We’ve visited Little Milford Woods a couple of times recently (blog posts coming soon). I happened to be chatting about this place with a friend who also loves adventuring and she asked if we’d visited the nearby church and graveyard. I admitted that we hadn’t yet but planned to, especially since she told me the intriguing tale about the gravestone and the ancient Yew tree…
At the weekend we’d finished shopping and chores and wanted somewhere to explore for a few hours to make the most of the last hours of freedom of the Easter Holidays. Dave suggested we revisit Little Milford Woods. There are a number of paths to follow so we still have more to explore. During our first visit, we walked for miles and hours longer than we planned to (yep, you guessed it, we got lost!). On our latest visit we wanted to try one of the shorter routes. We found one, but it was admittedly too short. It was a beautiful stroll through bluebell woods but over far too soon. We were not quite ready to drive home. One onlooker looked bemused as Izzy stamped her feet by the car, exclaiming, “I don’t ever want to leave this place!” It is lovely so I didn’t blame her and we didn’t feel ready to go home yet either. I remembered my recent conversation with a friend and suggested we visit the church.
St. Justinian’s Church, Freystrop (OS ref: 963120)
Justinian’s Church, Freystrop, is a short walk up the hill from Little Milford Woods car park. There are also a small number of “church parking only” spaces adjacent to the church (Sat Nav Postcode: SA62 4LD). Services usually only take place each Sunday morning (special services are advertised on the church notice board), so you can park here at most other times. We reminded the kids to be aware and respectful of the fact we were visiting a place of worship and also a graveyard full of loved ones and set off into the church yard.
The church is set quite low, hidden by greenery, it’s a very pretty, peaceful place. You could easily pass it from the road and not realise it was nestled down there.
We spotted a white feather.
The Ancient Yew Tree
As I was taking time to stop and take photos, Dave and the kids found the grave and Yew tree before me so called for me to come and see. The Yew tree is around 800 years old and is thought to be the oldest Yew in Pembrokeshire. It has a preservation order by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. It’s even older than “The Bleeding Tree” in Nevern which is “only” around 700 years old.
It’s actually quite alarming when you first come across the gravestone, now caught in amongst the growing tree. The memorial stone reads: “In memory of Mary Morgan who died August 9, 1819, aged 8”. It’s always sad to read a gravestone of one so young. People say that the Yew tree is wrapping itself around Mary Morgan’s Gravestone to protect her and her memory.
Even without the poignant gravestone, the ancient roots and spreading branches are enchanting.
As you go under the Yew tree to read the emotive inscription, you’ll feel the cold that is inevitable when stepping under the shade of a large tree but combined with the surroundings it can make you feel a little ill at ease. I find you either sense a pleasant peaceful atmosphere or a creepy one when in such places and I’m sad to say I did have an unpleasant feeling until I walked away from the Yew Tree and gravestone. The kids felt it was creepy too, but Dave thought we were just being strange (we do have over active imaginations)!
Hopefully it was just the dark and the cold as I do hope poor Mary Morgan is at peace under the old Yew tree, bless her. I’d like to come here on a sunny day too as I suspect it would feel different again.
From the Yew tree you get a view of the church framed by the branches, on a Summer’s day I expect the sunshine filtering through would create a magical light.
Inside St. Justinian’s Church
Justinian’s Church is open to visitors. Inside, it is a very calm, serene church. St Justinian was a friend of St. David and it’s said that he is buried in the same casket.
I was delighted to see the Norman font, which suggests that a church has been on this site for almost 1,000 years. Look out for an old little window in the north aisle too.
Izzy reads a sermon.
In the church we found a cutting about Mary Morgan’s gravestone and the ancient Yew tree. There were also some information leaflets available which we took in exchange for a donation.
There are two plaques in the north aisle, one is dedicated to Caesar Mathias who lived at Little Milford and ran the coalmines and the other is dedicated to his little son who was killed when he fell from his pony on the lawn.
Such beautiful words.
The organ is dated 1897, it used to be pedalled but is now powered by electricity. The seating was replaced in the 1980’s and bought from Morvil Church when it closed.
Before leaving the church we left a donation each and wrote in the visitor book.
The oldest tombstone in the graveyard is to the left of the porch (not the one pictured). I’m going to look for it on our next visit. There is an interesting tale about this too but it’s always good to have another reason to return again one day!
Back at the top of the hill overlooking the ancient Yew tree you can really appreciate the size and age of it. I knew that it was common to find Yew trees in churchyards but I wasn’t aware of the reasons behind it.
According to Jennifer Chandler, in 1992, possible reasons include:
“Yew trees were planted in graveyards as they thrived on corpses and were then readily available to make excellent bows.
Yew trees were planted in churchyards to prevent archers from procuring suitable branches for making bows and thus having good weapons to oppose the King’s men.
Yew trees for making bows were planted in churchyards where they would nor be eaten by, and poison, grazing animals.
Poisonous yew trees were planted in churchyards so that farmers made sure that their animals didn’t stray into them.
Yew wood is distinctly red and white, especially when the trunk is freshly cut. The heartwood is red, the sapwood … is white. The colours were used to symbolise the blood and body of Christ.”
According to a note in Plant-lore Archive, received from Stoke, Devon, in April 1993: yew [was] planted in graveyards to ward off evil spirits.
Practical reasons for planting Yew trees include to protect churches from wind and gales and also because they produce beautiful evergreen foliage all year around which John Collinson suggested was ‘beautifully emblematical of the resurrection of the body“.
Whatever the reason for their being there, I’m glad they are still standing and protected for us all to enjoy (I’m so tempted to say, “I love Yew!”) and in return they protect our old graveyards and gravestones.
An Ode to an Old Soul
0 magnificent Yew,
In your majesty you reign supreme.
The sunlight filters through your swaying branches,
Your dark green needles tremble in the mwind,
Your trunk with its reddish, flaking bark is
so distinctive against the blue of the sky.
From early morning till night, your massive, squat
form is a unique sight.
Standing so alone, without any of your kind for
companionship or sharing of illumined thoughts –
Was it always so?
Tell me of the time when you once held court over
growing saplings, teaching them the ways of the
I watch you through the changing seasons,
and my heart glows.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter:
yet you are evergreen and as solid and dependable as
Nature made you.
Wise, wise Yew,
What divine power guides your very lifeforce?
For there is a spiritual intelligence within you
that is so alive and omnipotent.
I will leave you now but I will return again soon,
for Old Souls need love and compassion to match
I can never give you all you deserve, but I can give
you all I have and so I shall,
as long as we are friends in this life and the next.
The Moon and the Yew Tree
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.
The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness –
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
Sylvia Plath, 1963
St Justinian’s Church is a part of the Saints and Stones Pilgrimages:The Riverside Route, other churches to visit are located in Hook, Cromlech, Llangwm, Burton and Llanstadwell.
“Pilgrimage is for people of all faiths and no faith;
people who are searching”
St Justinian is celebrated twice a year, on 5th December and 23rd August. Another church in Pembrokeshire is also dedicated to him, at Llanstinan near Fishguard.