The yew has forever been identified with churchyards, so much so that their presence can almost be taken for granted as you wander amongst time worn gravestones and tombs. Effort should be made to admire them however, since they often pre-date the churches that they surround by some distance. In fact, once these ancient trees have your attention, it becomes difficult to focus on the church, the stone memorials and sepulchres that perhaps brought you hence. And the yew within the grounds of St James’ Church at Nantglyn is particularly difficult to ignore.
At some point, possibly in the 18th century, this already ancient yew tree was hollowed out and a pulpit built within its heart. From a surprisingly elevated position overlooking the churchyard, sermons would be given to the gathered congregation, possibly in order to take advantage of any clement weather. There remains a persistent rumour that one such sermon was given by John Wesley himself, founder of the Methodist Church. Welsey had taken to open air preaching in 1739, after much soul searching, and later remarked,
‘I could scarce reconcile myself to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he [George Whitefield] set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life till very lately so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.’
Having done so, Wesley did not look back and became known for this sermons in open spaces, anywhere a gathering would listen to his new Methodist teachings.
John Wesley preaching outside a church. Did Wesley make use of the Nantglyn yew to spread his message?
A considerable amount of thought has gone into the creation of the pulpit, with steps fashioned of local Welsh slate rising to the pulpit. Whether the effect on the tree was considered is not known, but it is likely that those that built it well knew the tremendous strength of the yew tree, capable as they are of surviving a considerable amount of damage. It remains a most remarkable sight, especially since the yew has flourished in the intervening years, seemingly quite nonchalant of the pulpit within its trunk, absorbing it into its mass.
Yews were sacred to the native British population, a favourite of the druids of pre-Christianity. The longevity and ability to seemingly regenerate was much admired. It is likely that ancient sites of worship were homes to groves of yew trees. On the arrival of Christianity, it is likely these pagan places were annexed by the building of churches, simple wooden affairs to begin with, huge stone affairs in the years following. Why? It was probably as a means of encouraging conversion, peoples drawn to a traditional area of worship simply taking up the new faith that was practiced there. It was possibly a show of strength, a challenge to the old gods that was never answered and thus disappointed or disgusted, the people took to the new religion. The berries of the yew tree are poisonous and it was perhaps that yews were planted to prevent livestock straying into the churchyards.
The Nantglyn Pulpit Yew is a wonder, a practical application of this ancient tree which has thrived and remains a source of beauty. While the church itself is little older than the 18th century, having been much rebuilt, the yew within its churchyard provides a link to perhaps thousands of years worship, pagan or otherwise. At the time of writing (Summer 2017), the Nantglyn Yew is one of six Welsh trees that are included in the 'Tree of the Year' award, organised by the Woodland Trust. There could be no more worthy a winner.