The other day I happened to read something about an ancient yew tree in the churchyard of St Cynog’s Church, Defynnog, near Sennybridge. The article reckoned that the tree was over 5,000 years old, which would make it older than the pyramids.That was some claim – and one which had me dragging Mr B to the car, just delaying long enough to collect together a bag of picnic fodder, walking boots and the camera.
Sennybridge sits west of Brecon on the A40 and is probably best known for its army barracks. The road down to the village of Defynnog turns south just as you reach Sennybridge – blink and you miss it (the turning, that is, not Sennybridge). The church itself was impossible to miss, partly because it’s whitewashed and stood out from everything else around, and partly because it’s very close to the road – with a convenient layby just next to the gate.St Cynog’s Church, Defynnog, Powys
This is another of those mixed age churches, with at least one eleventh century wall, though most of the building is dated fifteenth century. I’m not sure when it was whitewashed because I’ve seen a contemporary photograph of it in its stony glory. It was very picturesque and although we’d driven twenty-five miles to see the famous tree, we couldn’t ignore the church itself. And just as well, because it’s well worth a poke around.
In the porch there’s a fifth century Roman tombstone which has the inscription Rugniatio Livendonio, which means Rugniatis, son of Vendonius. I’d show you a picture but to be honest it just looks like an old stone (things aren’t improved by the wheelbarrow propped up next to it) and a photograph wouldn’t be very thrilling. Touching it, however…my family mock me for this but I love to stroke old walls. Or stand on old floors, or walk through ancient doorways. If you visit a castle and see someone hugging the ruins, there’s a good chance it’ll be me. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here – I saw a TV programme once about a woman who fell in love with a section of the Berlin Wall and married it. I’m definitely not in that category, I promise.
So, back to the church: inside there’s a lovely barrel-vaulted ceiling, as well as a font which is famous for the fact that it’s the only one in Wales to bear runic inscriptions, and is possibly pre-Norman. The trend for placing inappropriate items next to ancient treasures continued here, but I moved the vase of half-dead flowers from the top of the font so that I could take a pic. Maybe I should have removed the faded red velvet thingy as well…
Lovely as it was, it was time to venture outside and find the yew. This wasn’t difficult, as you can imagine. There are plenty of churchyards with such trees, many of them very old and in view of their ages it’s likely that the yews were there first. The specimen in Defynnog has divided itself into two but DNA analysis has confirmed that it is actually one tree. Sadly other scientific evidence points to its age being not 5,000 years old but more like 2-3,000 yrs. I say that as though it’s a failure in some way! This is a living thing which was growing here when Julius Caesar arrived! Long before the English language had been heard in Britain, even in its earliest form. It was growing when Alfred was burning his cakes, when the Normans were landing in Sussex, and when Edward I was building his Iron Ring of castles to subjugate Wales. And it’s still growing today – there are bright green, young needles all over it. I just had to hug it!
The yew just to the right of the church, beyond the gravestones
We spent fifteen minutes or so paying homage to the tree, wandering around it and through it, but eventually tore ourselves away to drive up to the Elan Valley. We went via Llandovery and Llanwrtyd Wells, which proudly proclaims it’s the smallest town in Britain. I’m not sure what the criteria are – when is a village not a village but a town? Is it to do with amenities? It’s also famous for the world bog-snorkelling championships and the man versus horse race, so I think we may come back and explore some other time. As it was we continued on through Builth Wells to Rhayader (which also looks like a pleasant town) and the road to the Elan Valley Reservoirs. By the time we got there we were pretty hungry so we wolfed down a couple of pork pies and a bag of mini plum tomatoes before exploring the small but perfectly formed visitor centre down at the river (which has plenty of information about the dams and the reservoir, as well as the wildlife of the area) and then walked along to Caban Coch, the lowest of the dams. The reservoir above Caban Coch dam
Caban Coch dam
The engine room beneath Caban Coch
It was half-term and we expected the place to be fairly busy but actually there was hardly anyone there. The road around the reservoirs was empty of traffic and it was really peaceful – so much so that Mr B decided he’d like to come back some time and stay overnight so that we could do some walking. Who knows, we might – but I think on a day when the weather wasn’t so glorious it wouldn’t be so appealing. (Think Hinterland…)
We set off back through Rhayader again but instead of heading home we took a small detour into old Radnorshire to see a waterfall. Not the best time to go because (amazingly) we haven’t had much rain lately, but I couldn’t resist visiting ‘Water-break-its-neck fall’. It was very pretty, as waterfalls always are, and I imagine that after a wet spell it’s fantastic.
Then home to sit in the garden enjoying the last of the afternoon sunshine and this lovely thing – I’ve tried growing irises before and never succeeded, but look! What a treat!
I perhaps owe becoming a painter to flowers
Yay! I found you – and I’m so pleased. Just to say, if you ever find yourself at a castle etc and see someone else hugging the wall, it will be me 🙂
At Skara Brae (5,000 years old) there was a timeline – which really brought home the age – but even 2,000 to 3,000 years is VERY VERY OLD and sets my historical juices bubbling – if that isn’t a rather unappealing concept – apologies. Anny x
A woman after my own heart! And what a great site; I’ll be a regular visitor 🌹
For Pagans the Yew tree represented the gateway between life & death. Their presence in so many early churchyards may be a pre-Christian artefact. The prefix ‘Llan’ means a walled (& defensible) enclosure. In the middle ages, yeomen were required by law to practise archery & this often happened on Sundays after the mass was said. The English Yew provides the best wood for longbows so having one in the churchyard made sense. As ever, a thoroughly entertaining blog with lovely pictures!
Diolch! I think the age of some of these trees means that they must have been there well before the churches were built. Great additional info, thanks 😊