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The story of the Yew Garden at Packwood

An aerial view of the Yew Garden at Packwood, Warwickshire, with the master Yew Tree on the mount in the foreground and all the other yew trees stretching away into the distance where Packwood House can be seen.
View over the 'Sermon on the Mount' Yew Garden at Packwood House | © National Trust Images/John Millar

The Yew Garden at Packwood is considered one of Britain’s major topiary gardens and is undoubtedly Packwood’s most significant feature. The largest yew trees date from around the 1600s but the garden originally started its life as an orchard and has evolved into its present appearance over the past 350 years.

A unique garden

The mysterious shapes of the yew trees rise above the organic, sinuous lines of the box hedge that enclose the Yew Garden, each tree is like an individual chess piece waiting for its turn on the board. Walking up the centre of the garden past the ‘multitude’ of figures, you reach the grand finale of Packwood’s formal garden; the spiral mount and its imposing ‘master’ yew.

A changing space

Whilst it may appear to have always been this way, how the Yew Garden looks today is testimony to the many centuries of change that have occurred at Packwood; tastes and fashions adapting these spaces to create unique works of living art.

The box hedging that surrounds the Yew Garden and the mount are likely to date back to the sixteenth century when the main structure of the house was built. At this time mounts were fashionable additions to a garden landscape, allowing for a more elevated view of the surroundings.

Earliest records

The earliest known drawing of this space is from 1723 and shows no sign of the iconic yews as they appear today. Instead, the drawing shows an arrangement of orchard trees, and no ‘master’ yew at the top of the mount. A later drawing shows the presence of bee boles on the south face of the raised terrace wall, housing woven straw skeps to encourage the bees to settle and pollinate the fruit trees. By the late eighteenth century, a spiral path had made its appearance on the mount.

Yew tree in the centre of a spiral path at Packwood House, Warwickshire
The master yew in the Packwood Yew Garden | © National Trust Images/Mike Selby

By the 1860s, photographs show an established orchard (likely to have been replanted by this time), surrounded by hedging and small yew trees formally arranged.

Sermon on the Mount

The arrangement of the yew trees as they appear now is often claimed to represent the biblical story of the Sermon on the Mount. However, this story first made its appearance only in 1892 in a book written by the architect and designer Reginald Blomfield. He reported that a gardener gave him this story, but how the gardener came about this legend nobody knows.

The garden you see today

By the time the Ash family arrived in the early twentieth century the yews had become large specimens and the fruit trees had deteriorated. The last of the orchard was removed, and gradually this space took on the appearance you see today.

A garden in trouble

Packwood’s yew trees do not grow in ideal conditions; this puts the trees under a lot of stress leaving them vulnerable to disease and the soil contains patches of heavy clay which leads to frequent water logging.

After the trees started to show worrying signs of decline, Head Gardener Mick Evans and his team hand dug new drains to the worst affected trees, most of which started to show signs of significant improvement.

New life for an ancient garden

The team are now completing a ten-year phased programme of rejuvenation to safeguard the future of the garden. Over half of the trees will be cut right back to a ‘totem pole’ in order to help the bark re-generate from old wood and allow them to re-grow.

Areas of the garden will also be roped off to rest the trees and the surrounding lawn from any further soil and root compaction. It is hoped that by putting less physical stress on the trees in these areas there will be an improvement in the growth and health of those trees.

Our project to rejuvenate the yew trees is now in its eighth year. The garden team have been working hard pruning back another five yew trees, four in the lower multitude area and one large yew tree on the terrace. The measures the garden team have put in place are bringing about a marked recovery in the health and scale for all the yew trees which have received remedial work.

The original time scale has been extended by another five years due to a longer recovery time needed for the pruned trees and rescaling has become more of a priority. Thanks to this conservation work the yew trees will be enjoyed by generations to come.

A gardener trims a hedge in the Yew Garden at Packwood, Warwickshire
Gardener trimming the hedges in the garden at Packwood | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Ultimately, the Yew Garden allows you to take a breath, soothe the eye and allow it to rest after the richness of colour and texture elsewhere at Packwood. Despite its evolution it has a timeless quality, a mystery and an elegance that will be preserved for generations to come.

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