Kingley Vale, north-west of Chichester is the largest yew woodland in Britain. Yew trees, with their giant trunks, wrinkled bark and twisted limbs have something sinister and magical about them. A single tree is worthy of closer inspection but the vale has many thousands, some among the oldest living things in Britain. Stare a little deeper into the meshed branches and you’ll be mesmerised by their human quality; the wrapped limbs are littered with knots, almost as if they were bony joints, and the huge trunks rise up from the forest floor like wooden sentries reaching towards a harsh blue sky.
One story concerning the ancient woodland has always fascinated me. It tells of Danish invaders who came to Sussex over a thousand years ago. They had travelled great distances to conquer the Saxon communities of south Britain but the locals had fought back, slaying some of the invaders in skirmishes amongst the yew trees near Bow Hill. Legend says that the four large barrows upon the hill, known as The Devil’s Humps, are the graves of the dead Vikings. In late summer evenings, when the blood-red sap of the yews spills onto the chalk hill it is said that their ghosts roam the dark and silent wood, tormented by defeat.
Inspired by a visit to this beautiful but particularly eerie sanctuary, I wrote The Yews of Kingley Vale…
As I stand here, the whole Vale remains a strange and foreboding place; from the outside the entwined trees give little away to the eye about the woodland. Once inside the first thing is the quietness, the birds are hushed and the canopy of yew reduces the sunlight to a winter glow. Even at the height of summer, Kingley Vale feels a deathly cold place.
Why I had returned after all these years I could not answer. But memories are strange things, especially those that cast a shadow over a lifetime. The darker ones have an unconscious life of their own; a fleeting thought or an unusual smell may turn on their ignition, sending the memory roaring into action. I had passed the station for years but only today had the flames of memory urged me back to the Vale. More forceful was the desire to travel as I had done all those years ago; a carriage to the past. Gazing at the reflection in the window, I had watched my car drift away as I had watched my father wave me off from the same spot decades before. In that moment, the two images had become one and lurking behind them was a dreadful-looking tree… Continue reading →