‘You can’t put a tree back up’: debate rages about memorial for Sycamore Gap

The tree was an image of the north-east. But it was also an inextricable part of the lives of the people who grew up near it

Dru Dodd first took his girlfriend Paula to Sycamore Gap in 2015, on their second date. The Northumberland-based photographer has since entwined his life with the tree that stood on the site: it’s part of his business logo, he regularly photographed it, and would often visit it.

Spend much time in this part of the world, and you’ll find that Dodd’s story is far from unique. For locals, Sycamore Gap was as much a symbol of the north-east as the Angel of the North.

The tree, on the route of Hadrian’s Wall, often adorned the covers of local newspapers and magazines as a point of pride. It symbolised the long history of Northumberland and the wider north-east, and its connection to nature. But as Janet Blair, editor of lifestyle magazine Living North, said, “it’s the emotional connection we all have with Sycamore Gap that really resonated with our readers”.

The tree was felled deliberately last week, and the region has mourned its loss. “It’s not necessarily the physical object that people are sad about,” said Dodd. “It’s the memories they have [of time] spent around that place.”

Finding out what happened is the job of Northumbria police, who have arrested and bailed a 16-year-old boy, and also arrested a man in his 60s who remains in custody. Police stayed at the site throughout Saturday afternoon, while a cordon was placed around Plankley Mill campsite, three miles from Sycamore Gap. Northumbria police did not respond to questions about whether their presence there was in connection with the tree investigation.

“There’s a real sense of sadness in the air,” said Helen-Ann Hartley, the bishop of Newcastle, who visited the site on Friday morning. “It reminded me of the rawness of the landscape. It was just heartbreaking and almost unreal to see the tree felled.”

She said it had “survived all sorts of storms and extremes of weather”, and had “a lot of life events” bound up in it. They include Hartley’s own: shortly before she became bishop of Newcastle this year, she spent a few days running along Hadrian’s Wall.

Kathryn Read took her Austrian-born boyfriend, now her husband, to Sycamore Gap on his first visit to the UK in 2002. It was a formative moment in their relationship, and cemented their partnership. Both are now distraught. “It’s that level of disrespect for nature, and for something that’s been there for centuries,” she said.

“I’m bereft,” said Dan Jackson, local historian and author of The Northumbrians. “Unlike so many landmarks in the north-east – the Tyne bridge, the Angel, Durham Cathedral – this was a beautiful living thing, perfectly situated in one of the world’s great historic landscapes.”

Local artist Alfie Joey agreed. “If someone took an angle grinder to the Angel of the North, it would be awful, but you could put it back up. You can’t put a tree back up.”

Coming to terms with the loss is the responsibility of Tony Gates, chief executive of the Northumberland National Park Authority, and his team, who are based in the Sill, a visitor centre built in 2017.

On Thursday morning, Gates was alerted to the felling by a phone call from his team. At the time, he thought it was due to storm Agnes passing over the region. “Maybe it was its time,” he remembered thinking. “It’s a living thing, a natural thing.” Twenty minutes later, he got another call and realised it had been deliberately cut down.

“This was part of the cultural identity of north-east England. People are going to be really upset,” he said. They’re going to feel like it’s an insult to the cultural heritage of the region. It’s almost like taking part of the identity of the place away. And that’s before you get to the personal connections people had.”

Memorial stones to loved ones left at the base of the tree, and now removed by the National trust for safekeeping.
Memorial stones to loved ones left at the base of the tree, and now removed by the National trust for safekeeping. Photograph: Mark Pinder/The Guardian

Gates has been inundated with offers of support, and suggestions of what to do next. Tree experts have claimed it could be possible to let the stump regrow, while others have put forward ideas to turn the downed timber into a memorial. He told the Observer that it was too soon to decide yet on the next steps.

On Friday, Gates had to console tearful staff at the Sill, who were deflated at what had happened to the region’s natural cultural icon. The visitor centre, whose corridors are lined with pictures of the tree, opened up a room where people could share their thoughts and memories of the tree, written on Post-it notes and stuck up next to a framed photo of it at sunset.

“They were quite intentional about calling it a celebration room,” said Hartley.

Gates had the final say over calling it that. “I don’t want those memories to be spoiled by a single act,” he said. “I want people still to be able to celebrate those positive memories of Sycamore Gap.”

By Saturday afternoon, many messages, including wedding vows inspired by the tree and children’s drawings, had been posted on the board. The bishop’s Post-it note, left in the celebration room on Friday morning, perhaps set the tone for the loss.

It read: “For shelter, for strength, for hope beyond”, followed by a Māori saying she encountered in a three-year spell as bishop of Waikato in New Zealand in the mid-2010s: Kua hinga he totara i te wao nuia tane.

Translated, it reads: “A mighty tree has fallen.”


Chris Stokel-Walker

The GuardianTramp

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