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In the News

Sycamore Gap: Place Imageability & Place Meaning

Alice Griffiths

29th September 2023

Yesterday the news broke of the loss of a 300-year old tree that stood on in the so-called Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall, apparently felled by vandals. I use the term ‘broke’ in part because I felt a bit 'broken' when I read about this event - senseless, political or otherwise - as I walked the Wall route on a special holiday with family. I felt, I could picture the scene before I saw the images in the media. And I wasn’t alone. On social media there was an outpouring of grief, the like of which Northumbria National Park has surely never seen before. But why? And how might this sad event help Year 12 understand the nebulous concept of place meaning?

Place imageability The quality of a place that makes it recognisable and memorable. Places with a high imageability have specific physical elements (of the natural and/or built environment) and their arrangement evokes distinct images or positive feelings

Having had some time to reflect on the strong reaction of many, it is clear from the online posts that its visual impact, its place imageability, played a key part. The tree appeared in Kevin Costner’s 1992 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves no doubt because of its aesthetically pleasing site, in a dramatic dip in the landscape. It certainly wasn't because it is anywhere near Sherwood Forest (it isn't). The section of the Wall that the tree grew by follows the edge of a dolerite cliff, cleverly utilised by the Romans to enhance the impact of their wall. This volcanic intrusion or sill, named Whin Sill, sits proud of the landscape and is itself very photogenic.

Tourist ‘honeypot’ sites are those that draw a crowd and are managed to reduce pressure on local services. A recently constructed YHA hostel and Northumbria National Park visitor centre share a sympathetically-designed building named The Sill, which was opened by Prince Charles in 2018. This tourist facility is sited about a mile and half from Sycamore Gap, in the village of Once Brewed on the military road which follows the line of the ancient Roman wall. The Sill caters for the many tourists that walk the Hadrian's Wall Path (opened in 2003), the Pennine Way (from 1965) which crosses the Wall nearby, as well as those visiting the wealth of local Roman sites such as Housesteads and Vindolanda. The National Park Authority has positively encouraged the high footfall in this place.

So, the tree was always going to be a focus and 'poster child' for visitors, given its aesthetic appeal (imageability), Hollywood fame and Park endorsement. When I was there this summer, we met fellow trail walkers from Texas, Florida and New Zealand; attracted by the physical challenge, its historic significance and its media image. Moreover the outpouring of grief was linked to this place's personal significance for Brits and beyond; people have scattered ashes, celebrated birthdays even got engaged under it.

Beyond the personal place meaning, there is of course the political. Academic and nature author Robert MacFarlane shared his reaction to yesterday’s event on X (Twitter), citing the wider context of the loss of nature in the UK today as another reason to pause for thought:

He suggested that people listen to this track, from Spell Songs; an album described as a musical evolution of MacFarlane’s books The Lost Worlds and The Lost Spells (2020). His words used in the track, titled Heartwood, speak for themselves:

‘Would you hew me to the heartwood, Cutter? Would you lay me low beneath your feet? Listen to my sap mutter Hear my heartwood beat’

As interested media outlets have moved onto interviewing arboriculturists, the prospect of the Sycamore tree's (possible) regrowth is truly poetic.

Alice Griffiths

Alice has taught Geography over a period of twenty years. She is a published author and editor of a wide range of A level resources and has also created award-winning, online content for younger students. An occasional presenter at the GA’s annual conference, she was head of department at an 11-18 school until 2020.

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