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Obituary for an iconic 200-year-old Sycamore

  • Written by Mike Vouri

A tree is gone. Chopped down. Reduced. Killed. 

And not just any tree.

I had looked forward to seeing it in the eponymously named Sycamore Gap when my friend Jerry and I scheduled a trip along northern England’s Hadrian’s Wall path in 2019. We had both seen the tree and the fragment of Hadrian’s Wall from which it sprouted in a popular 1980s film, as well as in guide books and travel brochures.

It was on the punch list.

We had hiked that July morning from Housestead’s Fort, following the undulating path that traces the ancient glacial spillways along the wall’s edge. It’s hard work, and we were rewarded when we crested the final hill and looked down at the gap and the sycamore adjudged to be more than 200 years old. Here’s what I wrote then:

“We descended the hill, following the wall as it turned south across the pastures and bastion manor house of Hotbank Farm, and then climbed Steel Rigg. We huffed along Highfield Crags above the lake, where the bluff-edge is riddled by fissures and the waters below are reflected alternately blue and gray by passing clouds. We then picked our way down the extraordinarily steep flagstone path to Sycamore gap on the west side of the lough. This is one of the more iconic spots on the path, as sprouting from the gap’s base at dead center is a full-crowned sycamore, one of the most photographed trees in England. Why? Because it was here that Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman, as Robin Hood and his Moorish sidekick Azeez, rescued a boy from Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the 1991 film, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Never mind that the filmmakers were portraying this encounter as if it were just up from a Dover beach—nearly 400 miles south.”

We tried in vain, along with others below the gap, to capture a photo of the solitary tree undisturbed. “But a horde of tattooed “barbarians” from the car park were gathered about the tree and draped over the wall in various aspects, loudly quaffing from bottles in paper bags, smoking cigarettes and texting.”

As I said, the tree is gone now. Sliced down practically to its base by a 16 year-old with a chainsaw, according to initial reports from Northumberland Police. The question remains: Why? As of this writing, the youth isn’t saying.

I don’t know. On my last visit in July, another set of hooligans were tromping atop the wall, never mind the laws written to protect it, and boldly challenging me to object. Of course, I didn’t, hobbling as I was on one good ankle and picking my way downhill. My rangering days are long over. But it wasn’t only them. Families too on picnic outings were allowing their children to do the same thing. 

Maybe, to them, it simply doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe we’ve become so divorced from who we are and where we’ve come from that we have forgotten that our heritage runs as deep as that lost sycamore’s roots.

Just a tree?

I think not. I am so very sorry for those who will never see it.

 - Mike Vouri

Last modified onFriday, 29 September 2023 10:45

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