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It’s twenty-five years since the great storm of 25 January 1990 toppled the Great Yew in Selborne churchyard. This celebrated tree, mentioned by Gilbert White in The Natural History of Selborne (1789), and in 2002 elected one of Britain’s greatest 50 trees by The Tree Council, had reputedly stood for 1000 years. A serious attempt was made to resurrect it, but the trunk had split from top to bottom in the fall and the effort to bring it back to life failed.
In preparing the ground for the ‘repotting’ operation it was necessary to enlarge the root hole and an area of 10 sq m was excavated to a general depth of 0.75m. This revealed seven graves, four of which were quite shallow. Wherever possible these burials were left in situ. Many disarticulated remains were found, representing at least another 20 individuals – ten of them adults, and ten children.
The deepest burial was 1m from the surface and cut into the surviving subsoil beneath where the tree had stood. Seven nails with traces of wood suggested that this adult male was buried in a coffin and a piece of green-glazed pottery of 13th/14th century date came from the grave fill. The young yew may have had a diameter of c 1m by this time, suggesting an age of 2-300 years. An overall age of 1000 years therefore seems possible for the Great Yew. A plaque inside the church adds a tentative 400 years to this, but as the heart of the tree was rotten, dendrochronological (tree-ring) dating was not possible.
The highly disturbed and populated nature of the area close to the Great Yew, with the buried remains of twenty-seven individuals represented, would not have been a surprise to Gilbert White. His simple grave (1793) is located at the northeast corner of the church and his observations in ‘Antiquities of Selborne, letter IV’ suggest why.
‘Considering the size of the church and the extent of the Parish, the churchyard is very scanty; especially as all wish to be buried on the South-side which is become such a mass of mortality that no person can be there interred without disturbing or displacing the bones of his ancestors’.
The bones recovered from the excavation were reburied nearby, as a plaque on the church wall now relates. Another inscription marks the grave of John Newland ‘The Trumpeter’. Newland took part in the Selborne Workhouse Riot of 1830, but not such a big part as W H Hudson related in his Hampshire Days. He escaped with a six-month prison sentence, while his co-conspirators were transported to the other side of the world. One detail of the story that sticks in my mind is that when Newland’s wife walked to and from Winchester to attend his trial, their baby suffered frostbite to the nose – poor mite.
D Allen & S Anderson, 1991, Excavations beneath the Great Yew, Selborne, Hants Studies, 47 pp 145-152.
W H Hudson, 1903, Hampshire Days.
Jean Newland, 1998, Echoes of a Trumpet.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.