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Fall and Rise of The Great Selborne Yew Tree

The dramatic story of how a violent storm in 1990 brought an end to 1,400 years of English village history.

St. Mary’s village church Selborne, Hampshire, England.  The remains of the original Selborne yew tree can be seen in the foreground to the left of the church.

Throughout the long history of the rural Hampshire village of Selborne, the 29th January 1990 will possibly go down as the saddest day on record.  Across southern England that day, a violent, destructive storm had been raging, gathering intensity as it crossed county after county.  Just after three o’clock that afternoon, it tore through the peaceful village; the former home of naturalist, Gilbert White.  Rattling windows and lifting the roof tiles from several homes, it inevitably struck of St. Mary’s village church.  Standing directly in the path of the storm stood the 60ft. high (approx 20 metres) Selborne yew tree; the age-old guardian of the churchyard.

During its 1,400-year lifespan, the yew tree had been present when the Normans had conquered England in 1066, when the English Civil War raged across the land; when men had died by the thousands in the trenches of war-torn France during World War One and throughout the bombing of British cities in World War Two.  The tree had weathered bitter frosts, blinding blizzards, scorching droughts and countless gales and storms; but, the tempest that now surrounded it seriously threatened to bring its life to an undignified end.

Without warning, as the storm reached such violent proportions it seemed that Selborne village would be swept from the face of the earth, the yew tree gave a tremendous shudder and was ripped from its birthplace.  The tearing sound of its roots being wrenched from the earth was immediately silenced by the howling wind.  Narrowly missing the fabric of the village church, and the majority of the surrounding headstones, tons of ancient yew hit the ground, blocking the entrance to the church with its tangled mass of upper branches.

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User Comments
  1. inspirearun

    On November 12, 2010 at 3:26 pm

  2. TrevorS

    On December 3, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Charles, this is a fascinating story, thank you for it. I, too, have an interest in the history of old churches and cathedrals, and the architecture, and I have a fascination for Selborne. I travel to Alton often, and always stop in Selborne to take pictures, or just to look. I will make a point of going to the church next time, and will look at the Yew.

  3. TrevorS

    On March 28, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I recently visited the Selborne Church, and Gilbert White’s House. Fascinating, especially since I am a passionate birder and student of their behaviour and life histories.

  4. Will Laverton

    On September 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    I found this article yesterday after remembering this occasion being talked about as a child. I was brought up near by and was 3 when it happened. I told my father about the article and he shared with me something that very few people know. He was walking home through the storm on the day it happened and actually witnessed the ancient tree fall over from 20 or 30 feet away!! As far as he knows he is the only eye witness of this historic moment.
    If you are interested he has told me he would be happy to share his account of what he saw and felt with you.

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