Spirit of the South: The hidden history of Kingley Vale

  • Watch: ITV News Meridian's Chlöe Oliver has been exploring the history of the ancient yew trees on the Hampshire/ Sussex border and the legacy they have left behind.

The South is a special part of the country with stunning coastlines, wonderful woodlands and waterways.

ITV News Meridian is celebrating this part of the world with our annual series called 'Spirit of the South', showcasing the region and some of the hidden treasures it holds.

A little-known forest north of Chichester boasts some of the oldest yew trees in Europe.

Much mystery surrounds how Kingley Vale nature reserve, tucked away on the border of Hampshire and West Sussex, managed to secure the ancient woodland. 

It was designated one of the country's first National Nature Reserves 60 years ago. Now it is Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Area of Conservation and a Nature Conservation Review site.

  • Watch the extraordinary story of what is known as 'the Grandfather tree'

So why is it that some of the oldest yews find themselves in a forest north of Chichester?

The material become extremely popular in the 1400s, many forests were decimated to use the wood.

It became so in demand, a yew tax was introduced.

"They were really useful and yew wood from the continent was better than ours, so that's why the yew forests there were taken down and probably why we have more standing today." - Rachel Guy, Ranger at Kingley Vale nature reserve

Many trees across the country are under threat from vandalism, diseases and developers cutting them down.Yews are difficult trees to date but some in the reserve have been analysed to be 500 years old. Much effort has been made to determine the age of the Kingley Vale yew trees - some say hundreds of years but others say thousands.

Tucked away in its Sussex corner, many of the trees in the grove are at least 500 years old.

According to myths, Kingley Vale was originally planted as a memorial for a battle fought between the Anglo Saxons and the Vikings in the 850AD.

Some folklore claims this area was used as a mysterious meeting point for druids over 2,000 years ago.

The hills of Kingley Vale were used as a military rifle range during the First World War. The peace of the valley was disturbed again for live firing training throughout the Second World War.

 Shrapnel damage is still evident on some of the trees

The site is part of the South Downs National Park and is managed by Natural England.

As well as its notable trees, it is also home to a number of rare wildlife.  There are a number of notable birds, such as green woodpeckers, red kites and buzzards.