There can be little more horrifying than a tree which unlocks its roots and begins to move, inexorably.
It’s one of Shakespeare’s master strokes in Macbeth, that dread that woods will walk.
Tim Burton uses that image, the ancient tree which has entangled itself for generations.
While Washington Irving never mentions a burial place in his tale of the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, Burton creates the Tree Of The Dead in his film: as a final gruesome resting place for the headless Hessian soldier. Its roots are a veritable haunt of horror, blood-filled and animated as only Burton would have them.
He, like Shakespeare, plays on our unease.
Today we happened upon a mediaeval abbey.
Felix wanted a castle and this was the closest thing. Managed now by English Heritage, Waverley Abbey, in Farnham, Surrey, is a set of breathtaking ruins. Only Henry VIII could have brought himself to ruin such perfection: gorgeous fan vaulted ceilings, great tall abbey walls with towering gothic arched windows, a huge concern which at its height housed 70 monks and 120 laymen, managing fisheries and the fertile lands surrounding the River Wey.
It hides from tourists like a self-effacing clergyman: a serene retreat for anyone who sees fit to follow the carp and the butterflies along the river to the sunlit ruins.
We had a picnic.
It was the monks refectory which provided the perfect perch for our stuff, just above the dog’s nose height. We sat beneath the fan vaulting, as always a little incredulous that we ate where the tonsured brothers had supped on sunlit Summer evenings nine hundred years earlier.
Meal over, we set out to trace the lines of the old settlement. And it was not long before we had found the abbey itself: the site of the old altar, the place where the side chapels would have been.
And there, growing into the wall behind the high altar, was the most grotesque old yew tree I have ever seen in my life.
Its dark roots were thick and sinewy and though they were still, their lines had an unsettling static mobility about them, so that when my children asked to climb in its old limbs I had to think twice and pinch myself before I swallowed and said yes, of course.
Ascertaining the age of a yew tree is notoriously difficult. But this old yew grew into, and out of, and over a wall belonging to an abbey which was demolished by Henry’s men in 1536. The tree and the wall are virtually one. It looks as though it was a smaller tree then. It is now 21 feet in girth: there is a tree of about 19 feet which was planted in the 12th century.
It is possible- albeit barely- that this gnarled old sentinel was there when the first Cistercian monks arrived to set up a base in 1128. It is possible that it has presided like a living spectre over the past thousand years.
Why was the yew tree there?
No-one, in truth, knows.
At our iron age fort in Windsor Forest there are yews planted at two key entrances. Churchyards regularly boast huge, ancient yews within their bounds, yet no-one is sure why: to keep out cattle, maybe, or to protect and purify victims of the plague.
We hug them to our holy places, a great grim living talisman. The tree which supplies wood of the longbow, used for a millennia as a panacea for the heart, the yew is an enigma which defies any attempt at ring-counting.
Who can tell what they were for, or what they harbour? Or, even, what they are thinking?
I hope fervently that I am never in a position for one of them to tell me.