It was a bit of a superstar. A tree with attitude. It reared up from a dip in Hadrian’s Wall with a leafy flourish, creating such a dramatic silhouette that it was given something of a starring role alongside Kevin Costner in the 1991 film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Fans came from across the globe to take its photograph. People loved it so much that they celebrated birthdays beside it, proposed beneath it, and scattered the ashes of loved ones around it. It was 300 years old. And now it’s gone; sliced by a chainsaw in a senseless act of vandalism.
The loss of the Sycamore Gap tree, in Northumberland, has caused widespread distress, with reports of people turning up at the site in tears, quite bereft. Others have vented their feelings on social media – the writer Robert Macfarlane declaring on Instagram that he was “sick in the belly, furious and deeply sad”.
What is it about the felling of trees that cuts us so deeply? They’re certainly deeply enmeshed in our culture, entwining us in the myths, mysteries and histories of the British Isles. There’s the Bleeding Yew, for example, which stands in St Brynach’s churchyard at Nevern in Pembrokeshire and exudes a dark red sap; it’s said to bleed for a man who was hanged from it.
Then there’s the 2,500-year-old Ankerwycke Yew, at Runnymede, beneath whose branches Henry VIII reputedly wooed Anne Boleyn, Major Oak, in Sherwood Forest, the legendary home of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and the apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, which inspired Sir Isaac Newton to come up with his theory of gravity – although the tree, a rare Flower of Kent variety, was blown down in 1820, it regrew from the base and is now around 370 years old – a remarkable age for an apple.
Even when the original specimens that have witnessed history die, great efforts are made to ensure they live on through their progeny. At Boscobel, there’s a descendant of the oak in which Charles II hid from Parliamentary forces, while the original Glastonbury thorn – said to have sprung from the ground when Joseph of Arimathea struck it with his staff – might have been destroyed by Cromwell’s troops, but replacement trees have more than once been planted on the site in an attempt to resurrect its spirit.
For trees are landmarks in the very deepest sense, born from the land, nourished by it, and rooted in it; they talk to us about place as well as people. And they speak of permanence, offer stability – one reason why it disturbs us so much when they’re destroyed.
“People feel trees are sort of immortal,” says Professor Charles Watkins, of the University of Nottingham, and author of several books on the cultural landscapes of trees. “Their capacity to survive to a great age means they can be there throughout our lives, so when they’re gone it can affect us deeply. What makes this tree such a poignant loss is that it was healthy.”
The felling of healthy, mature trees has been taking place with depressing regularity and it’s often our street trees that have suffered (witness those in Plymouth and Sheffield), their destruction carried out by local councils. They may not be “named” specimens, or witnesses to celebrated events, or be located in wild landscapes, but they are trees that daily improve our air quality, capture carbon dioxide, and provide habitats for wildlife (vital now so many gardens are being paved, decked or Astro-turfed).
They’re markers of our lives as well. There’s an old birch tree near my childhood home from which an owl would call on winter nights when I was little, and where starlings would flock before embarking on the mini murmurations you could once see in London – and though I’ve seen neither for many years, the tree is still there; when I pass, I am prompted to remember Dad patiently standing beside me as I watched, fascinated, as armies of ants marched across its silvery bark, intent on some secret mission. We share our memories with trees.
The Sycamore Gap tree might yet be resurgent. “The visible part has gone but it still has its roots,” says Charles Watkins. “If it’s protected, it has a chance of coppice regrowth.” However, most of our oldest and most valued trees have no protection in law – something the Woodland Trust is trying to address with its Living Legends petition.
If we really want to protect our trees, we should start by looking out for those in our villages, towns and cities – the ones that may not be superstars, but which are the landmarks to our lives.
Five wonderful trees to visit in the UK
Major Oak, Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire
Aged something between 800 to 1100 years old, this oak tree is one of the largest in Britain with a trunk circumference of 36ft. Supported on stilts, like a venerable old gentleman, the tree was named not for its size but for antiquarian Major Hayman Rooke, who wrote a book about the oak trees of the area in the 18th century. According to legend, Robin Hood and his band of outlaws camped beneath its canopy and even hid inside its trunk.
Fortingall Yew, Fortingall, Perthshire
This yew tree, situated in the churchyard of Fortingall village, has a colourful story, some declaring it to be over 5,000 years old – a tree under which Pontius Pilate played when he was a boy. More recent work suggests it is more likely to be 3,000, or perhaps even a youngster of just a couple of thousand years old – yews are difficult to date due to the fact that the wood in the centre decays with age. In the past, sections of its wood were cut to make drinking cups (quaichs) and its hollow heart served as a funereal arch.
Gilwell Oak, Epping, Essex
Set in Gilwell Park, on the fringe of Epping Forest, this was proclaimed the Woodland Trust’s Tree of the Year in 2017. Aged between 450–550 years, it has become synonymous with scouting as Robert Baden Powell adopted it as a metaphor for the movement. Claims that Dick Turpin, the highwayman, took shelter in it are unlikely.
Plymouth Pear, Plymouth, Devon
Nominated for Tree of the Year 2023, this tree in Derriford is of unknown age. However, it is notable for its rarity, as the species is only known in the Plymouth area where it was found in the 1800s. Described by the Woodland Trust as “rare, charming, foul smelling,” it produces small hard fruits and pretty but smelly blossoms which attract flies.
Tolpuddle Martyrs Tree, Tolpuddle, Dorset
It was beneath this tree, in 1834, that six agricultural labourers met and formed the first trade union in Britain. They were put on trial for the “offence” and transported to Australia, though later pardoned. They became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It is a sycamore tree and at over 330 years, one of the oldest of the species in Britain.