WHO's ever heard of the "prickly inn"?
Well, that's not surprising really considering it's not a Hunter hotel run by a cranky publican burdened with a hair-trigger temper.
Rather it's not a he, it's a what, or at least was when it existed on the western Stockton foreshore almost 18 years ago.
Until its abrupt demise, it was a much-loved landmark of the seaside suburb. Exotically called the "Crown of Thorns" tree, it was normally associated with the African savannah.
Some residents even called it the giraffe tree and, of course, the "prickly inn" for the forest of sharp bristling needles once on its broad canopy, making it look like a large green protective hedgehog threatening to pierce the skin of the unwary.
But, at the end of July 2003, the gnarly orphan tree met its end. The 3.6 metre tall tree was seen as one of only four surviving in NSW, but it was a foreigner, an illegal immigrant as it were, which topped the state's noxious flora list.
Residents believed then it could have been up to 120 years old and it was embedded in local folklore, especially from the 1930s Great Depression.
But the tree was doomed when Agriculture NSW officials, alerted by a local tourism website to the balloon-like shape of the historic "thorn tree" (acacia karoo), immediately had it removed as a dangerous, toxic pest.
It had been quietly sitting in parkland next to the Fullerton Street, opposite Ross Street, grown in soil and seeds from dumped ship ballast from 19th century sailing ships once moored by the dozen there along Stockton foreshore.
What has been called the most popular tree in Africa, stood no chance in case other such trees sprang up nearby to intimidate local vegetation.
The Hunter committee of the National Trust tried to save it, but it was soon nothing but a memory as chainsaws got to work.
At the time, then Newcastle City councillor Yvonne Piddington said that when she heard that the tree was to be felled, her first thought was to chain herself to it.
Cr Piddington said the tree was part of Stockton's maritime heritage.
"I thought most Stockton people would be up in arms and there would be merry hell to pay. But while people are sad, they may not oppose its removal," she said.
And she was right.
So, after writing a story on this page two months ago about Stockton's ballast ground past, I decided to revisit the scene and see how much things had changed since 2003.
An awful lot, it turns out.
The riverside has been cleaned up, with new bushes and manicured lawn. Even a few decades ago though, some traces remained of the wooden dolphins offshore and there were even five surviving, if tilting, mooring posts to see.
Now, there's almost nothing to show of the 18 berths where the windjammers once tied up.
The furthest, at North Stockton, was so remote that it was nicknamed Siberia.
And yet, this now reclaimed shoreline, had been once been extremely busy. By 1896 it was estimated that about 10 acres (4ha) of the Stockton foreshore had been reclaimed from the Hunter River.
There was a passageway in past the thorns on the river side and a small getaway on the northern side in case the coppers came.
While dumped ballast, including some strange vegetation, came from coal ships from all over the world, including Africa, it was the American link which most captured the imagination.
Back in 1906, for example, a four-masted barque called Madagascar was just one vessel that dumped 500 tons of earthquake rubble (from quake-ravaged San Francisco) at Stockton.
Onboard on that visit was young midshipman, later sea captain, Donald Henderson.
Some 71 years later in 1977, Captain Henderson revisited the scene of the building rubble dumping (ballast) that had been erroneously recorded originally in the ship's log as a cargo of "500 earthquakes".
He guided members of the then Newcastle Maritime Museum back to the very spot the waste material was left, unearthing a deep red brick souvenir from the rock and soil left from his old ship.
So plentiful was the amount of ballast dumped from visiting ships that stone and brick training walls were built to contain the rubble and later sand was pumped onto it.
These walls extended from near the present sailing club, then north to Hereford Street, then up past Meredith Street.
When the lone offending acacia tree was about to come down in 2003, the news included headlines like: Toxic centurion to fall - Out of Africa and on the thorns of a dilemma.
Observing the scene on site in the dying light the night before, then Stockton Historical Society secretary Ray Esdaile (pictured) conceded "everything old isn't naturally sacred".
"It's a shame the tree is going, but . . . it's supposed to be so noxious council is not even going to chip the wood and take it away, but bury it on site," he said.
Turning back the clock again, to 2003, I remember one resident who recalled the foreign intruder fondly.
His name was Tom Kellett, of Mitchell Street, and he was then 75 years old.
"I lived opposite the tree for 14 years. We used to play in it every day when we were kids. We had a cubbyhouse there," he said.
"And when I was in trouble and mum wanted to belt me I used to hide in it also.
"I could crawl in, but she couldn't as the tree thorns must have been two inches (5cms) long.
"You'd get plenty of cuts, but it didn't matter. It was all part of the fun.
"Years before it was pruned back, it must have had a 40-square foot cover. It was so big I think because there were two trunks growing which joined up."
Kellett said the men of Stockton used to meet there every Sunday about 1932-33.
"They used to bring in a keg of beer. And inside the tree, before someone cut the (umbrella) canopy away, it could hold 20 men.
"Two-up games were held inside there because it was nice and private.
"There was a passageway in past the thorns on the river side and a small getaway on the northern side in case the coppers came.
"They also had to cut a hole in the top of the foliage for when they threw the two-up coins in the air. Some of these local memories have got to be preserved," Kellett said.
The historical society had planned to save some timber when the tree was cut down to make a seat.
That didn't happen, although someone did plant a small cross to mark the acacia's passing.
It only lasted one day, but a friend of mine then unexpectedly brought me a small, very thorny branch as a memento.
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