Standing tall for nearly three hundred years, the lone Sycamore tree that grew within a dramatic dip in Hadrian’s Wall was cut down in the early morning of 28 September 2023 in a mindless act of vandalism and violence. Having survived all sorts of storms and extremes of weather that often batter its remote setting, one of Britain’s most famous trees will leave a huge hole in the hearts of Northumbrians and anyone who has visited the Sycamore Gap.
The picturesque tree stood along a dip in Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Roman army after Hadrian visited the province of Britannia in AD 122 (read more here). The Wall, which spans 117 kilometres (73 miles), was the frontier of the Roman Empire for nearly 300 years. The Sycamore Gap Tree was by Hadrian’s Wall, between Milecastle 39 and Crag Lough, about 2 miles (3.2 km) west of Housesteads Roman Fort in Northumberland. The Wall and adjacent land, including the site of the tree, are owned by the National Trust, a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Voted Tree of the Year in 2016 by the conservation charity Woodland Trust, the Sycamore Gap Tree was one of the most photographed trees in the United Kingdom. It’s also known as the “Robin Hood Tree” because it appeared in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, despite Hadrian’s Wall being some 130 miles north of Sherwood Forest.
According to the National Trust, this iconic sycamore tree was planted in the late 1800s by John Clayton, the saviour of Hadrian’s Wall, to be a feature in the landscape. Others have reported that the tree was believed to be about 300 years old. The land and the tree came into the care of the National Trust in the 1940s when the Ordnance Survey was remapping the area. The name “Sycamore Gap” was coined during this time by a National Trust Employee.
Why anyone would want to cut down one of England’s most iconic trees has left everyone baffled and angry. Some may say it is just a tree, but the sycamore is much more. It has been the site of marriage proposals, picnics and many other happy moments, a place of special memories for many people. Some have also had their ashes scattered there. It was also a living monument to our shared history, a testament to the enduring power of nature and a source of inspiration for us all.
The tree appeared to have been cut down with a chainsaw at the base of its trunk, with a white line spray painted on it just below the cut. Northumbria Police arrested a 16-year-old boy in connection with the felling later that day on suspicion of causing criminal damage (source). A second arrest was made; a man in his 60s was also later arrested in connection with the felling on 29 September 2023 (source) after the teenager was released on bail. Why would anyone do this? A question we are all confused over. Police officers are looking into claims that the tree was felled to be posted online and carried out as part of a TikTok stunt (source).
The National Trust and Northumberland National Park hope the very healthy tree may well regrow a coppice from the stump (source), though the tree’s age might make this difficult. Coppicing is a technique that involves felling trees at their base to create a stump, known as the stool, where new shoots will grow. Some tree experts claim that the sycamore is not dead, as Andrew Williams, who owns a 5-acre permaculture smallholding in Caithness in the far north of Scotland, explains in this video here.
That tree isn’t dead it’s going to grow back. By next spring it will start pushing out shoots so that by the end of next year it will be taller than me. With a little bit of shaping or even just letting nature take its course, it will in time revert to a full maiden tree. It’s going to recover because 40% of the mass of a tree is below ground in the toots. Those roots are full of energy with massive amount of carbohydrates ready to start pushing branches out again. […] It’s just gone away for a little while, it’s not dead.
Also, the National Trust ranger team have been on site to collect seeds and cuttings from the tree, and they will be working with other partners and the local community to consider plans for the site and the tree in the future.
Visiting the Wall won’t be quite the same without the sycamore. The place will look strange and sad. But the tree will live on in the memories of all those who had stood beneath its branches and felt its timeless presence. Decisions are yet to be made about what will happen next, with suggestions ranging from a memorial bench made from its wood to a life-size bronze replica to fill the gap (source). A celebration room has been set up in the Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre for people to come and share their thoughts and memories of the Sycamore tree.
This crime against nature reminded me (and other people in Classics) of this ancient Greek myth in which Erysichthon, a mythical Thessalian noble, chopped down a tree sacred to the goddess Demeter in order to build himself a banqueting hall. He was cursed by the goddess with a never-ending hunger as revenge for his greed and arrogance, driving him to devour his own flesh. Robert S. Santucci, a Ph.D. candidate in Classica Studies at the University of Michigan, recently wrote a piece for the Antigone journal and considers that “Erysichthon must be the myth for the 21st century” (read here).
There are really two Erysichthons, which our reception tends to collapse into one: Erysichthon the arboricide and Erysichthon the autophage. The former is humanity as perpetrator of crimes against nature, the latter humankind’s slow punishment for them.
The perpetrator won’t suffer the fate of Erysichthon, but an appropriate punishment would be to sentence him to plant a thousand trees.
The Sycamore Gap Tree has been celebrated for its majestic presence. Its magnificent silhouette against the rugged backdrop of Crag Lough enchanted the millions of tourists from across the globe who came to admire it, capturing its beauty in photographs that would last a lifetime. Two weeks ago, professional photographer Sophie Henderson was incredibly fortunate to witness and capture the Northern lights above the famous tree.
I am lucky enough to have visited Hadrian’s Wall and Sycamore Gap several times. I would hike there and walk up from Milecastle 39, knowing what awaited in the next gap. I never got tired of seeing this beautiful scenery. I would sit down there for a while, as so many of us do and then take tons of photographs, waiting for the sun to come out to get the best light.
And then, later, I would raise a glass of this special tree with a pint of Sycamore Gap at the nearby Twice Brewed Inn. The Twice Brewed Inn has set up a fundraising page that aims to support a project that will not only celebrate the legacy of the sycamore tree but also benefit the community for generations to come. All money raised will be donated to the proposed projects by the National Trust, and we will work closely to support their ideas. DONATE HERE
The Twice Brewed Inn & Twice Brewed Brewery are also offering a £1,500 bar tab as a reward to the person who provides information to Northumbria Police that leads to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for destroying such a precious beacon of natural beauty on Hadrian’s Wall.
I visited Hadrian’s Wall and Sycamore Gap in 2011 and 2017 on the occasion of the Turma! Hadrian’s Cavalry Charge event. Then, in June/July 2022, while taking part in the Vindolanda excavations (see here) and in August/September, while participating in the Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival by giving a lecture at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle (see here). I was also there last summer as I participated in the 2023 Vindolanda excavations (see here).
Follow the Northumberland National Park website here to read their latest update from Sycamore Gap.
- Sycamore Gap tree at Hadrian’s Wall cut down by ‘vandals’ – BBC News Thu 28 Sep 2023
- Famous Sycamore Gap tree at Hadrian’s Wall found cut down – The Guardian Thu 28 Sep 2023
- Hadrian’s Wall Sycamore Gap tree – in pictures – The Guardian Thu 28 Sep 2023
- Boy, 16, arrested after famous Sycamore Gap tree in Northumberland cut down – video – The Guardian Fri 29 Sep 2023
- Sycamore Gap: man, 60, arrested in connection with felled tree – The Guardian Fri 29 Sep 2023
- Official police inquiry being made as historic tree felled for TikTok by pranksters – Express Fri, Sep 29, 2023
- Sycamore Gap: Cut down tree could regrow shoots, experts say – BBC News Fri 29 Sep 2023
- Sycamore Gap tree: New shoots expected to grow, but Hadrian’s Wall tree ‘won’t be the same again’ – The Scotsman Fri 29th Sep 202
- ‘You can’t put a tree back up’: debate rages about memorial for Sycamore Gap – The Guardian Sat 30 Sep 2023
- Death of a Sycamore by Armand D’Angour