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Welcome to Kingley Vale   Hidden in a secret fold in the Downs north of Chichester is a group of ancient trees which are among the oldest living things in Britain.

Tucked away under the southern tip of Bow Hill, that huge whale-backed eminence that is the main feature of the skyline from the Solent, is a grove of ancient yew trees, so old and so gnarled that it is almost impossible to separate each individual tree. Above them towers the hill-top, surmounted by a group of huge round burial mounds, known as the Devil’s Humps, visible on the sky line from the main road at Lavant.

This is Kingley Vale, now a National Nature Reserve, and site of the largest yew forest in Europe. The oldest trees are said to be more than a thousand years old.

Even Julius Caesar understood the toxic nature of yew. Every part except the red flesh of the fruit is poisonous to animals and humans, yet recently it has been found that the leaves of the tree can be used in a successful cancer treatment.

The six barrows at the top of the hill mark important bronze age burials, but folk-lore, inevitably having no truck with historical dates, suggests that they are the tombs of Viking chieftains killed in a battle with the Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle actually records a battle between the men of Chichester and Viking raiders in A.D. 894, so the legends may have some foundation in fact. The yew trees below are said to have sprung up upon the graves of stricken warriors, and their ghosts are said to haunt the area. Even the smaller trees are supposed to have links with paganism, and local people hesitate to go near the place at night.

ancient yews ancient yews ancient yews

Ghostly it certainly is. Enter the grove on a warm, sunny day, and it is like a different world. Light hardly penetrates the mangled canopy, and the temperature falls alarmingly. The largest trees are so huge and gnarled, and the light so dim, that it takes little imagination to believe we are in the world of Narnia or even Lord of the Rings.

The climb to the top is steep but rewarding, and the chalk soil of the sweet-smelling slopes supports a huge variety of wild flowers, including bee orchids. In spring the open spaces are full of bird song and in summer it is a wonderful place for butterflies, whilst in autumn vast flocks of fieldfares and redwings from Scandinavia gorge themselves on the succulent red berries of the yew trees. The biggest loss seems to be the cuckoo. Whereas twenty years ago five or six could be heard calling at one time in May, the Warden says it is rare to hear one at all nowadays.

Once at the top we find the Devil’s Humps, and it is said that we can arrange to meet him by running round the barrows backwards seven times. But it’s a long way!

On a clear day the view is breathtaking, dominated by the spire of Chichester Cathedral in the centre. To the south-west lie the sparkling silver inlets of Chichester Harbour with the Isle of Wight beyond, whilst to the south-east stretches the Selsey peninsula, with the tower blocks of Bognor in the distance.

Sir Arthur Tansley, the first Chairman of the Nature Conservancy, who is commemorated by a stone at the top of the hill, thought that this was the finest view in the whole of England.

The stone was put in place in November 1957, and the inscription reads: “In the midst of this Nature Reserve, which he brought into being, this stone calls to memory Sir Arthur George Tansley FRS, who, during a long lifetime, strove with success to deepen the love and safeguard the heritage of nature in the British Isles.”

As a National Nature Reserve, Kingley Vale, with its archaeology, its yew trees and its wonderful variety of wildlife, is safe for posterity. It is approached along a well made-up footpath from the village of West Stoke, just to the west of Lavant. The car park is a kilometre from the entrance to the reserve.
  Inscription on the Tansley Stone

Tom Muckley, July 2004

This article was originally published by the Petersfield Post