Yew only live twice

The Ranger was striding out on the office Christmas Walk recently – an annual pilgrimage that usually takes the form of a morning of walking, presentations and discussions of the year’s countryside issues – very interesting, of course – followed by splendid feed at a local pub, and then a walk back again (for most). This year it was the turn of the rather lovely Red Lion pub in Freshwater, right next to the picturesque All Saints Church. One of the projects featured was the Histree Trail, a lottery-funded project “looking for information regarding the impressive trees of the Isle of Wight and the stories that go with them“. Project officer Tina Williamson told the team about some of the trees in the churchyard, including the magnificent yew, one of very few multi-stemmed yews in Island churchyards. The Ranger was mindful of the tales told of yews on this blog by the Wildlife Gardener. This one might not be quite as old as the Tandridge Yew, but it’s still an impressive veteran.

All Saints Church, Freshwater IW

Yes, that’s a big tree. This splendid old tree is huge, and likely to outlive all of us. Yet it is also, like many old trees, in the process of dying. A view of the tree from another angle shows that the crown is looking a bit thin – something’s not quite right there.

All Saints Church, Freshwater IW

There’s something very encouraging in the picture, too – did you spot it? It seems as though the parish of Freshwater is also fond of their tree, and is mindful that even this Methuselah will eventually pass away. So in the foreground you will see that they have planted another – as yet still very small. Tina told the walking party that this was a Millennium Tree, planted in the year 2000 to mark the millennium. Appropriately enough, it has every chance of being there to see in the next millennium in 3000 – although by then its presumed progenitor, the existing huge yew, will probably (only probably) have finally gone. What feet have passed along the path beneath the ancient yew of Freshwater? What eyes will look on its successor a thousand years from now? These long-lived trees put our brief lives into perspective, and we do well to care for them.

The vexed question of memorials… and an alternative suggestion

Roadside memorials… it’s a complicated subject which causes some awkward conflicts of interest. In summary, bereaved relatives want to have a memorial to their loved one at the place they died: but not everyone else does. It’s quite hard to tell that to a mourning family and so it’s often left to ‘the authorities’ to do so. In most, if not all, cases, those authorities which have made rules seem to have found other excuses for them – health and safety, usually. But let’s be frank – a soggy teddy isn’t that dangerous. People just don’t want everywhere to look like a graveyard. That’s why we have special places for graves and memorials. If everywhere someone died was commemorated with a shrine within a decade or so there would not be anywhere left unadorned. If everywhere is special then it ends up with nowhere being special. It is only because most people choose not to commemorate their loss this way that we can presently allow those who wish to do so to erect memorials. But it isn’t fair for them to assume this indulgence is a right or even a duty.

A typical roadside memorial in West Sussex recently, looking a bit faded. Is this always a suitable commemoration for a tragic loss?

There are some who’d like to support the establishment of more memorials. The UK charity RoadPeace says:

Shrines are a visible and poignant focus of grief for families and friends of victims. Importantly, they also provide a unique and effective warning to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists of the dangers that exist on even the most unremarkable of streets. However, flowers wither and die and road users have no lasting reminder of the dangers at the location. Brigitte Chaudhry, National Secretary of RoadPeace, said: “We would like to see the ‘Remember Me’ sign erected automatically wherever someone is killed or seriously injured in a road crash – to highlight the scale, remember victims and prevent future tragedies.”

Campaigning charity BRAKE goes further:

Bereaved families should have the default right to lay flowers or other small items at any time… …grass cutting staff should be advised to lift the items with care and then replace them once the grass underneath has been cut. [Complaints] should result in a period of mediation between the member of the public and the bereaved family… This mediation should take the form of phone calls or meetings, not impersonal letters, which should always be undertaken by a trained bereavement officer, and not by… a highways officer.

They also go on draw parallels between roadside shrines and war memorials, and the permanent memorial erected after the Kings Cross disaster. It’s clear what side of this debate BRAKE is on. The Ranger would be interested to know if local authorities have actually adopted policies anything close to this aspiration. Whilst one can strongly sympathise with the idea, it seems pretty impractical and costly, and fails to address the basic issue – unlike war memorials, these are monuments to private, not public, grief, so if people don’t want to look at such memorials, should they be obliged to? This is an issue away from the roadside and in the countryside too -and there may be a useful lesson to be learnt about one way to tackle it. Many people want to leave memorials to loved ones in the countryside, and similar issues arise to the roadside debate. The Ranger is variously responsible for many hundreds of memorial trees and benches across the Isle of Wight. Most are entirely satisfactory, and there’s no need for ‘a trained bereavement officer’ to deal with the bereaved families who The Ranger’s colleagues regularly deal with. However the issue of the impact on the landscape is an important one, both visually and in wildlife terms. Tennyson Down on the Isle of Wight is a spectacular landscape, utterly smooth and green and with stunning views. Apart from the eponymous memorial there is nothing to break the stark beauty of this hillside… except one municipal memorial bench. Sometimes a memorial is just in the wrong place. This one’s been there for decades so it’s almost become a feature in itself. But what if everyone wanted one? Doubtless the National Trust (who manage the site) are constantly offered memorial benches for this iconic site, and obviously they quite rightly have decided that one is enough. But what is the alternative? Surely a mourning family intent on donation shouldn’t just be turned away? Of course not – and there is a very good alternative. Look at this:

Gate in memory of Brian Evans

Kissing gate in memory of Brian Evans

We don’t usually need any more benches, and we don’t need any more trees – we can’t even manage the ones we’ve got. Why don’t we follow the example (above) of Wight Nature Fund at their Alverstone Mead nature reserve, who ask for memorials to be things of use. The wording is large, and visible from a long way off – and yet nobody would suggest that this memorial was in any way obtrusive or inappropriate. It’s right next to the road, too, as it happens. The solid and useful gate is surely a more fitting and long-lasting memorial to anyone than a faded bunch of plastic flowers taped to a lamp-post?

These are grave mistakes… or are they?

The Ranger spends a remarkable amount of his time strolling around graveyards – it’s a great way to enjoy wildlife in even the most urban environment. Cemeteries and graveyards are often oases of biodiversity, as well as peaceful and beautiful places to sit and contemplate, or simply watch the plants, birds and invertebrates. Another diverting past-time for the graveyard aficionado is to look at the headstones and read the stories therein. From tiny clues much can be deduced. The dates of a family group, the blank page waiting to be filled, the young life cut short, the florid tributes which praise the survivors rather more than the departed… all tell their tales. The Ranger was startled to notice two relatively recent memorials in a graveyard where he was observing grasshoppers. They have a common feature which one would hope is not too often seen – can you spot it?



Spotted it yet? Perhaps bit more detail on that last one…


Yes, you spotted it. These graveyard residents and, what’s worse, their poor families, seem to have been rather ill-served by the monumental masons who made these memorials – they’ve both got spelling mistakes in them. Oops. Or perhaps the last one has not. Notice the delightful gold butterflies carved into the granite. Very unusual, and fairly accurate too. Not the usual overstylised and rather twee butterflies that are often seen on wrapping paper and the like. Just maybe The Ranger was standing at the final resting-place of a fellow naturalist – one who loved butterflies enough to have them on his gravestone, and who was witty enough to appreciate a subtle pun or deliberate mistake in the wording. Perhaps even one who had once enjoyed wandering in graveyards in pursuit of his hobby. It’s nice to think so.

Get your Christmas gravestone cleaner in now!

Yes, at last there’s hope. Ideal for your seasonal shopping, could this fantastic patented compound end dirty gravestone misery for ever? Tragically the website does not show the images in the catalogue, but via the magic of the web we can show it to you (see pic). Check out the little ‘before and after’ gravestone! And the little festive holly sprig! Ho, ho, ho – Father Christmas certainly has come early this year. Get some soon before it sells out – they’re dying to get hold of it! Gravestone cleaner

Thanks to The C@ for this gem.

If you actually want to buy some, go here.