diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 19, 2023

If you've ever wondered where London's oldest tree is, you're probably looking at a photo of it right now.

This is the churchyard of St Andrew's in the village of Totteridge. If you've been paying attention over the years you'll know where Totteridge is, but if not then note that Totteridge & Whetstone station lies at the northern end of the Northern line and consider that a clue.

The seriously old tree we seek is the yew tree near the church door, otherwise known as the Totteridge Yew because it's a yew tree and it's in Totteridge.

If you've ever wondered how old London's oldest tree is you'd be in good company. We know it's at least 350 years old because Sir John Cullum measured its girth in 1677 and found it to be 26 ft, indeed it must be a lot older than 350 years because you don't get a girth like that overnight. What's more the girth of the tree is still 26 ft today, i.e. exactly the same pretty much, which means all that massive growth must have occurred a lot longer ago.

It's notoriously difficult to date yews because of the way they hollow out as they age. However it is very easy to make up an age, or to misread a carefully couched statement and present speculation as fact, and this is very much the case for the Totteridge Yew.

According to a 2017 blogpost on the Mayor's website london.gov.uk, the Totteridge Yew is "the oldest tree in London" and "a staggering 2000 years old". But if you check the sources under the post it seems they got all their information from a Londonist post written in 2008 which didn't quite say the same thing. It merely said "experts have concluded that this one is somewhere in the region of 2000 years old, quite possibly pre-dating Londinium itself". And if you check the sources in that post it seems they got all their information from a contemporary local newspaper article which said the yew "could be as many as 2000 years old, according to specialists." From "could be as many as 2000" to "in the region of 2000" to "2000", that's how arboreal Chinese whispers work.

The "up to 2000" evaluation came via experts from the Conservation Foundation, the Ancient Yew Group and tree officers from Barnet Council, and followed many years of research so ought to be legit. They confirmed that the tree "could outdate any other living specimens in the borough and possibly London", and nobody seems to have found an older tree so the Totteridge Yew takes London's crown. The Royal Oak near the Pen Ponds in Richmond Park is thought to be 750 years old and the Minchenden Oak in Southgate is believed to be 800, but only the Totteridge Yew breaks into four figures.

It's a lovely knobbly tree with vibrant green needles and a thick branching trunk. It's fit and healthy, unlike some ancient trees whose frail branches need permanent propping up. It's one of at least three yew trees around the church so make sure you're looking at the right one. It overhangs two large white tombs where Sir Charles Nicholson and Thomas Garle are buried. It's not fenced off, it's a proper part of the churchyard furniture. And it's also the oldest living thing inside the Greater London boundary, so it's believed, so it's pretty amazing you can just jump off the 251 bus and touch it.

Until 1965 the Totteridge Yew was the oldest tree in Hertfordshire.
St Andrew's is merely 700 years old (and the current building only 230).
The Ankerwycke Yew near Runnymede in Surrey is thought to be 2500 years old.
The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire is 2000-3000 years so old may be the UK's oldest tree.
The Llangernyw Yew near Conwy may be 4000 years old if David Bellamy is correct or 'only' 1500.
A bristlecone pine in Nevada is thought to be 4854 years old so yews are nothing record breaking.

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