Yew, me, Highlow and Hathersage

I had walked in the Hathersage countryside for many years before I lived here, but had never been struck by the omnipresence, the centrality of Highlow in the local landscape. And yet as soon as I moved to the village I started to perceive Highlow as a focal point of my identity. The name Highlow ("low" denotes a prehistoric burial ground in this neck of the woods) suited my persona admirably. Its constant "thereness" - in view from almost everywhere in and around the village - began to give my life a kind of spiritual focus which was new to me. I got into the habit of gazing at Highlow, fixed its shape in my mind as an object of meditation. I found myself constantly imagining prehistoric people doing the same things, feeling the same feelings but with a far greater intensity. Highlow home of their ancestral spirits, ever-present in the landscape before them as they eked out their lives on the Edges surrounding it.

When I was told on diagnosis that my chemo drug would be Paclitaxel, I found myself drawn into another unexpectedly spiritual dimension. Straight away I looked it up on the Internet, and discovered that Taxol, the major component, is made from yew trees. I found out that decimation of Pacific Yew trees in the US for its production was a major campaigning issue around 10 years ago. Since then it's been discovered that it can be produced from European Yew clippings and there are companies in the UK which come and clip yew hedges for free so they can be used for this purpose. (

Being somebody who is very fond of trees, I decided that an obvious kind of complementary therapy would be to build up a relationship with yew trees. The day after diagnosis, I went up to the churchyard to talk to one of them. There are plenty of yews there, forming a near-circle, and the guidebook available in the church tells the reader that the yew trees are likely to have preceded this Norman edifice.

I became especially fond of a yew tree close to the churchyard gate which has a large hollow in it. When I stand so that the wind will brush its evergreen fronds across my face, it's easy to imagine that the tree has a consciousness of me in the same way that you can communicate a meaningful something about yourself to an empathetic horse if you breathe into their nostrils. When I put my hand inside the hollow, I found that a small chunk or two of yew wood could be gently taken and put in my pocket. It was December then, and the wood was still dry.

I put my pieces of yew tree in a polythene bag and put it in my bedside drawer, occasionally taking a piece out to hold and to smell. By the end of December, I had got into the habit of always going to sleep with one of my bits of yew tree in my hand and as the wood got warmer in the house it began to emit increasingly strong odours (very pleasant, in a sort of mentholish woodland disinfectantish way). The vapours exhausted themselves after a while though, and in the late winter the yew trees no longer had bits of dry wood to be harmlessly gathered. But I retained my attachment to the pieces I already had. I still (July 05) always sleep and meditate with a piece of yew in my hand. I get fond of particular pieces and am a bit unhappy if one of them disappears into the vacuum cleaner or wherever.

By January, I had discovered that a yew tree lower down in the churchyard commands a wonderful view of Highlow, and that it has two lopped branches upon which I can lean my arms and rest and feel awed by the splendidness of nature. My daughter calls this tree "Crutchy".

I started reading a lot about yew trees. The Internet is full of facts and myths. A friend sent me Sylvia Plath's poem about yew trees which I find thoroughly dismal. Yew trees don't make me feel in the least little bit dismal. (I don't really like that Sylvia. I think she should have taken more of a grip on herself and would have done so had she not been so bloody arrogant.)

I did some reading about the coming of Christianity and established that the general current theory amongst historians with regard to yew trees and churches is that the yews came first. Which is as you would expect. The yew groves were sacred places in Druid and pre-Christian religions, so what better trick for invading forces and cultures than to parachute a Christian church right into the middle of them?

There are all sorts of silly theories to the contrary, of course. One book I consumed voraciously but with growing frustration was "The Ancient Yew", by Robert Bevan-Jones. This chap wants us to believe that it was the early saints who put the yew trees there. History doesn't exist in his eyes before the early saints. Added to this, he is obsessed with measurement games - the oldest and biggest yew. He takes no note of the importance of his statement that new yews will grow from an older root structure, i.e. biggest yew may not mean oldest yew grove, especially in windswept places like a Hathersage hillside.

Hathersage Church is situated above the village, in a location which doesn't have any obvious logic to it. Next to the church (that is, next to the ancient yew grove), there is a "camp" earthwork, which is tought by manyto be "Danish" rather than Norman. "Hearh" means "hill sanctuary" in Old English, and the earliest spelling of Hathersage (in the Domesday Book) is "Hereseige". However no theories regarding the name Hathersage have suggested a connection. The standard placename explanation to be found on the Internet is "(Old English) haefer ="billy goat" (Old English) ecg ="ridge" but this doesn't seem a particularly compelling interpretation.

To my mind it makes more sense to suggest that in pre-Christian times, Hathersage was a hill sanctuary consisting of a sacred yew grove next to an encampment - a fortified settlement. I think that woodland would have concealed this settlement from view when looked down on from the Edges above - the only accessible route into the valley in prehistoric times. The multitasking yew grove could provide bows and arrows as well as being a spiritual place. From the yew grove, it would be natural that you would stand and look over to Highlow, where your ancestors were probably buried.

Be that as it may, by the time chemo began I had developed this dual spiritual focus - Highlow and the yew trees. The night before my third chemo session, unable to sleep due to the preparatory steroids megadose, I occupied myself playing little games with my Anquet Maps software. In the course of which I noted that Highlow, my house, and the yew grove where the church now stands are in a straight line - indeed a remarkably straight line. See map. (Position of my house marked by purple cross.) This line extends on up to Carr Head Rocks, where there is a particular upright stone with strange indents running up it, angled in such a way that one might conjecture that it has been deliberately aligned with Highlow. (I call this stone "Buddha's tooth" - it seemed a good name after reading the Dalai Lama's autobiography, and being very entertained by what I took to be a typical Buddhist tongue-in-cheek comment about his pleasure at being taken to see "that most precious of all relics - the Buddha's tooth".)

I always thought that the idea of "leylines" was a lot of mystical cobblers, but all the same this sense of being directly on a line of force between the yew grove and Highlow has a strong hold over me. I have a physical sense of the line being there, and regularly find myself adjusting my position in bed to place myself more directly on what I completely unscientifically perceive to be its path. Extraordinary behaviour from somebody who considers themselves to be driven primarily by reason.

My sense of identity with Highlow keeps on growing. There is no public access, which adds to its air of specialness. Trespassing is easy but the farmer likes to be asked permission. Poor wounded hill - it's all lumps and bumps on top, presumably from its use as a bole hill for lead smelting in the eighteenth century. Whatever prehistoric burials it owes the "low" part of its name to, it's unlikely that any traces could be unearthed. And now, no doubt as a result of the advent of the quad bike, it's being used to dump farmer's rubbish in the craters (boles). Anyway its combination of woundedness with magnificence have made me still fonder of it. It's the place where I want to feel that any spirit which lingers on after my death, is embodied. Meanwhile my corpse or ashes will find repose in the Parish Burial Ground next to the churchyard, where all Hathersage residents have the great privilege of being eligible for a plot whatever their religious beliefs, commanding the same grand view of Highlow as the adjoining yew grove.

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