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Sycamore Gap: Uprooting the Past

Alex Rome Griffin | Lancaster University


Overnight, on the 27th of September, a tree was felled. The press was scrambled, headlines were written and when the nation woke up the next day, we poured out our anger, grief, and disbelief on social media. This particular tree, the one that stood framed between two hillocks, adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall, was a natural national treasure. It was beloved by the hikers that followed the potent symbol of our Roman past from coast to coast, and by those that lived alongside it. It was the UK’s most photographed tree. It had even enjoyed a cameo appearance in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991).

a photo of Sycamore Gap - a proud tree between two hills. There is a dog in the foreground, her name is Goose.
Sycamore Gap, taken by own own Sophie Merrix, two weeks before the felling

Its death is devastating, and the emotions invoked point towards the many things that our heritage can mean. The Guardian conducted interviews with members of the public shortly after and the responses recorded show that the tree was adored for numerous reasons. For some it was an icon of the Northumbrian landscape, as recognisable a landmark as the Houses of Parliament or the Liver Building. Others saw in it the defiance of nature, not just clinging on amongst the rocks and crags, but thriving there. It represented the natural world's disregard for borders and nationalities, unaware that it was living in a time-deep contested landscape, its leaves bright green against the blood-stained soil. Some cherished the tree’s shade, providing a spot to contemplate or simply rest during a long walk. For others, the tree had simply always been there. An ever-present silhouette, whose limbs and leaves were perceived to grow and change in unison with the observer’s own life. Its renown was not limited to the UK: to folks abroad, it encapsulated bucolic Britain, a single image that summed up the idealised countryside.


My own polling of my editorial colleagues has revealed something similar. To us at EPOCH, the tree represented a love of the natural world and its persistence, despite humankind’s best efforts. It was a symbol of friendship and solidarity, its roots tapping into a fierce northern pride and a connection to place. It meshed the ancient and the modern, creating a spot that present-day heritage and nature lovers could stop and observe the remains of our national past and soak up the breathtaking Northumbrian countryside.


It will be sorely missed, but I wonder if we can turn the tree's death into an opportunity for renewal and reappraisal; a chance to reflect on what exactly our environment, our history, and our collective love and pride mean to us. It might seem crass to say this, but trees are cut down every day. In 2021, it is estimated that the Amazon rainforest shrank at the rate of 10,000 acres each day and, here in Britain, up to 70% of our ancient woodlands have been damaged due to conifer plantations, overgrazing, and the spread of non-native species. I am not saying this to engage in pointless ‘whataboutism’ but to show that the threats to natural heritage are cruelly exacted every day. For example, an ancient pear tree was felled in the pursuit of the now-neutered boondoggle HS2 and with it the surrounding ecosystem was destroyed. Countless chunks of the British countryside have been irretrievably lost to this project (amongst other acts of eco-vandalism) – a monument to the arrogance, desperation, and careless anti-green agenda of those in charge. But yet, for all the love and anger expressed in the wake of the sycamore’s felling, nothing has changed. The tree has disappeared from the papers and we the general public are yet to see the bigger picture and call, en masse, for real and tangible changes to protect what little of our natural past we have left.


Not only do we need to protect our natural past, but our manmade heritage too. The felling of the tree didn’t just destroy a natural icon but it also damaged the section of the Wall which it abutted. The damage is, thankfully, minor: a couple of facing stones were cracked with fragments chipped off. It is also nothing new. Anyone who has seen the Wall will realise that it is much reduced in terms of height and whilst some of this is the result of natural weathering, much of the damage is human made, as the Wall has been robbed for its well-cut stone ripe for reuse. The Wall, frankly, has been through a hell of a lot since it was built in A.D 122. Historians and Archaeologists still don’t fully understand why exactly it was constructed, but suggestions ranging from military security to tax collection, to vanity project have been put forward. As is often the case, it was probably a mix of all of these factors and many others. From its inception it, and the landscape which surrounds it, has seen some of the most turbulent and fascinating times in Birtain’s history. My own work focuses on the Roman frontier and it is this period that I intend to focus on.


The Roman presence in Northumbria fundamentally reshaped the social and physical landscape. People from across the Empire and beyond made a home in the north of Britain and the archaeological records of the forts and vici bear testament to this diversity. The Sycamore Tree lay along a section of Wall with which I have become well acquainted throughout the course of my studies, lying between Vindolanda – the fort which I am predominantly researching – and the nearby Magna, which is currently the subject of rescue excavations to save the archaeology from the effects of climate change. Vindolanda hosted cohorts from Gaul, Germania, and Hispania (France, Germany and Spain) and Magna was manned by soldiers from Dacia and Hama (Croatia and Syria). Alongside these cohorts came a host of non-combatants from a variety of backgrounds, some were the families of soldiers, but many likely owed their livelihoods to the travelling military, living as craftsmen and traders supplying the army.


This has been underlined by my own research, which focusses on examining the religious lives of those who inhabited the frontier, through the material remains of worship that they left behind. The pictures painted by the forts on this section are vividly multicultural, with a wide host of deities and identities represented. It would be easy, though, to paint the frontier has a happy melting pot of different people, but tensions most certainly did flair. It must be remembered that, to those that called the landscapes around the Wall home before the Romans pitched up, the Wall would have been a significant imposition, limiting their right to move freely through their environment and forcing them to undergo humiliating and downright dangerous interactions with the Roman army, who held an infamous disrespect for the civilian populace. On this point, the Vindolanda writing tablets contain references to the Britunculi, a pejorative term that might be translated as ‘wretched little Brits’. Furthermore, one tablet recounts a trader who was accosted by guards at one of the crossing points that punctuated the Wall; they set upon him, beating him with rods and pouring his goods down the drain. It seems that after the event, the army closed ranks and his tablet presents a desperate plea to the commanding officer for justice. Elsewhere religious altars have been found, erected by Roman officers, that celebrate the slaughter of native populations and thank the gods for their help in enabling this bloodshed.


The post-Roman life of the Wall is perhaps a little outside of my expertise, but the monument has witnessed the formation of early-medieval society, as the structured military installations slowly collapsed and became the home of war-bands. Then, from the 13th – 17th centuries, the landscapes of the Wall saw yet more bloodshed as the Border Reivers conducted their raids.


The tree, being planted in the late 19th century by John Clayton (a man vital in forming our formative understanding of the Wall) wasn’t around to witness this. But I’m not sure that really matters. Despite its chronological isolation from much of the turbulent events in the Wall’s history, it nonetheless acted as a tether to our shared past. It acted as a focal point, highlighting the Wall around it, creating a composed vignette that encapsulated all the emotions and memories set down earlier. It broadcast the Wall around the world and was beloved by those that lived alongside it or used it as a navigational waypoint for their travels.


It’s gone now, but this outpouring of grief shows that we care about our natural world and our heritage.  As briefly touched upon earlier, the effects of climate change are directly compromising the integrity of the Wall’s archaeological record and we are at risk of losing much more. It will go beyond incidental damage to a facing stone and vital information may be irretrievably damaged. With the capacity to care comes the capacity to change and I hope that we recognise why this tree meant so much to us and channel our upset into calling for more protection for our natural world and our past.


 

Alex Rome Griffin is an AHRC-funded History PhD student working with Lancaster University and the Vindolanda Charitable Trust. His work focuses on reconstructing the religious landscapes of Hadrian’s Wall making use of digital humanities techniques.

 

Twitter: @rome_griffin

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