Photo by Robin Purser / 500px

Sycamore Gap and Britain’s sacred trees

Why has one tree inspired such emotion?

Artillery Row

Writing in the 9th century the Welsh monk Nennius recorded that a miraculous tree grew on the banks of the River Wye — the ninth wonder of Britain: an ash tree that produced apples. Nennius’ wondrous ash tree was perhaps a successor to the sacred oaks of the druids, from which they gathered mistletoe with golden sickles and in whose groves they worshipped. The 11th century Canons of Edgar fulminated against tree-worshippers, but Christianity did not altogether bring an end to the veneration of trees in Britain. Centuries later, a sacred ash tree grew above the holy well of St Bertram at Ilam in Staffordshire. It was held unlucky to break a branch from it. Across the north of England there are a handful of fairy trees, hedged about with similar taboos.

There may not be many tree-worshippers in modern Britain, but we still love to hold certain trees to be special. It may be because they are extremely old, like Kent’s Major Oak (perhaps up to 1000 years old), they are associated with historical events (like Tolpuddle Martyrs Tree, a Dorset sycamore), or because they constitute a key part of a landscape of outstanding importance. The sycamore of Sycamore Gap in Northumberland, which was shockingly felled on the night of 27–28 September, fell into this latter category: a lovely mature tree, certainly, but at around 300 years old, not exceptionally ancient. What made this sycamore so special was its location, perfectly poised at the base of a graceful sine wave of land between two hills that we have seen in countless images since the tree was felled, apparently in an act of senseless ecological and cultural vandalism. The sycamore did not just stand in a picturesque spot: it stood on Hadrian’s Wall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a route walked by around 7,000 people a year. In 2022 Hadrian’s Wall celebrated its 1900th anniversary, and more people walked the Wall than ever before.

There is something about taking the life of a being far older than any human

Anyone who has ever walked all or part of the Hadrian’s Wall Path, as I have, will know that Sycamore Gap is a highlight. In a reminder of the brilliance of Roman engineering, the wall sweeps effortlessly down a steep slope and up the other side. In the middle stands — or rather, stood — the tree made famous in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I confess I have never watched the film, but passing the sycamore was still the crowning moment of my day there. It was simultaneously a way-marker and the focus of a beauty spot. It recalled the symbiosis of archaeology and nature, Roman engineering and wild beauty, which makes Hadrian’s Wall such a special place. Like so many others, I greeted the news of its illegal felling with disbelief, bafflement and anger.

It is rare in Britain to see the level of concern for a tree that we have witnessed for the sycamore of Sycamore Gap in the last few days. The last time I remember outrage on a national level was when the Cubbington Pear (one of England’s oldest and largest pear trees, voted Tree of the Year in 2015) was felled for the building of HS2 in 2020. Usually, the outrage is more local — such as when the 14th century Bretton Oak was brought down on a housing estate in my own city of Peterborough in 2022. However, these fellings, regardless of whether you accept them as necessary or justified, took place legally. We knew they were going to happen. Campaigns were mounted and protests staged in an effort to stop them. Indeed, even when mature trees are felled illegally — which happens all too often — it is usually with a clear motive: they are on private land, in the way of someone or something. The felling of the sycamore of Sycamore Gap feels especially repugnant because it was in no-one’s way. The land is managed by the National Trust, and it is difficult to imagine any motive for felling it other than wanton vandalism.

Opposition to felling ancient trees is a peculiar cause because it seems to unite progressives and conservatives. There is something about taking the life of a being far older than the span of any human life, which has taken many centuries to reach such a size and whose roots and branches support entire ecosystems in miniature, that seems morally repugnant to many. The Woodland Trust’s “Tree of the Year” award, won by the sycamore of Sycamore Gap in 2016, serves as a sort of modern roster of Britain’s sacred trees. They are made sacred not so much by supernatural beliefs associated with them, as by our wonder at the survival of living things so much more long-lived than ourselves. Whether people are inclined to prioritise averting a global climate catastrophe or protecting Britain’s ancient landscape, the defence of complex, long-lived organisms like trees is central to ecological sustainability. Ancient and special trees are thus the focus of intense feelings, because trees, like us, are individuals.

It may well make no logical sense, as many have pointed out, to be more upset at the felling of one picturesque tree than at the destruction of whole rainforests. Yet, that is how humans are, for better or worse: we connect emotionally with individuals. The capacity of trees to embody a sort of individuality — to be anthropomorphised, if you like — may go some way towards explaining why our ancestors held them sacred. It is surely the reason why in our own day trees are amongst the most potent symbols of humanity’s unbalanced relationship with nature: dumb victims of our rapacious disregard for living beings with a much longer life cycle than our own.

Nature does have surprises up her sleeve: sycamores can regrow from stumps. The giant of Sycamore Gap is not dead, but it will be generations before its full splendour is seen again.

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