Of all the lone trees in the UK, the one at Sycamore Gap was arguably the most famous. It was situated almost smack bang in the middle of Hadrian’s wall and was featured in the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The one-of-a-kind beauty spot’s photogenic nature and Dark Sky location made it a favourite among landscape photographers and astrophotographers, but it was also sought out by thousands of hikers, daytrippers, historians and local residents year upon year. It was a bastion of rural England and a symbol of the Northumberland National Park. It was even named English Tree of the Year by the Woodland Trust in 2016. And now it’s gone…
The felled tree was found on September 28 and at the time of writing a police investigation is ongoing. Reuters quoted the police in calling it a "deliberate act of vandalism," but the damage has already been done. You cannot simply replace a three-century-old tree and although the prospect of the stump providing new shoots has provided some solace, this is by no means a certainty. Even if the old tree does regrow, how can it measure up to the majesty of what was? After all, it was a textbook specimen – a tree from childhood picture books – the muse of millions of photographers and a movie star.
But it’s the local residents I feel for most. Campsites, holiday cottages and B&Bs line the nearby Military Road. The Twice Brewed Inn is famously little more than a half-hour walk from the gap. Its logo is a silhouette of the sycamore tree and it runs a variety of stargazing and astrophotography events throughout the year. The Vindolanda Charitable Trust relies on footfall through its Roman Army Museum and Roman Vindolanda Fort & Museum, the latter being a live excavation site. And then you have the thousands of walkers who take up the Hadrian’s Wall Challenge every year, walking the 84-mile National Trail from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend (or vice versa). Sycamore Gap is one of the route’s biggest draws. And you have to assume that its destruction will have some kind of impact on local tourism and businesses.
Two weeks ago, a friend and I embarked on the Hadrian’s Wall Challenge. Roughly 67km in I twisted my knee and to make matters worse, I woke up in my tent the following morning with tonsillitis. Constant rain throughout the four-day hike from Bowness-on-Solway had beaten me down, and I couldn’t continue. My friend suggested struggling the final 2.5km to Sycamore Gap so I could at least see it, but with another deluge of rain falling upon my already sodden clothes and the prospect of a seven-hour journey home, I elected to hit the road. My intention was to return in the summer and finish what I’d started. Little did I know that my departing friend would be one of the last hikers to see the famed sycamore tree still standing. I've missed my chance, and I won't be alone.
Much like the mindless act of cutting down a tree, I’m struggling to find a point to this article. I guess I’m sad that nobody else will get to experience or photograph Sycamore Gap. I’m sad because so many local businesses rely upon the landmark’s worldwide appeal. I’m sad because in a world where humanity is constantly reminded that it's failing the planet, this feels like a cruel microcosm of more heartbreak to come.
I’m afraid too. Afraid that we’re powerless to safeguard historical and natural landmarks from a similar incident. It's hardly an isolated one… In 2021 an osprey nest was felled at Llyn Brenig and nature reserves across the country regularly report acts of vandalism. It makes me want to do my part in safeguarding other areas of natural beauty. Refrain from geotagging landscape locations on Instagram, perhaps even refrain from photographing them altogether. But then again, isn’t photography and videography at least partially responsible for fuelling the nation's passion for nature and history? And that passion is evident in the nationwide response to the felling. Hopefully it’s enough to deter other would-be vandals.
The sad truth, though, is that nothing can bring back Sycamore Gap. What really got me today was Google. The omniscient overlord of the Internet never misses a trick. Already, when you search Sycamore Gap on Google Maps, you are presented with a red pin. It no longer reads Sycamore Gap, just: Sycamore Stump…
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