The Yews of Compton

Yew Walk view
Yew Walk view

Have you, like me, been fascinated by the yews that border many of our ancient paths in the Parish and asked yourself “why there”?

Of all the trees native to Europe the yew is by far the longest living, with the life span of an ancient tree stretching back into pre-history. They are often found in woods and hedgerows and grow well on the chalky downland of Hampshire.

The area between Poles Lane and Hurdle Way with its extended track to Yew Hill was once a dense forest which was cleared for farming in the Saxon and Middle Ages leaving various tracks. Some of the most notable old and large yews are found on the edge of the track from Silkstead to Yew Hill, the ancient Silkstead Lane leading from ‘Prior Silkstede’ to St Swithun’s Monastery in Winchester. Three quarters of a mile along this Lane (O.S. SU 449255) from the present Silkstead House are 10 yews, both male and female, one of which is hollowed and has a girth at its base of approx 16ft 5 in which would make it up to 800 years of age.

Many more yews border this cart track, sunken in many parts, approaching Yew Hill with its reservoir and Butterfly Reserve. One old tree there has a girth of 13ft 8in and an approximate age of 500 years.

Yew Walk views
Another view along Yew Walk

Turning east at this point the main track leads along the chalk escarpment above Compton and is lined by many yews set back behind scrub and later forming the boundary of present gardens. At the end of the present tarmac of Hurdle Way the old ‘Coach Road’ leads south to Silkstead and has more old yews at its start. From the book by JS Drew ‘Compton, near Winchester’ we read that the area along this ridge was cleared for sheep farming on the Downs and further east was the arable common field of Hurdleway, later giving the road its present name.

Compton Street was the main centre of the local population and this road followed the valley west up to High Cross and the sheep pastures. On the south side of the street were three lanes, Carman’s Lane, Welch’s Lane and Three Halves Drove; the last of these is disused but a path identifies its probable position. These three lanes then led by gentle winding sunken routes suitable for carts up the side to the top of the escarpment. Two converged just below the field at the end of the present tarmac of Hurdle Way and the other two joined at the northwest corner of the old field called Hurdleway (where ‘Compton Beeches’ now stands). These are our present ‘yew tree paths’. There are more than 20 yews on both paths leading down north west and south east from just under the hill from the end of the tarmac of Hurdle Way. Again some are very old, one with a girth of 13 feet and 500 years inside it!

Storm damage Jan 2014
Some of the January 2014 storm damage

There are both male and female trees and many are hollowed out, some with internal roots and some have further storm damage also many younger yew trees line the remaining paths.

To answer my initial question then, all these trees would be described as native Hampshire hedgerow yews. Some may date back to the 1300s and the time of the Black Death.

Much of this information is from JS Drew’s book on Compton but perhaps you can add to this and expand our knowledge of these wonderful trees and paths in our Parish.

If so, please do be in contact.

Peter Betts
for the Compton and Shawford History Society

This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of the Parish magazine