September 29, 2023 - 10:30am

The felling of the mighty sycamore on Hadrian’s Wall is simply unbearable. I haven’t felt a loss like this since the mediaeval beams of Notre Dame came crashing down in 2019. Like so many Northumbrians, I am mourning what was the cynosure of our county. Looking back through the photos I’ve taken of Sycamore Gap down the years, the tree is almost impossibly beautiful. With its domed canopy and slightly twisted trunk, it stood like a sentry amid the shivering milecastles strung out along the great dolerite shelf of the Whin Sill. 

I last visited on the freezing Boxing Day of 2021 when I had the whole place to myself, other than a flock of sheep that swept past me like a shoal of fish. I stood contemplating how Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman could’ve got here so soon after landing on the shores of East Sussex. But this is a place where centuries are compressed.

Whenever Roman travellers passed a sacred grove, noted the philosopher Apuleius, they would “make a vow, or a fruit offering, or…sit down for a while”. And for many people Sycamore Gap was a sacred site: a place where ashes were scattered and troths were plighted, or simply somewhere to venerate and commune with nature.

No wonder that the Bishop of Newcastle, Helen-Ann Hartley, posted “I’ve spoken with many people today who are profoundly upset at the loss of this tree 
 It bore a pastoral load in its strength and beauty”. For Sycamore Gap represented the ancient history and austere beauty of Northumberland, and was also a symbol of the deep Northumbrian love of local history and the natural world.

Indeed, a preoccupation with nature was characteristic of the Northumbrian Enlighteners of the 18th century. These included figures such as Lancelot “Capability” Brown, whose unsurpassed topographical and horticultural acumen was nurtured as a shepherd’s boy in Redesdale; or Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, who planted acorns by the Wansbeck; or Thomas Bewick whose obsession with local flora and fauna found ready customers among the gentlemen naturalists of the Coaly Tyne (it is so telling that Newcastle gained a natural history museum decades before it had an art gallery).

With the news that an arrest has been made, vengeful comments are swirling online as to appropriate punishments for this crime of lĂšse-majesté against mother nature. In Greek mythology, it was recorded that when Erysichthon felled Demeter’s sacred tree, the latter goddess afflicted him with insatiable hunger, which led to his death from eating his own body. Vengeful tweeters haven’t gone quite that far, but I note that constructing a pillory from the fallen timbers has already been mooted. 

As has the hopeful suggestion from a local antiquarian that if Capability Brown “could move fully mature trees almost 300 years ago, someone somewhere must have a mature sycamore they can donate and be replanted.” I would certainly support this, for those who say that this is only a tree should realise that for heartsore Northumbrians everywhere this outrage has left more than just a gap where a sycamore once stood on Hadrian’s Wall.

Dan Jackson is the author of the best-selling book The Northumbrians: The North East of England and its People. A New History, published by Hurst (2019)