Until twenty years or so ago there stood in the corner of the garden of the Rectory at Houghton-le-Spring an ancient, natural relic known as the Gilpin Thorn. It was an ugly, gnarled affair – a hawthorn tree most probably – which was said to have been planted by Bernard Gilpin, the great ‘Apostle of the North’. Gilpin was the local rector at St.Michael and All Angels Church during 1558-1583, and was much famed for his piety and benevolence. The tree is said to have sprung from a cutting taken from the famous Glastonbury Thorn.
This local landmark was, until the mid-20th century at least, maintained with some care – or so it seems. Reports from Victorian times have the tree being braced with collars, then when, under its own weight, it split in two, its tired limbs were propped up by timber supports. Pictures from the 1950s show the tree struggling manfully on, but by the 1980s it appears to have entered a phase of terminal decline. Local vandals helped it on its way to an undignified death and removal around 1990.
But the story does not end there. A local man, Peter Tate, had had the foresight to take seeds from the old tree before it expired, and saw to it that two new seedlings were born. One of these was planted in the grounds of the Rectory … though it appears that both specimens have now disappeared, whereabouts unknown.
What a strange old story.
Note: Almost all of the information upon which this article is based was taken from the Houghton-le-Spring Heritage Society website – an excellent little article, within which you will also find some nice pictures. It’d be great if anyone could shed further light on the mystery of the missing saplings – do comment below if you can help.