The Best Tree in the World. That’s what my family called it – until this week, because now it is more of a raw, freshly brutalised stump. The tree at Sycamore Gap – you can guess the species – appears to have been felled by a chainsaw in the early hours of Thursday morning. A 16-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage and has since been released on bail pending further inquiries. Whoever is responsible has been described as a “vandal”. I have other words for the perpetrator, but none that would make it past the sub-editors.
It’s always distressing when meaningful, landscape-enhancing trees come down – my mother, a daughter of Kent, never quite got over the loss of six of the seven oaks that were torn from the ground in her hometown in the Great Storm of 1987. Similarly, my brother and I were rendered dumb (actually, I think I may have cried) as children when our local council lopped down a perfect, bell-shaped horse chestnut on the understanding that it was diseased; that turned out to be untrue, and the loss was all the greater for it.
But, for a certain generation, Sycamore Gap and the tree that stood in its dip, is about as iconic as trees get. If you’re not sure why, you clearly weren’t in a cinema in 1991, 11 years old, sat two rows back, watching, entranced, as Kevin Costner brought his California tan and accent to England’s most acclaimed folk hero. Here was Robin Hood, the prince of thieves – handsome, charming, gifted not only with a bow but with the supernatural ability to walk from Land’s End to Nottingham in a day (his navigation left something to be desired though, having gone via Hadrian’s Wall) – writ large on the screen before me.
And the tree – The Tree – plays a pivotal role. Allow me to refresh your memory. Robin is giddy from his homecoming from the Crusades and scampering around on Hadrian’s Wall, pestering his Moor companion Azeem (played by Morgan Freeman), who is engaged in prayer. Up into the tree runs a young boy, pursued by dogs and the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men. A fight ensues, Robin wins and the battleground is set – Robin, protector of the defenceless versus Alan Rickman’s delightfully depraved Sheriff.
Naff and 1990s it might be, but it struck a chord with me. And I’m far from the only one. When I met the man who would be my husband 19 years later, one of the foundation stones of our union was the joint love of that film – so much so we played the film score at our wedding. Naturally, then, when his family moved to Newcastle, our first pilgrimage that Christmas was to The Tree. Even on the wind-whipped Northumbrian hills in late December 2016, there was a thrill in walking the footpath, picking over the wall’s remains, waiting for The Tree to be revealed in its tiny valley, the landscape seemingly moulded around it, a cocoon to keep it safe.
My mother-in-law led the way, our 11-month-old son was in a papoose, we’d dragged along our four-year-old nephew (“Where are we going?” “To see a tree.” “Why?” “It’s the best tree in the world.”) Cue lots of stick fighting and terrible attempts at delivering the scene’s best line: “Might I have the pleasure of your name, before I have you run through?”
We laughed, and played, and got in the way of some very serious photographers that had been standing on the opposite bank for hours with their long lenses, tripod and Thermos flasks of coffee, waiting for the perfect light, the perfect frame. It was cold, it was muddy, but it was a good day.
My mother-in-law died five years later, far too young, the day after her 63rd birthday. When I think of her, I think about that walk. Then I think of the others who were there; the irate amateur photographers, the rambling couples with sensible walking gear, the midlifers like us who had yanked their families from their sofas and warm homes to walk the wall and pay homage to The Tree, the film, the memories of a less complicated time when golden-skinned all-American boys could play pox-ridden 12th-century outlaws.
And that’s what makes the felling so senseless. It was a place of joy for so many, a reason to get outside and share a common experience. Why anyone would choose to lug a chainsaw for 20 minutes over rough terrain in the pitch black just to grab a headline, to nab the dubious honour of being the one who cut the sycamore out of Sycamore Gap, is as baffling as it is infuriating.
Of course, they’ll plant another – they’ll surely have to – not that any of us will see it reach its prime. For it was a few hundred years old (now its rings are exposed, experts will be able to date it accurately) and according to previous excavations, used to stand with other sycamores that were removed over the centuries, possibly by gamekeepers improving sightlines. But the perfectly framed tree was spared, and lived on to appear not only in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but crime drama Vera and various documentaries, including one, the filming of which nearly prematurely ended its life when a helicopter crashed just 100ft away in 2003.
So it was not just a film star or a place to gather, it was a survivor, too. Like I said, the best tree in the world.