The Defynnog Yew – the eternal wonder of one of Britain’s oldest trees

Standing below the mighty Defynnog Yew © Luke Waterson

A tree, you say? Ah, but the Defynnog Yew is no ordinary tree… Hidden away in the hush of an overgrown churchyard in the little-known hamlet of Defynnog, near Sennybridge, is one of Britain’s greatest arboreal treasures. Said to be 5000 years old by those in the know, this mighty yew has supposedly been around since the Bronze Age, which, if true, would make it the oldest tree in the UK – indeed significantly older than the more famous Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland.

Surprising though it might seem, the Defynnog Yew is still largely undiscovered, despite being just off the main road that blazes through the Brecon Beacons National Park. When we visited recently, we were the only ones there. We spent a moment of quiet contemplation rambling around the yew’s gnarly, muscular roots and low boughs, and clambering up into the needly hollow.

The way up to the hollow © Kerry Walker

The keeper of a thousand untold stories witnessed over five millennia, the Deffynog Yew has a primeval beauty and an aura of mystery that touches deep. As wide as it is high, the yew has actually split into two separate trees over the ages. Its bark is so ancient and marbled, it is almost petrified and resembles volcanic stone. Fresh needles and shoots stubble its roots and branches. Tendrils and tresses fling themselves to the ground. Ivy ensnares its base.

Often a fixture in churchyards today, the yew tree has a history with deep roots. It was held sacred by the Druids, who used their wood to make their wands and staffs because of its supposed powerful magical properties. In the Celtic world the yew was synonymous with longevity and regeneration, death and resurrection, due to its drooping branches that could take root and form new trunks where they touched the ground. Yew trees could also survive the harshest of winters: when all else perished. In fact, a likely etymological origin of ‘yew’ is from the Welsh word ‘ywen’ – who is to say that the word we use for the tree today did not derive from this very evergreen in Defynnog churchyard?

The gnarled roots and branches of the Defynnog Yew © Kerry Walker

What to do

After you’ve admired the yew from every possible angle, take an atmospheric wander through the churchyard, with lots of crumbling tombstones to admire. Though sadly locked when we were there, St Cynog’s Church is most certainly worth a peek if open. Built on the site of an earlier Celtic church, the stout Norman church has an elaborately carved font with a runic inscription and a pre-Norman window that is believed to be Celtic. The standout, however, is a Roman sandstone pillar dating to the 5th century, which is engraved in Latin and Ogham (the early Irish language of the Celts).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Defynnog Yew, it’s only 15 miles west to Myddfai, home to a legendary group of pioneering herbal healers, the Physicians of Myddfai, and a beautiful walk tracing sites associated with them.

St Cynog’s Church © Kerry Walker

At a glance

How to get there: Defynnog is just off the main A40 Brecon Road. Take the A4067 south of Sennybridge and stop in the village centre.

Parking: There is free parking close to the church (try the High Street or one of the lanes near it).

Refreshments: It’s worth timing your visit to squeeze in lunch at the wonderful International Welsh Rarebit Centre, a retro-cool cafe and cultural space serving hands-down the tastiest and most creative rarebits in the country.

Best time to visit: Thanks to its evergreen nature, the yew tree wears all seasons well, and is every bit as enchanting in winter as summer. As mentioned, it is rarely crowded no matter when you visit.