Tony Gates was one of the first to hear the bad news. The CEO of Northumberland National Park, a 400-square-mile swatch of rolling hills and wild moorland on England’s northern edge, had received a phone call early last Thursday informing him that one of the area’s most celebrated landmarks, the tree at Sycamore Gap, was no more.
At first, Gates was relatively sanguine. The tree had stood for two centuries in a dip roughly halfway along the 80-mile run of Hadrian’s Wall — the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire at its peak, constructed to distinguish the civilisation of England from the barbarism of what is now mostly Scotland.
The tree was iconic in a literal sense: Its silhouette had become a shorthand for the area as a whole. But it was also a living thing, and, as such, it was “finite,” Gates said.
The previous night, Storm Agnes had whipped across northern England, bringing with it 60 mph winds. Gates assumed the tree, 70 feet tall and set in what is essentially a wind tunnel, had toppled in the storm, a sad but natural end. He dispatched a trail ranger to assess the damage.
It was when the ranger reported back that everything changed. The tree had not been brought down by natural forces. The cut was too clean. The trunk had been daubed with white paint. An incision known as a wedge cut had been made, designed to guide the tree’s fall. The ranger was unequivocal. “He said it was gone,” Gates remembered. “Someone had spoiled it.”
What followed, he said, was “overwhelming.” For many, both in the northeast of England and much farther afield, the loss of the tree represented what Gates called a “personal loss.”
“A lot of people felt a personal connection to it,” he added.
Many more, though, felt the pull of a pair of intertwined, irresistible mysteries. If a tree is felled and nobody is around to hear it, how does anyone begin to find out who was responsible? And, almost more intriguing still: What possible motive could there be for attacking a tree?
A few hours after the ranger’s report, when Gates arrived at the Sill, a glass-fronted information centre a mile or so from where the tree had stood, he found visitors in tears.
Now, children’s portraits of the tree line the walls of the swiftly established “celebration room” dedicated to the tree. So many people wanted to offer tributes that the park authority set up a book of remembrance; it quickly filled up with memories and poems and messages of thanks. The Sill received phone calls from across the world.
At Herding Hill Farm, a campsite a couple of miles down the road, the owners, Phil and Sue Humphreys, received somewhere in the region of 3,500 comments about the tree on their Facebook page, messages from locals but also strangers in South Africa, the United States and Australia. “And that’s just us,” Phil Humphreys said. “There were so many that after a while we stopped counting.”
Over the days that followed, that sadness mutated. “There’s a lot more genuine anger now,” said Matt Brown, the chief brewer at Twice Brewed Brewing Co, which occupies the land next to the Sill. Its bestselling product, naturally, is an ale called Sycamore Gap. “You see the fury online, and you just presume that’s the Internet being an empathy filter. But people are saying those things out loud now, too, and they’re completely serious.”
Few of them believe that all of this is the result of a spontaneous act of wanton destruction. Felling a tree of that scale requires considerable expertise at any time, let alone in the middle of the night and in the middle of a storm.
Besides, although the tree was relatively easily accessible from both east and west, it was still at least a 20-minute walk from the nearest parking lot. “You would have time to think about whether you really wanted to do it,” Brown said.
Northumbria Police, the local law enforcement agency, reached the same conclusion, describing the tree’s felling as “a deliberate act of vandalism,” one that had not only destroyed a beloved landmark, but also damaged Hadrian’s Wall, a Unesco World Heritage site.
Two people were swiftly arrested in connection with the incident: a 16-year-old boy and Walter Renwick, a farmer in his 60s. Both have been released on bail as police continue to carry out “a range of inquiries.” Even before his arrest, Renwick had protested his innocence.
“I am a former lumberjack, and I have just been kicked off my property, so I can see why people have pointed the finger,” Renwick told The Sun. “It’s very sad. It’s an iconic tree. But it was the perfect night to do it. There was a full moon, so it would have been well-lit, and the wind would have meant there was barely any sound.”
That is the complication, of course, that a crime committed in a remote, sparsely populated area presents to officers. The Northumbria Police has insisted that the public has been “helpful” in providing information, and investigators have collected whatever nearby CCTV footage they can. Officers are “using every tactic at our disposal,” police said, including forensic analysis to search for sawdust from the tree.
The writer is a journalist, broadcaster and author