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Page last updated at 15:10 GMT, Tuesday, 18 May 2010 16:10 UK
Llangernyw claims the oldest living thing in Britain

St Digain's Church
The church is painted white to reflect it's original lime-washed state

A yew tree at St Digain's Church, Llangernyw, now thought to be almost 5,000 years old, is still putting down new roots, yet only 15 years ago it was home to a rusting oil tank.

"The tank used to be stored in the hollow cavity inside the tree," said former warden and trainee vicar, Gwenda Cooper, who added that they used to sell keyrings made of the wood.

"People had no idea how old the tree was. As soon as we did, we moved the tank!"

The tree's special status as possibly the oldest living thing in Britain was discovered by accident in 1995.

"One day a forestry expert called Kevin Hand came to my door," said local historian John Hughes.

In the 18th century they used to have markets around the tree, with stalls in the cemetery and meat hanging in the church porch
John Hughes

"There was a conference about trees in Denbigh and he'd heard over a pint about an old yew tree in Nantglyn. There, someone told him about an even older one in Gwyrtherin - and there was.

"But once more, he was told in a pub that the oldest of all was in Llangernyw. When he saw ours he had a huge shock."

John, who'd been familiar with the churchyard all his life, was also astonished to realise that the old tree had been standing long before the birth of Christ.

"What's amazing is that generations have gone by without realising its importance," he said.

"In the 18th century they used to have markets around the tree, with stalls in the cemetery, meat hanging in the church porch and people smoking and drinking at the altar.

"Then a vicar called John Kendrick arrived and put a stop to it."

Swords

But evidence of the markets can still be found inside the church.

"The old font is worn down on one side," explained John. "There are two beliefs why: either the Romans used the stone to sharpen their swords, or the market butchers would sharpen their knives on it."

The font and parts of the church, though not quite as old as the tree, date back to the 1300s, while the site itself has been of religious importance for even longer and was consecrated by St Digain in the 6th century.

"Digain was the son of St Cwstenin Cernyw," said Gwenda Cooper. "Cernyw was his father, and Llangernyw is named after him. He must have named the church after his son, although very little is known about them."

But the saint must have been popular because a nearby farm and well have taken his name.

Yew tree at St Digain's Church
A yew in Scotland may arguably be older, but it's showing signs of dying

"The well is 1,500 years old," said Coed Digain farmer, John Wynne. "It's not much to look at, just a few slabs of stone now.

"Some historians told me that white stones were set around a south-facing well to guard against evil spirits.

"There's certainly always water there, no matter how dry the weather is."

John followed in an ancient tradition when he took water from the well for his son's christening.

"Now the sheep usually drink out of the old well," he said. "But it is well-preserved, probably because hardly anyone knows about it. It's not in a place easily farmed by machinery so it's not been disturbed for centuries."

While the well isn't often visited, thousands visit the church every year, particularly the tree which was named among the country's top 50 trees in the Queen's Golden Jubilee list.




SEE ALSO
In pictures: St Digain's, Llangernyw
09 Jun 10 |  Religion & Ethics
Sir Henry Jones Museum, Llangernyw
04 Jan 10 |  History


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