Updated: Jul 8, 2019
Deep in the heart of Surrey it is possible to find many ancient yew trees including the Crowhurst Yew which featured on Judy Dench's documentary 'My Passion for Trees' along with the 2,000-year-old Ankerwycke yew in Runymede and the yews of a similar age at Druid's Grove situated by the River Mole, Norbury Park and the village of Mickleham.
In the UK, churches were usually built on sacred sites, near old trees or holy wells - the natural holy place often came first, followed by the building and it is likely that these groves of old yew trees were used for ceremony in the times of the druids and for deep reflection, poetic and creative inspiration, prayer and meditation. It was not easy to find the Druid's Grove in Surrey, yet this added to the adventure and mystery - we ended up trawling along the fence of the Norbury House estate before eventually finding the pathway down the forest towards this ancient grove where many old yew trees can be found - they are estimated to be between 2,000-3,000 years old. I was amazed by these spectacular trees - with their contorted shapes and bulbous and hollow trunks.
"Entrance Lodge to Norbury Park" and "The Druid's Grove, Norbury Park" engraved by Radclyffe after pictures by T.Allom. Published in A Topographical History of Surrey in 1850. A steel engraved print with recent hand colouring.
"When Pope Gregory dispatched St Augustine from Rome in the seventh century to convert the pagan Britons, he clearly briefed him not to destroy any places of worship that he found but to convert them into Christian churches. The words 'kirk' and 'church' probably come from the Celtic cerrig, meaning a 'stone' or 'circle of stones.' It is conceivable, therefore, that the first Christian churches in Britain were established in the groves sacred to the Druids, who performed their rites within a circular stone enclosure...The presence of a circle of yews planted within a circular churchyard points strongly to the pre-Christian belief in religious geometry, though there is no hard evidence of this. About 25 examples of tree circles have been recorded, many in Wales, and Bevan-Jones notes that some of them are now incomplete." (From The Trees that Made Britain by Archie Miles.)
'The Convent Garden' (1864) by English artist Henry Clarence Whaite featuring yew trees.
'The Awakening of Christian' by by English artist Henry Clarence Whaite (1885) depicting celestial beings in a forest grove.
Faces inside an old yew at Druid's Grove.
The yew was considered a symbol of immortality amongst the druids due to its evergreen foliage and even in Christian times the yew was still venerated in graveyards and there were beliefs that the yew would drive off evil spirits, protecting the church and those buried there. For a further exploration into the significance of the yew in Pre-Christian and Celtic Christian times in the UK and Ireland please visit:
It is highly likely that these groves were places of poetic and spiritual inspiration - rich in elemental energy, they are places of the muses and may help us bring vitality into our projects or life. In Welsh, the word Awen means 'poetic inspiration' and in mythology Awen was the cauldron of inspiration owned by Ceridwen - this goddess gave birth to the poet Taliesin after swallowing her servant Gwion Bach. The story of the renowned bard Taliesin is now used as a teaching tool by one school of druidry in the UK - Taliesin became a mythic hero who joined King Arthur and the Book of Taliesin is one of the most famous Middle Welsh manuscripts. In 1694, the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan wrote to his cousin John Aubrey in 1694 about the remnants of druidry remaining in Wales:
"...the antient Bards … communicated nothing of their knowledge, butt by way of tradition: which I suppose to be the reason that we have no account left nor any sort of remains, or other monuments of their learning of way of living. As to the later Bards, you shall have a most curious Account of them. This vein of poetrie they called Awen, which in their language signifies rapture, or a poetic furore & (in truth) as many of them as I have conversed with are (as I may say) gifted or inspired with it."
'Finding of Taliesin' (1876) by English artist Henry Clarence Whaite whose landscapes look like scenes out of Tolkien's books.
'Ceridwen' by Welsh artist Christopher Williams (1910.)
It is widely believed that Tolkien was inspired by the yew trees surrounding the door at St Edward's Church in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire since illustrations of 'Doors of Durin,' the west gate of Moria, in the Fellowship of the Ring share a resemblance. Although the church is very close to Oxford where Tolkien spent much of his time, there is no written evidence - yet it is enjoyable to think that Tolkien may have gained some of his inspiration from the places and landscapes around him. It is widely recognised that Tolkien was inspired by the Burren landscape in Ireland which he visited whilst writing. A symposium, the Tolkien Burren Festival, took place there in 2013 in which it was discussed whether Tolkien took inspiration from Poll na gColm (pronounced Pole na Gollum - cave of the rock dove) for the name of Gollum: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-21859633
In his writings, trees are deeply revered and a child whilst living in South Africa, Tolkien's father Arthur created a small grove of trees:
“During the first year of the boy’s life Arthur Tolkien made a small grove of cypresses, firs, and cedars. Perhaps this had something to do with the deep love of trees that would develop in Ronald. From half past nine to half past four the child had to remain indoors, out of the blaze of the sun. Even in the house the heat could be intense, and he had to be clothed entirely in white. ‘Baby does look such a fairy when he’s very much dressed-up in white frills and white shoes,’ Mabel wrote to her husband’s mother. ‘When he’s very much undressed I think he looks more of an elf still.’" (From J.R.R.Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter.)
At the age of three, Tolkien's family moved to England, (although his father died in South Africa before he had chance to join them) and he grew up in Worcestershire and landscapes in his books were inspired by the nearby locations of Sarehole Mill, Moseley Bog, Clent, Lickey, Malvery Hills which he enjoyed exploring along with his aunt Jane's farm, Bag End.
Tolkien's elves, which are the wisest beings in Middle Earth, live in communities and houses in forests, ents (shepherds of the trees) went to war to protect their forest and in the sacred place of Valinor (Land of Valar) the Two Trees of Telperion and Laurelin could be found. Their story is full of inspiration and hope especially during times when we have witnessed lots of destruction of the natural world - after being destroyed by Melkor, the main antogonist in The Silmarillion and Ungoliant, the last flower and fruit of the Two Trees were made into the moon and sun. Tolkien spent much of his time drawing as well as writing and he enjoyed drawing trees - Amalion was the name of a tree he regularly drew although it did not appear in the Legendarium and Tolkien did not write much about it although it is believed by some that this tree was a 'tree of tales' - a personal map of his imagination in which each leaf and flower represented a story or poem in his mind. '"The tree," Tolkien told Unwin, "bears besides various shapes of leaves and many flowers small and large signifying poems and major legends." Amalion, then, might be a fit emblem for all of Tolkien's work, literary and visual, and of the interrelation between the two.' (From an essay in J.R.R.Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment by John R. Holmes.)
The Tree of Amalion by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien scholar, Dr. Liam Campbell, investigated many of Tolkien's manuscripts and papers and believed that the writer was deeply influenced by the landscapes of the West of Ireland, the Burren and the Tuatha de Danann of Irish mythology and he explained the following:
"My wider research into Tolkien, Ireland and the Burren has been given real and unforeseen direction through my engagement with these original Marquette papers. Ireland and, in particular, the Burren, it seems may have played a key role in Tolkien’s conceptual design for masterworks such as The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion."(From thejournal.ie/lord-of-the-rings-the-burren-1617998-Aug2014/ ) In his teenage years, he went on vacation to Switzerland - his journey through the mountains here with a group of twelve was a direct inspiration for Bilbo's adventure across the Misty Mountains.
St Edward's Church. Image from thevintagenews.com
An illustration of the Doors of Durin from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ - it reveals two trees and a lantern, features which can also be found at St Edward's Church.
A pencil illustration of the Doors of Durin in Moria by J.R.R. Tolkien
Images from another grove of yew trees at Newland's Corner in Surrey - a peaceful place where I felt deep reverence and stillness.
Below is a quote from Rambles in Surrey by J.Charles Cox, 2nd edition, published in 1911, which describes the author's feelings as he stumbled across the Druid's Grove:
"The so-called Druids' Walk or Grove on the ridge of the hill is justly famed for the sombre and wild beauty of its ancient yew-trees, and also for the grand size of many of the beeches. I believe this part of the park is not now open to the public, but of this I am not quite sure, for the estate has changed hands with considerable rapidity during recent years. A long time ago I visited this remarkable grove, and I can never forget the weird look on a gloomy day of these ancient yews, with their almost black foliage, contrasting vividly with the pale green of numerous ash saplings."
The following is an old quote by Louis J. Jennings in his book Field Paths and Green Lanes published in 1907 - it is certainly clear that deep feelings and poetry are conjured up within these authors and that these ancient groves are very inspiring, soul-enriching and thought-provoking for those who come across them:
"The Druids' walk is long and narrow, with a declivity, in some places rather steep, to the left hand, and rising ground to the right, all densely covered with trees. The yew begins to make its appearance soon after the little gate is passed, like the advance-guard of an army. In certain spots it seems to have successfully driven out all other trees. As the path descends the shadows deepen, and you arrive at a spot where a mass of yews of great size and vast age stretch up the hill, and beyond to the left as far as the eye can penetrate through the obscurity. The trees in their long and slow growth have assumed many wild forms, and the visitor who stands there towards evening, and peers into that sombre grove, will sometimes yield to the spell which the scene is sure to exercise on imaginative natures — he will half fancy that these ghostly trees are conscious creatures, and that they have marked with mingled pity and scorn the long processions of mankind come and go like the insects of a day, through the centuries during which they have been stretching out their distorted limbs nearer and nearer to each other. Thick fibrous shoots spring out from their trunks, awakening in the memory long-forgotten stories of huge hairy giants, enemies of mankind, even as the "double-fatal yew" itself was supposed to be in other days. The bark stands in distinct layers, the outer ridges mouldering away, like the fragments of a wall of some ruined castle. The tops are fresh and green, but all below in that sunless recess seems dead. At the foot of the deepest part of the grove there is a seat beneath a stern old king of the wood, but the genius loci seems to warn the intruder to depart — ancient superstitions are rekindled, and the haggard trees themselves seem to threaten that from a sleep beneath the "baleful yew" the weary mortal will wake no more.
"Beyond this grove the yews lead the way down-hill, and on the right hand, in an opening, there grows a majestic beech, full twenty-four feet in girth at five feet from the ground. It throws out its roots more than fifty feet, and they are all gnarled and interlaced and covered with moss. The lower branches reach to the ground and urn far along it, while the trunk looks like the body of some huge elephant, bearing many a deep scar which time and weather have left as traces of their heavy blows. Here and there the wounds have been covered with iron bands, and huge props have been placed under the drooping branches. A noble tree, far stricken in ages as it is, it would be hard to find. Just below it, a worthy companion, there is a grisly yew, standing all across the path, as if to forbid further progress. The branches touch the ground all about it, and cover a circumference of 230 feet. I measured it with care. There is another yew hard by which is twenty-three feet in circumference, but the measurement is partly caused by a cleft in the trunk."
The full book by Jennings can be found online: