About Me

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Bristol , United Kingdom
I'm co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy, which provides advice for poets on writing, editing and publishing, as well as qualified counselling support for those exploring personal issues in their work - https://theleapingword.com. My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, is now available from Indigo Dreams or directly from me.

Sunday 11 June 2017

A Pilgrimage to St Cynog's Walking Yew

We'd just settled in and it was time to go home ... 

Feckin' monkeys!

... but having taken four hours to drive the 110 miles to our base in Pembrokeshire the previous Saturday - and with the final of the Champions League being held in Cardiff that evening - we decided to avoid the traffic and take the scenic route back. 

First stop Narberth, for some (veggie) treats.

Then a 60 mile drive around the top of the western Brecon Beacons.

Just under three years ago, I came across an article about a yew in the churchyard of St Cynog's in Defynnog, Powys. It had just been estimated to be 5,600 years old, and thus the oldest tree in Europe. 

I wanted to go and see it. I had to go and see it! And so did my friend, Cheryl. We started to make plans. 

And then Cheryl died. 

So when I saw that our detour home would take us through nearby Sennybridge, I had to go there for her, as well as for myself. 

The tree is so old it has split into two halves, one 40 feet wide, the other 20. For a long time it was thought to be two trees, but tree DNA says otherwise.

In a pamphlet in the church, yew tree historian Allen Meredith writes that 'walking trees' occur as part of a natural layering process, or can sometimes be due to lightning strike or other natural phenomena. Thus part of the tree can appear to move away from its original site. 

Both parts of the tree can continue to produce new growth to cover the old and decayed wood, and eventually it will appear as two individual trees. 

The researchers obtained several samples of old wood from the larger trunk, where over 120 rings were found in one and a half inches, making the Defynnog yew a very ancient tree - a sapling in the early Bronze Age. 

It was the perfect place to contemplate life and death and regeneration.  

I get the feeling that this tree, like the other remarkable trees I've met, is quite aware of how special it is. 

And like those two ancient Somerset oaks, Gog and Magog, lots of people have visited it, bearing gifts. I wrote a tiny plea, rolled it up and eased it into a crack in the bark. And thought about the quietly continuing presence that is Cheryl. 
St Cynog, son of Brychan, was an early British saint and martyr, and the yew is not the only ancient thing associated with his church here. 

This is a Romano-Celtic gravestone with the Latin inscription RUGNIATIO LIVENDONI, meaning [the stone] of Rugniatis, son of Vendonius. It's believed to date from the fifth century, and was discovered in 1853, built into the external face of the church tower.

On the left hand side are vestiges of Ogham script which are no longer legible, thanks to the mediaeval masons who fitted it into the tower ...

... and at the top, Celtic inscriptions from the ninth to 11th centuries.    

Also very very old indeed is this stone holy water stoup, believed to be pre-Norman ... 

... and the font, the Runic and Lombardic inscriptions of which makes it unique in Wales. 
The base is also a font which has been upturned. 

On the rim is carved SIWURD and GWLMER, which apparently indicates a Viking settlement in the early 11th century. 

This interested me on account of Sywardes Cross (aka Nun's Cross) on Dartmoor, which features large in my novel, 'Dart'.  

However, Syward/Siward of the Cross has been tentatively identified as the 11th century Earl Siward of Northumbria. This Siwurd could be Richard Siward, Lord of Talyfan, who lived two centuries later. 

It was time to be going, however. 

One last look at the churchyard, bright with fox and cubs ... 

... and we headed home at the end of our West Wales adventure. 


  1. I'm loving your Blog, Deborah! Fantastic! It seems that many of the places you visit are ones that I have been to as well - places that I have visited loads of times and love, particularly Pembrokeshire. (I think St David's is the most beautiful cathedral in Britain, second only to Gloucester.) I'm learning a lot from your history research though, things that I didn't know - you obviously read more than I do? Interesting facts about Yew trees in this article - loads of them grow in the Forest of Dean because they love the iron-rich soil. Any time you are in the Forest let me know? (Stew C's mum)

    1. Hello Stewart's mum! (I've just found you on Facebook!) This was my first visit to Pembrokeshire and I fell in love, more than a bit. (I keep dreaming I am on the coast path.) The trees on offer were remarkable. I am partial to a yew or two.

      I don't think I read that much, it's just the way I do it. I read to know enough to be able to write. Which means I know lots about lots of stuff in very shallow detail indeed. Butterfly brain. :-)

      Part of the reason why I love the Forest is because it's remote enough to warrant a conscious decision to go there. I've loved our recent trips there. Will let you know the next time. x

  2. You're a loyal friend and a fine friend and photographer. I wish I could visit you.

    1. I still buy the occasional lottery ticket, Donna. If it's meant to be, it will happen, and if not, I feel so lucky to know you virtually XXXX

  3. I particularly enjoyed the narrative alongside the images. An informative blog. I must get along to see this Yew tree. Whether poetry or prose, your words are quite genuinely a joy to read, and always thought-provoking. I'm off now to read the Brecon one! xx