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Sycamore Gap – an alternative view

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MUCH has been made of the felling of the sycamore on Hadrian’s Wall between two hillocks not far from Housesteads fort. The mainstream media has been full of almost hysterical grief for this act of wanton vandalism. The tree has been called one of Britain’s ‘ancient monuments’ and many have said it represented the heart and soul of the North East of England.

It is indeed a regrettable action and yes, many people have emotional associations with this tree. I love trees, and speaking as someone who once initiated tree preservation orders around the small town where I lived and being a keen historian, I may just have an arguable take on this event.

I’m from the North East and I have spent many a happy day walking the Roman wall and climbing on cliffs above Crag Lough, which are just a stone’s throw from the Sycamore Gap. I can honestly say that I have no recollection of this tree, bearing in mind that my visits were predominantly in the 1980s. Obviously it was there, but was not lodged in the public consciousness. This all changed with the release of the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. The researchers obviously had a good eye for a picturesque location and one cannot deny that wonderful images have been published since the release of the film. 

Hadrian’s Wall was completed around AD 130 following the visit to Britain of the Emperor Hadrian. This makes the wall, or what remains of it, 2,000 years old; it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The wall is a marvel, set amid gorgeous countryside (although some might argue that it is rather bleak and featureless). With its forts and mile castles, it enables visitors to get a flavour of life on the Roman frontier all those years ago.

And what of the sycamore that has recently been felled? Acer pseudoplatanus is the botanical name for this tree, a member of the maple family. It is not a native to the United Kingdom but comes from Europe. No one knows how it got here. Some say the Romans brought it (certainly not the specimen at the centre of this episode). Others maintain that it came to these shores during Tudor times or that it didn’t become established here until the 18th century.

Sycamores are wildlife-friendly, wind-tolerant and resistant to pollution. On the downside, they can crowd out native species and have a tendency to pop up anywhere, given half a chance, as any gardener knows. The wood is hard and serviceable but it is not of premium quality compared with the only British maple, the field maple (Acer campestre). 

The Woodland Trust believes that the Hadrian’s Wall tree was planted between 1860 and 1890, which would make it in the region of 150 years old. I would take issue that it was ‘planted’. It was more likely the result of a wind-borne seed taking root.

So we have a 2,000-year-old monument of huge historical significance being overshadowed by a self-sown tree of no particular merit which was made famous by a film that was the imagination of the scriptwriters and the movie business in their efforts to make money. The same can be said of Aysgarth Falls in North Yorkshire, which was featured in the same film. People travel to see where Costner fell in the water jousting with Nick Brimble who played Little John.

Movies are the new history! Forget the facts and the time and the centuries in between, let’s just go and see where the film was made. Is this what days out have become? I know of people who have travelled many miles to see Sycamore Gap and have walked the 20 minutes from the nearest car park with no interest in or awareness of the deep history of the place. I find that sad.

Why on earth would someone cut down a tree which has undoubted fond memories for very many people and is (or was) a feature of the landscape, albeit not historical? In an age where people’s emotions can be manipulated by Hollywood masquerading as reality and the media in general, I can’t help but think there is much more here than meets the eye. If it is a young man who is after his blaze of publicity, what does it say about the society in which we live when very many young people have lost hope? If it is orchestrated by a more sinister group, it makes you wonder whether when a Waffen SS officer is lauded in the Canadian parliament, the war in Ukraine is claiming tens of thousands of lives, the medical authorities are still pushing vaccines that are proven to be harmful and there is a war on freedom generally, the felling of a tree that has no historical significance whatsoever could be yet another diversionary tactic from the real issues we face. Is it me? Am I a lone voice here?

I’m sorry the tree has been cut down. I love trees. I spent a later career making furniture out of them. But I would have been much more distressed if the wall itself had been vandalised. Perhaps the perpetrators of this shameful act knew what they were doing. Pushing a few stones over would hardly be noticed – but a tree made famous by Hollywood? Easy pickings with a huge impact on a public too easily influenced by imagery and manipulation amid a manufactured sense of history and values.

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Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins is a furniture designer/maker who loves to write.

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