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One of the highlights of my visit to the Cotswolds was walking around the Painswick Church Garden and exploring their gorgeous collection of 99 yew trees!
It almost felt like walking through a scene of Alice in Wonderland with all the stunning topiary to explore on the grounds.
Although a lot of visitors are aware of the clipped Painswick Yew Trees, not many know about the curious tale surrounding them and why there are 99.
If you’re ever in the Cotswolds, you must visit the incredible St Mary’s Church. Here’s a complete guide for your visit with the history and details on the mysterious legend!
The history of Painswick Church
In 1086 AD, it was recorded in the Domesday Books that there was a priest assigned at Painswick Church. So, it is presumed that there has been an ancient parish church in the town since the Saxon era.
The first building is thought to have been built in 1040AD and then, later, there were extensions made by the powerful De Laci Family. They were the Lords of the Manor after the Normans took control of England.
Today, the oldest part of the church that remains is St Peter’s Chapel which was built in 1377. St Peter being the patron saint of the De Laci’s.
The spire was added to the church in 1632 and has been rebuilt many times since then! Unfortunately, it became the target of cannon fire during the Civil War by Royalist troops. The Parliamentarians were stationed inside and used it as a defence hold.
In 1686, a bell ringers society was formed called the “Ancient Society of Painswick Youths”. They are still running to this day.
Again, many more additions were made to the church during the 18th century all the way up to the 20th century. This included the Rood Loft and there are also some 300 ‘Kneelers’. These have been called some of the finest church craftsmanship in the country! You can see them inside and they all have different scenes from the bible and the town.
The church garden, with its 99 yew trees, was a creation from the 18th century.
The legend of the 99 Painswick yew trees
The tradition of planting yew trees in churchyards has been around for nearly a thousand years now. The trees ability to regenerate, and live for hundreds of years at a time, symbolises rebirth and echoes many chapters of Christian texts.
It started during the Saxon era when early Christians would plant the trees to advertise that the area was sacred and Christian. However, usually, this would be just a couple – not 99!
It may surprise you to know that the yew trees in St Mary’s Church were only planted in the 18th century.
Most yew trees in England are over 900 years old. However, these trees continue to grow larger and are clipped annually to keep them healthy.
There is a legend surrounding the 99 Painswick yew trees, that the Devil would never allow the 100th tree to grow.
Despite the legend, the churchyard does have over 100 trees. They ended up braving the storm and planting the 100th tree to mark the Millennium.
However, in 2007, one of the yew trees toppled over – many put this down to the Devil and the reputed curse.
You can try counting how many trees there are here yourself, but everyone seems to get a different number!
The annual Clypping Festival & Painswick Feast
Every year in September, St Mary’s Church hold the annual ‘Clipping of the Yew Trees’ which produces over 2 tons of raw materials.
An amazing fact about yews is, although consuming any part of the tree can be fatal, the basic raw material produces a source for an anti-cancer drug, paclitaxel! So, the excess is collected and sent away to be processed by a laboratory.
This event can easily be confused with the annual ‘Clypping festival’ which also takes place in September. But is something entirely different!
The word “Clypping” is derived from the Olde English term to encircle. So, on this day, the parishioners all gather around the church and hold hands. Then, they dance around the church while singing hymns.
Before the service, the Painswick Feast takes place and they serve up something called Puppy Dog Pie. But, don’t worry, there are no puppies inside!
No one really seems to know when the tradition began. But it is still alive and well today. Why not attend in September?!
Is St Mary’s Church worth visiting?
YES, this is a must while you’re in the Cotswold. It’s previously been called the “grandest churchyard in England”. Seriously, I couldn’t stop admiring all of the trees in this beautiful garden.
As well as walking under and around the famous Painswick yew trees, there are other highlights to explore.
You can take a look at the pretty half-timbered Lych Gate built in 1901 which looks like something from the Elizabethan era. Or, visit the Tourist Information Office in the old Grave Diggers hut.
There are some emotive war memorials and statues to be found on the grounds as well as the church itself.
The architecture of St Mary’s is really quaint with its tall church tower and the restored clock (look out for the cannon ball mark made in the Civil War!).
But, the main highlight of this graveyard is the collection of ornate chest tombs that date back to the 17th century. They were all made by local craftsmen in the town and the work is fascinating.
The oldest tomb is that of William Loveday who died in 1623. His grave has all the fossils on top!
Make sure you pop inside Painswick Church to see the architecture and its famous ‘Kneelers’. Its free entry but donations are encouraged.
Practical Information for visiting Painswick Church
The Painswick Churchyard is open 24 hours a day, so you could explore the gorgeous yew trees at any time during your visit to the Cotswolds.
However, if you wanted to pop inside St Mary’s church, you’ll need to make sure you plan it around their opening times.
The church is open every day for visitors. Normally from around 9.30am-4pm in winter (October-March) and 9.30am-6pm in summer (April – September). However, it could be closed off to visitors during services or on special occasions.
How to get here
Painswick is a town located in Gloucestershire in the Cotswolds. As this is in the countryside, the easiest option would be to drive to the town.
You can access Painswick from the A46 road between Cheltenham and Stroud. Stroud is closest around 3 miles away. You can plugin GL6 6UZ into your SatNav to help you navigate!
Parking can be found in the nearby Stamages Lane Car Park which is Long Stay. This is chargeable but it is only around 30p an hour.
This is right next to the churchyard and is just a few metres walk. In fact, when you exit the car park, you’ll walk straight through St Mary’s Churchyard!
If driving is not an option for you, you can travel to Painswick by bus. The Number 66 service from Cheltenham drops you off in Painswick right outside of the church. Click here for more details and to plan your journey.
Where to stay in Painswick
- The Painswick – This gorgeous historic property overlooks Slad Valley, the inspiration for Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie! You can chill out in your room or relax on the terrace with a drink from their bar to take in the views. Click here for details.
- The Falcon Inn – Situated opposite St Mary’s Church garden the Falcon Inn is an attraction in itself. Home to the oldest bowling green in the country, this property has a history dating back to 1554! Some of the rooms even have a view of the clipped yew trees. Click to book one of their 11 boutique rooms.
- Courthouse Manor Luxury B&B – This hotel is set within a fabulous historic building and has some immaculate grounds to explore. They have a beautiful selection of en-suite rooms and lawn activities! Click to book.