The low sun casts a stretched shadow from the lychgate, a long thin pyramid reaching down the gravel path. Light flickers through a pair of yew trees in front of the church of St Cuthbert, dappling points of light of varying intensity across windows and stone. A male and a female, they grow in this little churchyard, elevated above the flat water meadows of the River South Tyne.
We spot a few berries on the female tree. Yews are dioecious, bearing male and female flowers on different plants. When males bloom in late winter, they shed such thick clouds of pollen that it can look like smoke from a bonfire. But it is also possible for them to change sex. The male Fortingall yew in Perthshire, probably the oldest individual tree in Europe, has one branch that is behaving as female.
Around the back of the church stands a third yew that is possibly 900 years old and the one that we have come to see. Its huge bulk dominates. Branches sweep out past gravestones turned green with pleurococcus. The massive trunk has an animal energy. Muscular, cracked and contoured, its overlapping plates of bark create a dynamic pattern, a flaking mahogany surface full of rhythm. The stub of a sawn-off branch is like a gargoyle: a dragon’s head thrusting out, its mouth stuffed full of fire, its eye seeming to follow us as we move. Black holes are glimpses into a hollow interior. Thick iron bands, bolted together or secured with heavy chains, bind up the tree. Yet, there are moments of delicacy from tiny-winged seeds or twisted thistledown caught in a lace of cobwebs, a dash of colour where someone has tied three red ribbons.
It is from such wood that the English longbow is made. Under the second archery law of 1363 it was compulsory for men to practise their skills with the bow every Sunday. On one corner of the church, grooves in the stone show where arrows were sharpened. The flat fields below would have been ideal for target practice.
There are recent signs of pruning. Thick heaps of leafmould, collected from nearby beeches, encircle the trunk – all signs that this long-lived yew is being cherished.