Walking along Hadrian’s Wall Alice Whysall could not help but be overawed by the majesty of the tree that greeted her at Sycamore Gap on the evening of September 27, as she completed a four-day hike.
But the next day the majestic Sycamore Gap tree was gone, felled by a brutal act of environmental vandalism – making her the last known person to have seen and photograph the historic tree.
Ms Whysall was left speechless at the tree’s destruction later that night.
“It just blows my mind that I was there to see it, went to bed and the next day it was gone. I couldn’t believe it,” she told The Telegraph.
The 33-year-old was on the fourth day of her journey along the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path when she reached the site at around 6.30pm last Wednesday evening.
It was a walk she was determined to complete after being forced to abandon it in June when her companion pulled out with injuries.
So when she arrived at the 300-year-old tree, on her own after a long day’s walking, it was a particularly emotional moment for her.
“It was horrible rain, I had my hood up and head down so at first I didn’t even realise I was there,” she said. “But it was very special when I reached it. I was so exhausted and it was just fantastic to see it standing there. It was such an iconic sight and such a milestone of the walk.”
She said she spent about 20 minutes alone by the tree, taking what is now thought to be the last photograph of it still standing at the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
She said it was “such an emotional thing to have seen it in its final hours”, adding: “I nearly didn’t stop and take a picture, but I thought ‘no, you have to’. I’m so glad I did.”
The next morning, after staying at the nearby youth hostel, she resumed her hike, oblivious to the tree’s destruction overnight.
“In the morning I had no idea it had happened. I got out walking around 7.30am and nearly went up to take another photo [of Sycamore Gap], as mine were not that great, because it was raining and so dull, but I didn’t.”
As news spread, she began getting messages from friends about the tree being cut down.
“I couldn’t quite believe it. I thought someone was having a joke with me because I had no idea,” she said. “As I was walking after I found out, I told people I passed about what had happened. Nobody really knew because they’d not been checking the news. Everyone was so shocked and it was so sad seeing the pictures of it lying on the ground.”
The National Trust, who own the land where the tree had stood for centuries, is now discussing with its partners and supporters what should happen at the site and what, if anything, should replace it.
It has already been contacted by over 50 individuals and organisations with suggestions on what should happen to the site and the remains of the tree and is expected to make an announcement in the coming weeks.
A 16-year-old boy arrested in connection with the felling of the Sycamore Gap tree was released on bail pending further enquiries.
Northumbria Police also arrested a man in his sixties who was later released on bail pending further inquiries.
Ms Whyshall, a horticulturalist and designer who in 2018 won the Prince of Wales Trophy for Sustainable Horticulture, believes the National Trust should replace the tree and hope it eventually reaches the splendour of the original, as well as use the felled wood to create a fighting memorial.
But she also criticised the decision by the trust to remove a small sapling planted by 27-year-old Kieran Chapman, from Newcastle Upon Tyne, to “restore hope”.
“That was sad to take the sapling away. What harm was it doing – and anyway, that part of the landscape once had many trees growing there,” she said.
Mark Feather, UK estate manager for conservation charity, the Woodland Trust, said any effort to regrow the tree is likely to take hundreds of years.
Mr Feather said it is “unlikely” it would return to its former statuesque shape, and would instead probably become a “bushy tree with multiple stems at the base”.