WILLIAM Wordsworth was a celebrated romantic English poet, synonymous with the Lake District. As well as being a prolific writer, he was an admirer of the yew tree. He not only wrote about them but planted many himself. The most famous connection between this popular tree species and Wordsworth comes in the form of the ‘Fraternal Four’ or Borrowdale Yews. These ancient yews are to be found growing on a hillside, near Seathwaite, and are probably the most famous yews in England.

These trees were mentioned by Wordsworth in his poem Yew Trees, which he was inspired to write after visiting the grove of trees in 1803 and today they attract visitors from all over. He wrote: “But worthier still of note, Are those fraternal Four of Borrowdale, Joined in one solemn and capacious grove; Huge trunks! and each particular trunk a growth Of intertwisted fibres serpentine Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved.” 

The trees really stand out with their dark green canopy on the hillside growing among the many oak trees there.

The trees are owned and maintained by the National Trust. To reach the trees, there is a bridge that takes you over the fast flowing River Derwent to get onto the other side of the bank. It takes a bit of walking and navigating the rough tracks and stepping over rushing burns for about half a mile to reach them, but it is well worth doing.

Forestry Journal: The Lorton Yew, viewed from the bridge over Whit Beck.The Lorton Yew, viewed from the bridge over Whit Beck.

Actually, there is a yew tree growing right on the bank of the River Derwent below the Borrowdale Yews. Some include this tree as one of the aforementioned yew trees. A female yew of 3.3 m, it is gnarled and aged with a number of branches, one of which overhangs the river. It is certainly in a better condition, with a healthy and substantial canopy, than its other neighbours further up the hill from it.

While Wordsworth called them the ‘Fraternal Four’, which suggests the trees are male, at least three of the trees are female. The other tree, which is now fallen, is of an unknown sex. The National Trust has installed fencing around the trees to prevent animals from causing damage to them. They also provide information on the trees to explain their significance and history. It seems that the trust has tried to look after the yews over the years by carrying out minimal intervention work.

They appear to be applying the rationale that they have been able to survive and remain growing for hundreds of years with little or no help from man, so why change this now?

At the site, there is a plaque next to one of the trees, which states that it was recognised by the Tree Council as one of the 50 great trees of Britain to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2002. On the day I visited, it appeared that this plaque was next to the wrong tree. That was my conclusion based on the research I carried out beforehand and the descriptions and sizes of the Borrowdale Yew tree, as it is known, that are recorded.

Forestry Journal: The mature female yew, which grows below the Borrowdale Yews on the banks of the River Derwent.The mature female yew, which grows below the Borrowdale Yews on the banks of the River Derwent.

The Borrowdale Yew is believed to be the oldest and largest of the three remaining trees. Its girth is 7.56 m and this would have been much larger in the past. It has in fact become hollow over the years, and is actually a shadow of the tree it was. This yew was damaged in 1998 by storms, although it still continues to grow. Its age has been established by dendrochronology at being around 1,500 years. It is located furthest up the hill, and has changed considerably since 2002, when it was accorded the accolade of being one of the country’s great trees.

Sadly, in 2005 another storm caused the crown of the tree to be reduced in size. It has since then started to grow a new canopy from the remaining healthy parts of the tree.

This tree has also suffered at the hands of visitors, who have lit fires inside its hollow trunk. In effect, the tree now grows in two parts. One section, which is healthy, has a green canopy growing from it. The other section, which is dead, just contains rotten wood. There are a number of roots coming from the tree and ferns grow both inside and outside the tree today.

The other two surviving yews are much smaller than this famous tree, with girths nearly half the size and they are to be found further down the slope. It is thought that these two trees could have been formed by the Borrowdale Yew’s branches re-rooting to allow the growth of these two new trees in the past. The fourth yew tree lies on the ground, outside the compound, decaying away, having been brought down in another storm, this time in 1883.

The first of these trees used to have a double trunk but over the years this has broken away and it lies nearby. This tree leans downhill and it appears that it is supporting itself through its own branches, which have grounded themselves on the slope. It has benefited from the branch of the Borrowdale Yew being sheared off in the 2005 storm, allowing more light to reach it. This has encouraged the canopy to grow again quite visibly.

Forestry Journal: The Borrowdale Yews, with their distinctive green canopies, stand out on the hillside.The Borrowdale Yews, with their distinctive green canopies, stand out on the hillside.

The fact that its own branches are grounded is actually a real benefit to this tree, as the renewed weight of the regrown canopy is being supported by them. This tree would have been comparable to the Borrowdale Yew in its heyday, albeit the Borrowdale would still have been the larger of the trees. The girth of this tree is around 4.6 m.

The final of the three living trees is actually the one which is in the poorest condition health-wise. It is totally hollow, with half of the yew comprising of deadwood. The canopy of this tree is, surprisingly, healthy and this augers well for its continued survival into the future. It is furthest away from the other two yews but is the one that you first encounter as you walk towards the compound that contains the trees. There appears to be no root system in the hollow trunk.

It is thought that the tree lying nearby is a yew and is indeed the fourth of the yews referred to by Wordsworth. In his day, the trees – as a result of all being healthy – grew so close together that their combined canopies appeared as one. Yew trees are not common to this area and there is conjecture as to how the Borrowdale Yews started to grow there. There is evidence of a wall on one area of the current compound. This may suggest some form of human habitation, but that has not been conclusively proven.

There are a number of ‘new’ yew trees planted near this tree and further up the slope. These trees are enclosed with wire fence guards. Whether they are a deliberate planting to try and replace the missing yew tree is not clear. It is perhaps fitting that new life is starting next to some of the oldest living examples of yew trees in the north of England. The area itself is a site of scientific interest.

The Lorton Yew, is another that Wordsworth mentioned in the poem: There is a Yew-tree, pride of Lorton Vale, Which to this day stands single, in the midst Of its own darkness, as it stood of Yore: Not loathe to furnish weapons for the Bands.
It grows on private land behind the old Jennings Brewery, which has now been converted into the village hall. This tree was featured in the BBC TV programme Fascinating Trees and its accompanying book. The tree is known locally as Wordsworth’s tree.

Around 1,000 years old, this tree’s size was also reduced as a result of storm damage in 1999, but today it is healthy and shows little evidence of this. It also survived the loss of one of its main branches in the 19th century, as well as limbs deliberately chopped off and sold in 1815. The girth of the original tree was 8.2 m and this was reduced to 3.9 m after the storm damage. John Wesley, the Methodist clergyman, is said to have preached under its canopy.

A chair was also made from the broken half of the tree for the nearby Cockermouth mayor. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, was another that preached beside this tree to a large group of Cromwell’s soldiers, adding to its history. The Lorton Yew is recorded locally in Doomsday records and because of its history it attracts many visitors to it. The tree can be found by walking to the side of the Yew Tree Hall, as the old brewery building is called now, and viewing it both from the bridge over Whit Beck and walking up to the information board right next to the tree.
Not content with having written about yew trees, Wordsworth was instrumental in planting them as well. He had eight yews planted around the walls at St Oswald’s Churchyard at Grasmere.

One of these yews grows right next to and, indeed, overhangs the grave of Wordsworth and his wife Mary. These trees are a mixture of male and female yews and include one with a two-trunk split and another with a four-trunk split. They are certainly old trees with an ancient feel and look to them. They do, of course, not look out of place in a churchyard where the church dates from medieval times.

Yew trees are fascinating trees and it is no surprise that Wordsworth would have been attracted to these particular trees and the species itself. It is amazing to think that nearly 170 years after his death, the trees that he visited and wrote about are still growing strongly, despite what Mother Nature has thrown at them. Having visited them all myself recently I am sure they will continue to grow and will be sought out by visitors well into the future.