I spent almost a month in the Cotswolds visitng with my parents recently and had a bit of time to explore.
They live near Stroud which TV programmes like “Escape to the Country ” tell me is the “poorer part of the Cotswolds”. I think “poor” may well be in the eye of the beholder. A new-build detached house (with pillars mind you) in the village near my parent’s was on sale recently for just over a million pounds.
One of the places I visited near by was Painswick. It is a very pretty market town located half way between Stroud and Gloucester. According to a Local Online Newsite Gloucestershire Live it’s on the “wrong side” of the Cotswolds for most Londoners who run out of steam around Bibury.
It is true that if you look up most lists of prettiest Cotswold villages to visit it doesn’t even make the top ten. I suspect that is because there are just so many ridiciously pretty places to visit in the Cotswolds. The list usually include places like Bibury, Stow-on-the-Wold, Kingham, Naunton, Castlecombe, Blockley, Bourton-on-the-Water, Burford, Tetbury, Broadway and the Slaughters (Upper and Lower).
Painswick, like many Cotswold villages gets a mention in Domesday Book in 1086 but really made it’s money from wool in the Tudor era. It is full of narrow lanes and honey coloured C15th and C16th houses as well as some more recent, Georgian ones.
I wanted to visit the churchyard because I have a fascination with topiary (hedges and bushes) and I love painting those different greens. I also like the weird semi-abstract organic shapes that the trees and shadows make. I could have wandered around that churchyard for hours.
Painswick Churchyard: Photo credit Emma Cownie
Painswick is famous for having 99 Yew trees in the churchyard. I had assumed they were very ancient as many yew trees grow incredibly slowly and live long, long lives. Many trees pre-date Christian settlements. They are sometimes called the tree of the dead. This is because their drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground. Thus the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic and later Christian culture. Their needles are toxic and so were also presumably planted to keep animals out of the churchyards away from graves; as well as for their “everlasting” symbolism.
These Painswick trees, however only date back to the C18th. They are also neatly clipped every year (so no drooping branches) . There is a local legend that only ninety-nine trees will ever grow here and the hundreth one kept dying as the devil destroyed it. And yes, there are at least ninety-nine trees as they are all numbered and sponsored (these yews trees are surprisingly expensive to look after). However, in 2000, all the churches in Gloucestershire were given a yew tree to celebrate the millenium. Painswick went ahead and planted the 100th tree which, contrary to tradition, actually thrived. In fact there are few extra trees (not numbered I noticed).
Every September the trees are clipped. This is a mammoth task and it this produces over two tonnes of material. The clippings do not go to waste as they are used as the basic raw material for the anti-cancer drug paclitaxol. So in a way these yew trees are still fighting the devil.
Painswick is well worth a visit. Those lazy Londoners don’t know what they are missing!