Land of Legend and Dreams, Sherwood Forest and The Major Oak

Like most places a prospective visit to Nottinghamshire will necessarily draw up a mental menu of important and unusual places to see. For this city and its environs, such targets might include, the Nottingham Castle, The Caves of Nottingham, Newstead Abbey and that ancient watering hole, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. Nowhere locally though perhaps has such world-wide notoriety as Sherwood Forest and in particular the Major Oak – as fable has it, the famous hideaway and meeting place of the legendary Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

I’ve made not one but three visits to the old tree recently, each time with visitors to Nottingham, and enjoyed them just as much as I ever did years ago. One of the benefits of acting as an unofficial tour guide for visitors is that it lends an opportunity to view familiar places and scenery through their eyes and to freshen up your own perceptions of them.

My understanding is that a large amount of money is to be spent in refurbishing or rebuilding the visitor centre at the forest so perhaps now is the time to remember it how it always was for most of my life.

The drive from the city of Nottingham lasts but twenty miles or so and is a simple one straight north for most of the journey. Allow just forty minutes steady drive through the pleasantly wooded countryside of north Nottinghamshire’s Dukeries. A final traffic roundabout on the main A614 suggests the way to Sherwood Forest as the second turn but my preference is for the first turn which takes us through the village of Edwinstowe, famed as the home of St. Mary’s Church where Robin Hood and Maid Marion were said to be betrothed. A keen eye should be kept however for the first photo opportunity of the day which lies at the crossroads as we turn right – Maid Marion’s Secrets. No, not a historical site, but rather a ‘naughty knickers’ shop, borrowing on the famous damsel’s name! The mind boggles at Marion in some of that lingerie…

We then pass the local cricket pitch and a ‘travelling’ funfair that in my estimation appears to have been there solidly for the past thirty years and left into the free weekday entrance of the visitor centre. Let’s be honest about the visitor centre, it remains the height of kitsch. I have no idea when it was constructed but it reminds me heavily of a seventies conception of what tourists would wish to be greeted by. As one enters there is a large fibre glass caricature of Little John, staff fighting with Robin himself in their famed initial encounter on the bridge. Gathered around in a small clearing are a huddle of buildings with cheap-looking facades, an unexceptional café, a craft shop, a small video theatre, souvenir shop and display area along with public facilities which on my visits have always been unsatisfactory. I’d like to be fair here and point to the previous mention of a refurbishment or rebuild that is scheduled for Sherwood Forest visitor centre however. The area with its attendant 500,000 visitors each year truly deserves better and at long last it seems as though this will happen.

The area of the remaining Sherwood Forest now numbers just 450 acres. At around 6-700 acres, (BestwoodCountryPark a few miles north of Nottingham is ironically an arguably better and certainly a larger area of what remains of the forest). Surfaced and signposted woodland paths lead one through the attractive native woodland of mainly oak and birch. The trees are expertly managed to preserve Sherwood as much as possible alike its original aspect. For those that enjoy walking it’s possible with the aid of a map to take a long walk around and within the perimeter of the woodland and get away from the many visitors and busy chatter amongst the trees. For most however the walk will conform to a pattern of a short twenty-minute circular walk to see the Major Oak. The walk to the tree is impressive enough for those that appreciate nature. Many of the oaks in particular are huge trees, some burnt by lightning but still stoutly standing. The oak is a mighty tree.

The tree itself is still slightly awe-inspiring in its pure size. As one turns the corner to see it come into view, the sight is an extremely arresting one. My understanding is that the oak’s circumference measures some ten metres but perhaps initially most notable is the sheer amount of work that has gone towards keeping the tree upright after 1000 years of existence. The metal props, chains, ropes and fibre glass moulding do not detract from its majesty. A narrow gap in the trunk allows passage inside the tree and makes it easy to understand why it was famed as a hiding place for Robin Hood, even if history indicates that the age of the tree would not have made this possible. Surrounding the tree is a fence placed in order to keep tourists away from the area underneath the oak. This was deemed necessary as the good-natured trampling of tourist’s hooves was compacting the soil and inhibiting the Major Oak from taking in water through its roots.

There is a good amount of information to read at the tree and that perhaps is best left for a personal visit. However a theory towards why the tree is of such a huge size is offered in that it may have actually been two trees that grew together. Another theory given is that a lightning bolt hit the tree and split it into two halves which both flourished afterwards.

For me the best time to see Sherwood Forest is alone, early on a crisp winter’s morning, particularly with a dusting of newly fallen snow or a haw frost. This will not be available to the casual visitor however but still it is worth considering a weekday visit to get away from the large crowd and attendant ice cream vans of a sunny Sunday afternoon. One takes one choice on these matters and I guess I take my forests and nature quite seriously!

One more little piece of legend that always entrances me is that of the famous ‘Green Men’. This legend is often seen in carvings on churches but actually pre-dates Christianity. Usually the green man is depicted as face made of leaves and with leaves sprouting from his mouth. This is meant to denote the wisdom of the earth from which they draw, being nourished and passed on to us all. It also depicts renaissance and the seasons – each year having a rebirth every spring. I’ve always had a strong feeling for this legend and a chat with my Canadian fellow visitors to the forest likened it interestingly to the wisdom of the Native American people and their adherence to the natural and supernatural world. A comparison between people of far apart continents and the link in the way they thought about the true wisdom of the world is a most interesting notion to me.

So a pleasant walk back toward the modern-day visitor centre and exit then. Not before a few minutes day-dreaming of younger more carefree times of playing with bows and arrows and trees that just had to be climbed. Sherwood Forest was really meant for that I considered. It’s a place of legends and of childhood dreams, a place where beliefs can be suspended and a journey into the past explored and lived out. For this it does not take a ‘visitor centre’ – just an imagination, a love of nature and a little romance in the soul. Explore the legend of Robin Hood and the secrets of the forest; you may learn a lot about yourself…

One Walk and Two Churches (1)

St. James’ Church, Papplewick, Nottinghamshire.

Linby and Papplewick are two of my local villages, both distinctive and attractive due in no small measure to their structure of yellow sandstone quarried from Linby itself. The stone is slightly reminiscent of Cotswold stone in its warm, cosy glow both in winter and summer. There’s more than the average share of history from within the environs of these two neighbouring villages but perhaps that is largely a matter for a separate look at them on another occasion. This story today is of two local churches, very disparate in the tales they have to tell.

Walking with my partner’s mother and aunt who are visiting from either side of the vast plains, forests and mountains of Canada, we set off strolling over the narrow path alongside a newly ploughed field after passing by a small selection of grand homes clearly inhabited by the well-heeled of the locality. Ours was a simple short walk for posterity and fresh air’s sake in the main. It was however to be punctuated by one or two sights I had never seen in my time in Nottinghamshire.

Shortly after we passed over two fields we came to the idyllic setting of a fisherman’s pond damned from the River Leen. Ours was but a jealous peek inside the hedge from a quaint little bridge as the pond stocked with coarse fish loomed through the bows of the overhanging trees and undergrowth. A stern warning of privacy and a secured gate stopped us from entering and walking the banks of the pond. We did however see several trout in the brackish water beneath us on the bridge.

Another field brought us in sight of Papplewick’s principal place of worship, St James’, a tiny church nestled amongst the oaks and birches in its original Sherwood Forest setting. Our slice of good fortune was that for the first time I had ever walked this path the church was actually open due to three ladies preparing decorations for Harvest Festival festivities the coming Sunday. A scout around the churchyard saw the gravestone of Lord Byron’s servant buried in the 1820’s, members of the local Montague family and the local regiment of the Sherwood Foresters were also interred in the longish grass.

Luckily we were invited inside to inspect the little church. One can only smile at the faith and devotion that is evident in these small shrines everywhere around us dating back so many hundreds of years. I find this very touching still. A small stairway beckoned to an upper balcony that ran the length of the church which just had to be explored. We were told that this area was reserved for worshippers from a ‘higher’ social class – perhaps not in keeping necessarily with the message communicated in the church I reasoned to myself. We were told that the monks from Newstead Abbey would rest, take shelter and pray at St James’ whilst walking the many miles to Lenton Priory. It was not difficult to imagine the men of the nearby Augustinian order emerging through the pleasant greenwoods of Nottinghamshire and into this beautiful place all those hundreds of years ago

Clearly the quaint little church of St. James’ at Papplewick would be a beautiful, cosy place to worship on a cold, wintry Nottingham evening. I imagined the warm, soft glow of its lights through stained glass, like embers ushering people to it through a forest floor laden with brown oak leaves. The fact that people had been attracted there, doing just that since the twelfth century laid claim to that thought.

One last observation was of the large, impressive yew tree in the churchyard. Legend tells us that the forest outlaws and yes, even Robin Hood himself were said to have used the tree to fashion their longbows from, the wood being of a perfect nature for the strength and suppleness required of the mighty and storied English weapon. Other stories tell us of a different reason for the presence of yew trees in so many churchyards. One theory is that yews actually predated the churches and were used as pagan meeting places which offered shelter under their thick, shroud of umbrella-like branches, that churches merely sprang up in the same places due to their suitability as places of worship. Nobody really knows but I find either story equally palatable.

I cannot leave the subject of St, James of Papplewick without relating its further involvement with the legend of Robin Hood. It was one of Robin’s supposed main collaborators, minstrel, Alan A’Dale who was reputed to have been actually married here, (though some say he is buried here alternatively). I have no idea of the truth of these legendary tales but one visit to Papplewick leave one in no doubt that many forest happenings could have occurred in the secluded depths of this parish. Further evidence of the royal foresters can be seen inside the church with two tombstones carved with the archer’s longbow and hunting horn.

Whatever one’s ability to suspend belief for a moment, these artifacts are truly magical and open the history book wide to a chapter hundreds of years ago that was so important to this area.

Truly St. James’ Church in the parish of Papplewick, Nottinghamshire is a most remarkable place.