in Britain and the UK.
The Fortingall Yew is found in the small village graveyard of Fortingall Parish Church. That’s in highland Perthshire, not far from the geographical centre of Scotland.
Growing since the Bronze Age, the Fortingall Yew long ago split into different sections. That is a common trait of ancient yew trees. But it did so in a way that formed an arch, which in years gone by became part of the procession route for local funerals.
The Fortingall Yew is actually smaller today than it was in 1769. Back then, its circumference was recorded as a whopping 17 metres (56.5 feet). We know people deliberately removed parts of the tree.
“Large arms have been removed, and masses of the trunk carried off by the country people with a view to making quechs or drinking cups and other relics”Dr Patrick Neil, writing about the Fortingall Yew in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, 1833
Unfortunately, this vandalism continues today. Visitors regularly feel entitled to climb the listed walls and gate, damage the bark while tying on ribbons and beads, wrenching off leaves and twigs as souvenirs, and even bringing tools to cut off branches. Tree wardens are extremely worried about the state of poor health the tree is experiencing under this stress.
Fortingall Yew Berries
In November 2015, scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh were surprised to discover red berries, an indication of a female tree, on the upper branches of the Fortingall Yew. The rest of the tree remains male and without berries.
“Odd as it may seem, yews, and many other conifers that have separate sexes, have been observed to switch sex. It’s not fully understood – normally the switch occurs on part of the crown rather than the entire tree changing sex.”Dr Max Coleman, a science communicator at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, talking to the BBC in November 2015
Seedlings from the yew will be planted at various kirkyards in Perthshire and Angus, as well at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. This is an attempt to preserve the living DNA of the Fortingall Yew.
▶ Watch Fly’n Brian’s video Fortingall Scotland and the Oldest Yew, the Kirk and a Plague Mass Grave. It lasts just over 5 minutes and gives a good view of the tree and the immediate setting.
The Llangernyw Yew, Conwy
The Llangernyw Yew is the oldest tree in Wales, being more than 4,000 years old, and dates back to the Bronze Age.
If the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire is closer to 3,000 years old than the previously estimated 5,000 years old, then the Llangernyw Yew in Conwy is the oldest tree in Britain and the UK.
The Llangernyw Yew tree is found in the graveyard of St Dygain’s Church in Conwy. This walled market town sits on the north coast of Wales.
The girth of the Llangernyw Yew is 11 metres (36 feet) in circumference. The trunk itself has split into different parts, which is what ancient yews typically do.
Local folklore tells of the spirit called Angelystor, who lives in the tree. Each Halloween, the spirit speaks aloud the names of the local people who will die in the coming year!
▶ There’s a short, fun video called Weird Wales Ep 2 : The Llangernyw Yew by YouTube channel Hiraeth Film. It recounts the mysterious tale of Shon Ap Robert, who defied the legend of Angelystor. Did he live to tell the tale?
In Celtic and pagan times, yews were often worshipped and their sites treated as sacred. That’s why so many churches were built on the same site as elderly yews. So the folklore of the Llangernyw Yew comes out of a long and ancient tradition of incorporating yew trees into spiritual belief.
Perhaps more surprising is the fact no one officially recorded this ancient tree until 1995. During a Tree Warden Scheme training day, the age and size of the tree raised questions and led to the start of official research.
The Ankerwycke Yew, Berkshire
The Ankerwycke Yew is about 2,500 years old, making it the oldest tree in England. However, there are older trees in Scotland and Wales so it is not the oldest tree in the UK.
This ancient yew tree is found at Wraysbury, close to Windsor on the Runnymede Estate in Berkshire. The land is now owned and managed by the National Trust.
Runnymede is famous for being the place where King John of England and the barons sealed the Magna Carta charter of rights in 1215. These important events in England’s history occurred within sight of the same Ankerwycke Yew tree you can visit today.
The Ankerwycke Yew is large, and measured at breast height has a girth over eight metres (26 feet) in circumference. Inside the trunk are giant hollows. Rumour suggests that King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn secretly courted here in the 1530s.
There’s a Benedictine priory nearby. As with so many other ancient yew tree sites, there was an ancient pagan perception that the ground was sacred, and therefore it was later claimed for Christian worship.
▶ A short YouTube video called Seeing below the Ankerwycke Yew – posted to the channel 22reeve – shows tree expert Sharon Hosegood Radar mapping the roots of the Ankerwycke Yew. This latest technology mapping the ancient roots below ground helps to plan access to this famous tree to help avoid root damage.
The Ashbrittle Yew, Somerset
The Ashbrittle Yew is about 3,000 years old. The ground below may be a Bronze age mound where a pre-Roman chief is buried.
You’ll find the Ashbrittle Yew in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Ashbrittle, Somerset. Once again, we find a site for Christian worship built next to an ancient yew tree, whose ground the pagans and Celts deemed sacred.
The Ashbrittle Yew is England’s largest yew tree. Its central stem and the surrounding six diverging stems together measure 12.2 metres (38 feet) in circumference.
There have been recent worries about the tree dying soon, as it shows signs of disease. Tree expert Dr Owen Johnson thinks the situation may not be dire. He suggests yews ‘go through spells where they might look as though they are not thriving, but a few years later they might look fine. They are almost immortal.’
However, visitors must respect the age and fragility of these ancient trees. Climbing on them, tearing bits off and stomping over the roots puts the living tree under stress. When these small attacks happen repeatedly, the tree may die.
We couldn’t find any videos of The Ashbrittle Yew. If you have one available or know a good link to one, please do get in touch. If the tree is unwell, an accurate and comprehensive record now becomes even more important.
The Crowhurst Yew, Surrey
The Crowhurst Yew is up to 1,500 years old.
You can find the Crowhurst Yew in the grounds of St George’s Church in Surrey. The church was built when the tree had already lived for a thousand years.
Back in 1820, the landlord of a local pub came up with the idea to hollow out the Crowhurst Yew’s trunk. He had a wooden door fitted at the entrance and inside placed a table with a dozen chairs.
Unexpectedly, the hollowing out process revealed a cannonball buried deep in the trunk. A local skirmish during the English Civil War (1642–1651), later discovered noted in the parish records, may have caused a stray cannonball to land in the tree. The bark then healed over, hiding the event from sight.
Thankfully the ancient tree survived these curious acts of historic vandalism.
▶ See what Judi Dench discovered when she visited the Crowhurst Yew with tree expert Tony Kirham.
Don’t be put off by the lengthy title for this short film clip. In it, the much-loved British actress Dame Judi Dench visits the Crowhurst Yew with tree expert Tony Kirkham, who is the Head of Arboretum, Gardens & Horticulture Services at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, and they take a good look at the hollow.
Big Belly Oak, Savernake
Big Belly Oak is about 1,100 years old and was a sapling when William the Conqueror and his barons ruled England.
You’ll find Big Belly Oak in Savernake Forest, located in Wiltshire, a county in South West England. With a girth of almost 11 metres (36 feet), the ancient tree bulges into the modern-day A346 with cars passing just centimetres away.
Savernake Forest used to be the Royal Hunting Forest of Savernake, where the Monarch and his Court would come to hunt Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Roe Deer and the Wild Boar. The Normans introduced the legal system which designated specific territories as limited to Royals and those holding a Royal Licence (which were usually purchased at great expense).
It was a system which not only prevented hungry local people hunting and gathering from the resources around them but sometimes involved evicting people from their rural dwellings, which were then burned so that the hunting grounds could be extended.
It was in the Royal Hunting Forest of Savernake that King Henry VIII met his future wife Jane Seymour. Her father, Sir John Seymour, was the forest steward.
Today, Savernake is the only area of ancient forest not owned by the Crown, being Britain’s only privately owned forest. The Earl of Cardigan and his son Viscount Savernake own the forest which is administered by trustees. Since 1939 the timber of the forest has been managed by the Forestry Commission on a 999-year lease. To protect the private status of Savernake, the forest is closed to the public one day per year.
The Folklore of Savernake Forest’s Oldest Trees
Naturally this large and craggy tree-inspired local folklore, which claimed anyone could summon the devil by dancing naked at midnight twelve times anticlockwise around the Big Belly or Decanter Oak in Savernake Forest.
▶ Samantha Adam’s short YouTube video called Savernake Forest “The big bellied oak” Wiltshire-England shows you clearly how closely the road was built next to one of the UK’s biggest and oldest trees.
The Bowthorpe Oak, Lincolnshire
The Bowthorpe Oak is more than 1,000 years old, establishing itself around the same time as the Norman Conquest of England.
Bowthorpe Oak boasts a circumference of 13.5 metres, or 44 feet. It sits on private farmland near Witham on the Hill, in Lincolnshire.
This is another large, ancient oak tree which was hollowed out by our forebears for entertainment purposes. In 1768 it had a door, floor, benches, and a pigeon house in the crown. Up to 20 seated people could dine inside, or 36 standing visitors could squeeze in. Although the original opening has since narrowed, the local chapel still holds an annual tea party for children today.
Animals from the farm also used to use the hollow in bad weather, but a fence now stops them doing this in order to protect the vulnerable root system supporting this timeworn oak tree.
Visiting Bowthorpe Oak Today
Until recently, you could only see Bowthorpe Oak if you were invited. Today, the working farm has also become a commercial tourist attraction, with a car park, overflow car park, visitor toilets, hot drinks, and regular visitor events.
Most visitors are not permitted to get close to the tree in order to preserve its roots system and to stop people climbing on it.
However, if you are a real tree enthusiast please ring the farm in advance and make arrangements for a timed, supervised visit.
▶ Hardertom’s YouTube video called Bowthorpe Oak is One of the OLDEST OAK TREEs alive may be shaky and unedited, but in less than a minute and a half, you get a good sense of the age and dignity of this mighty oak tree in Lincolnshire.
Major Oak, Nottinghamshire
Major Oak is estimated to be between 800 and 1,000 years old. It sits in Sherwood Forest, 450 acres of Nottinghamshire woodland famous for its legendary outlaw Robin Hood.
Major Oak is huge with a circumference of 10.6 metres, or more than 34 feet. The leaves and branches spread out over a whopping 28 metres, almost 92 feet! Unfortunately, the heavy branches now have to be supported with poles to stop them collapsing.
Inside Major Oak is a hollow.
The first known description of Major Oak comes from 1790 when Major Hayman Rooke recognised the tree’s unusual age and size. The tree was subsequently named in allusion to him, though for a hundred years or so the names Queen and Queen’s Oak were also used.
▶ Mark Bonsall’s YouTube video ‘Major oak‘ captures the venerable tree from many different viewpoints on a misty, atmospheric day in late autumn.
The Belvoir Oak, Belfast
The oldest tree in Northern Ireland is the Belvoir Oak, which is more than 500 years old.
You’ll find the Belvoir Oak in the Belvoir Forest Park, a large public park in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which opened in 1961.
In the summer of 2014 tree experts worked fast to save the future of Northern Ireland’s oldest trees. The virulent fungus Phytopthora Ramorum was sweeping across the province. It’s colloquially named “Sudden Oak Death”. The only answer was tree-felling on a grand scale.
Across Northern Ireland, more than 220,000 trees had to be felled and disposed of in a bio-secure method. The Belvoir Forest Park lost almost a quarter of its trees.
Northern Ireland has only about 8% woodland cover left.
▶ See what the Belvoir Oak and its surroundings look like in Belvoir Forest Park
With thanks to Laura-Del on Flickr for use of the Fortingall Yew photo at the top of this page.