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Kingley Vale, north-west of Chichester is the largest area of yew woodland in Britain. The area is reputed to be haunted as a result of 'battles long ago'. Here a narrow coombe is filled from end to end by a magnificent grove of sombre yews (Taxus baccata), some in excess of 2000 years old. While above, on the crest of Bow Hill, stand four large Bronze Age barrows called either The Kings' Graves or The Devil's Humps. These kings, so the tale goes, were leaders of a Viking raid wiped out by the men of Chichester - a battle between men from Chichester and marauding Danes is in fact recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 894.
The Vikings, or at any rate their leaders, are said to lie in the barrows, and the grove of yews to be descended from trees planted to mark the battlefield. Indeed, many versions of the story prefer to ignore the barrows on the hill, and say that the Danes lie where they fell, under the roots of the yews, and that their ferocious ghosts haunt the dark and silent wood.


Others, while agreeing that the wood is haunted, say that its ghosts are those of Druids, and that somewhere, amid all the yews, there stands a single sacrificial oak. And there are yet others who add that in the night the trees themselves can come alive, and move and change their shapes. From my childhood I remember a tale told to me by my Grandfather about the Vale in which the chalk downland under the Yews trees runs red with the blood of Vikings at late summer evenings. Its properly either the sap or the fruit of Yew trees (both are a deep red colour) colouring the white chalk in which the trees grow.

The whole Vale is indeed a strange and deceptive place, from the outside the dense foliage of Yews give little away to the eye about the woodland. Once inside the first thing is the quietness, birds seldom sing and the canopy of yew reduces the sunlight to a winter glow. Even at the height of summer Kingley Vale feels cold.

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(c) 2004 Mark Bickerdike

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