Stoke was the Anglo-Saxon word for a settlement, and it is safe to assume that there has been a church on this very spot, overlooking the river and mill pond, for well over a 1000 years. The Church and the river are still today the centre of village life in Stoke Gabriel.
In 1086, twenty years after the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, the church at Stoke Gabriel was listed in the Domesday Book which was William 1’s comprehensive survey of the towns, villages, and shires of England for the purpose of levying taxes.
At the same time reference was made to a yew tree outside the Church, it being already several hundred years old. Expert opinion has recently estimated the age of the yew tree to be between twelve and fourteen hundred years old, making it one of the oldest trees in England. It has a girth of 18ft, 5.5m.
Now why are yews getting to such a ripe age. The Yew has been considered a spiritual tree for many centuries, in fact millennia. Pagans considered the yew to be a sacred tree with links to the afterlife, so they would gather, conduct ceremonies etc at yew trees, sometimes planting them. Now when Christianity came to these shores, one of the ways of converting people is to take over their sacred sites, in this case, the yew. Churches were built on the sites of yew trees and thus the trees were then in the church yard and by proxy protected from being chopped down or affected in other ways.
They were also used to make bows for soldiers as the wood us strong and flexible, but the berries, bark, leaves are poisonous to cattle. So fences/walls were erected around them in these church yards, which again kept them safely away from cattle but also in a place that many people would visit.
The approach to the church is along Church Walk, a picturesque cobbled walkway leading to the Lych Gate, passing on the way the verger’s cottage and the old schoolroom.
From the Middle Ages it was part of the duty of the Vicar to teach the village children, so most schools belonged to the local church. The schoolroom at Stoke Gabriel was established in 1642 and was the seat of learning for over 200 years. The present village school was opened in 1876 and the old schoolroom is now the church hall, but still called the Old School Room (OSR).
Once through the Lych Gate, there is an 8-foot coffin-stone immediately on the left hand side. The coffins were placed on this stone prior to burial. Now part of the wall, it was moved there from the centre of the Lych Gate in the 1850’s. Now we go on down to the Church.