Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Great Trees of England: #2 The 'Robin Hood' Sycamore

Next its time to meet a film star tree.

Landing at the White Cliffs of Dover on his return from the Crusades, Robin Hood's promise to be in Sherwood Forest by nightfall seemed a little rash, but when we next see him at Hadrian's Wall you wonder if the sun really has addled his brains.

This being Kevin Costner in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves though strict historical and geographical accuracy was no more expected than a charismatic performance from the male lead. we are in a Hollywood version of England that is the size of a football pitch and where we're is in the Middle Ages whilst Scotland is apparently in the Stone Age.

Snufkin was here!
Known ever since as the Robin Hood sycamore, the tree that Costner pauses by stands on one of the most spectacular sections of the wall, between Walltown and Housesteads. Here the wall runs along Whin Sill, the great slab of granite that runs across the north of England. It over the edge of Win Sill that the great waterfalls High Force and Cauldron Snout run, and it is an outcrop of Whin Sill granite that Bamburgh Castle is built, and where it runs into the North Sea it gives us Lindesfarne Island.

It was fairly obvious that the Romans were going to use the Sill as the basis of their great wall, and whilst in summer the views are terrific, yo don't envy the guys who had to patrol in winter. The Syrian archer unit they sent here must have thought they'd died and gone to Hades.

If the weather is kind visiting the tree is a pleasant enough walk though from either the Roman Army Museum or Housesteads fort.

Reenactor from Comitatus with draco
A milecastle, known as Castle Nick, sits about 50 yards west of the Sycamore. On the, probably rare occassions, the garrison dragged itself away from the fire and looked north to the lands beyond the 'civilising' influence of Rome they would have seen the lowlands owned by Rome's allies the Votadini tribe. This area north of the wall was probably patrolled by Roman cavalry, which leads me to a bit of speculation.

We know the Romans posted cavalry from Sarmatia up here, probably based at Ribchester in Lancashire. The Sarmatians were fierce nomads from what is now the Ukraine. Their battle standard was the Draco, effectively a wind sock in the shape of a dragon.

You imagine this might have made a bit of an impression on the locals, and it's interesting to find that according to Welsh legend Cunedda, the founder of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, came from the tribe of the Gododdin, who were living in Votadini territory after the Romans had left and may be the same people.

It is Cunedda's great great great great great grandson, Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon who was supposed to have first flown the modern Flag of Wales later adopted by Henry Tudor. Dragons, red or any other colour, don't really have much of precedent in Celtic lore, so the question is always where it came from, so maybe Cunedda brought the Draco with him when he emigrated from Northumbria.

There are other mechanisms by which Roman dragons could have reached Wales, but as someone from  the Red Rose county I like the idea of the Welsh flag coming via Lancashire.

Age of Arthur post holes at Birdoswald Fort
The other bit of speculation about the Sarmatians is that they were once led by a chap called Lucius Artorius Castus. He was real enough, although we don't know for sure that he came to Britain, but it's an interesting thought that a fellow called Arthur could be leading armoured cavalry on various adventures around what would later become England in the second or third century CE, especially as the Sarmatians have plenty of stories about swords sticking out of the ground and being chucked into water and so on.

This isn't the only possible connection between Arthur and Hadrian's Wall. The fort now known as Birdoswold, where clear evidence of use in the post-Roman period has been dug up, was really called Camboglanna. This may conceivably have evolved from Camglann, which isn't a million miles away from Camlan, the site of Arthur's last battle. Further west at Burgh-by-Sands the fort of Aballava had, by the sixth century, become Avalana in the local lingo.

This has all been thrown together in the 2004 film King Arthur, staring Clive Owen as Art and Keira Knightly as a rather frail Celtic warrior-woman Guinevere. This probably no more geographically or historically accurate than Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but it does at least help old Arthur escape from Glastonbury.

Arthur or not, this part of the world is Hen Ogledd, the old Welsh speaking north. The sycamore is too recent an import to our ecology to feature in this culture, and is perhaps just a visitor to this place like me. It certainly an elemental spot, dominated by sky, wind, rain and earth, in which visitors such as the Romans seem to have left but the faintest of impressions and our own modern world almost none. It is these thoughts, not second rate Hollywood movies, that fill my imagination as I say goodbye to this tree.

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