Monday, February 13, 2006

An English churchyard

click photo to enlarge
"Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", Thomas Gray

The churchyard at Painswick, Gloucestershire, is rather grander than the one Gray sat in to compose his famous "Elegy", but its yews and tombs characterise much that is pleasing about an English churchyard.

The tombs around this particular church are mainly of the box and pedestal type, decorated with scrolls, arches and angels, and date principally from the eighteenth century. The most striking, however, is a stone pyramid dated 1785, a time before the Egyptian style gained some popularity following Napoleon's excursions up the Nile. It is, however, the combination of tombs with yews - 99 of them - that make Painswick a special place. The trees are said to date from 1790, and it is reputed that a 100th yew will not grow! Yews are traditionally found in English churchyards, and many reasons have been put forward for this. Some say it was to deter cattle (the berries are poisonous): others say it was to provide a source of wood for the English longbow. Perhaps it is because the yew, being a particularly long-lived tree, represents immortality, and is therefore appropriate in a Christian context. Whatever the reason, Painswick's clipped yews make a fine sight.

The day was heavily overcast when I took this photograph, so I had to work for the shot. I took this view of the jumble of tombs through a section of the yews, with the background of stone-built houses, because the soft, dark lines of the trees contrast well with the straight edges and moulding of the Cotswold stone. But mainly I took it because it best represents the delightful experience of standing in the middle of this special churchyard.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen