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There was a death, certainly

28 March 2024

Helen-Ann Hartley offers a reflection for Good Friday


The Sycamore Gap tree

The Sycamore Gap tree

ON 28 September 2023, after a meeting, I stopped off at a supermarket before heading home. I parked the car and glanced at the news headlines. Halfway down the screen was a story that immediately caught my attention: “Sycamore Gap tree at Hadrian’s Wall ‘felled overnight’” (Comment and News, 6 October 2023). I remember saying aloud in the car, “What?” as I clicked on the link and the story became clear. I couldn’t take it in.

I looked out of the car window at the world going by, and was overwhelmed with incredulity and sadness. Memories flooded back: of a trail-run along the Wall past the tree a few days before my installation as Bishop of Newcastle, and the joy of being outdoors; and of visits with friends, sheltering under the tree’s branches before retracing our steps to a café for refreshment.

By the time I got back into my car, shopping done, I knew that I had to visit the tree. I was acutely aware that local people would be affected by what had happened, but I also thought of the tree itself, and of the shelter that it had given, and the pastoral load that it bore in its strength and beauty.

It quickly became apparent that the impact of its felling resonated around the world. Marriage proposals, scattered ashes, family walks across the years — countless lives were bound up in this one tree. And so, the morning after the tree had come down, I went into the Sill, the National Park centre located near the Sycamore Gap, and spoke with the director of the National Park, and was struck by how bewildering it all felt.


I STRUGGLED against the wind as I approached the site of the tree; and then, there it was — or, rather, wasn’t. It was lying across the Wall, its leaves and branches still blowing in the wind. It was eerily quiet. A police officer stood near by. Crime-scene tape meant that you couldn’t get right up to the tree. There was little to be said, and much more to be felt in the emotion of bleak despair.

I suspect the depth of emotion that I experienced at that point had something to do with my time as a bishop in Aotearoa, New Zealand. In that context, I learned much from Maori about the living nature of the environment, our connection to it, and the need both to care for it and respect its integrity. In 2017, the Whanganui river, in the North Island, was granted personhood by an Act of the New Zealand parliament, making it the first river in the world to be recognised as an indivisible and living being.

Insights from indigenous peoples have left an indelible mark on me. The Sycamore Gap tree wasn’t “just a tree”: it was a living presence for the region where I now serve as a bishop. Its image is everywhere, in urban and rural settings. In the days that followed, I spoke with countless people. Everyone had heard about the tree, and many felt sad and angry at what had happened.


AS I came to terms with the loss of the tree, I recalled another event, only a couple of weeks earlier. It involved another fallen tree: this time, an oak that had come down during Storm Arwen in 2021. As part of a project supporting women in the criminal-justice system, this tree had been transformed by a local designer, Nick James, into the “Story Chair”.

The chair was first put on display in the crypt of Newcastle Cathedral, with both the designer and many of the women involved in the project in attendance at its launch. I was there, too, and, as I sat in the chair, I felt both held and uplifted by its structure.

The location of the crypt is significant as a place historically associated with death. This was the space that the women had visited while on a tour of the cathedral, and it proved to be life-changing. This fallen tree — now the Story Chair — had become a thing of considerable substance and creative beauty.

The women I talked to spoke movingly of the mess and complexity of lives that were in the process of being reformed and held in hope rather than despair. The Story Chair now has a group of “chairtakers” (rather than “caretakers”), who are fiercely proud of what this represents in their lives. Their confidence and assurance are palpable.


IN AN interview for Radio 4’s Good Friday meditation, Nick James revealed some fascinating insights about the creative process of steam-bending the wood to create beautiful curves, which he then wove together to create an almost tapestry-like structure. In Nick’s own words, “I think wood in its nature carries stories and history. To be able to cut a tree open and be the first person to see inside is like reading a book that’s never been read before.”

Sitting on the chair, held by its strength, the women are able to tell their stories, in their own words. Dawn Harrison, service manager of Women’s Criminal Justice Services, Northumbria, sees resonances between the chair and the medieval narrative poem The Dream of the Rood, which gives voice to the tree (the Cross) that held Jesus on Good Friday, and which we feature in the BBC programme.

Dawn reflects: “When I listened to The Dream of the Rood, it took me a moment to think, ‘Oh, yes, of course, the chair is going to hold all of that trauma and make it into something it wasn’t before. . . The women have transformed their image from being female offenders on the outskirts of society to being welcome in Newcastle Cathedral. They are not calling themselves offenders any more, full of guilt and shame — they are the proud owners of the Story Chair.’”


BACK at the Sycamore Gap site, the tree stump remains, surrounded by a fence. Next to it is a sign that bears witness to what is there — which isn’t what you might expect. There is life: a raw energy force deep in its roots.

In the cathedral crypt, Dawn spoke about the transformation that the women had experienced. Recent news has reported that twigs and leaves rescued from the tree have produced saplings. There are green shoots of hope.

This takes us beyond Good Friday; so we remain with the bleakness of death, but with the promise that Jesus made to his friends that — if they dared to hope in God’s power — Easter Day would herald a resurrection in which they would all participate.


Dr Helen-Ann Hartley is the Bishop of Newcastle.

The Story of the Tree: A meditation for Good Friday will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 29 March at 3 p.m., and will be available afterwards on BBC Sounds.

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