The name Sherwood Forest conjures up romantic visions of Robin Hood and his band of merry men, but its more than likely he never existed.
However, there’s one place in England where to suggest such a thing would be heresy. Throughout the county of Nottinghamshire in the Midlands, signs of the outlaw are everywhere, although Robin Hood airport is misleadingly miles north in Yorkshire.
The vast swath of woodlands, set aside in the 10th century as a royal hunting forest which once covered more than a fifth of the county, is much shrunken. Not, as you would expect, by the Industrial Revolution nibbling at its borders, but by the greed and avarice of aristocratic dukes arbitrarily enclosing the land for their private hunting estates or to harvest the timber. Four contiguous ducal properties, known as The Dukeries, acquired much of the land south of the town of Worksop. Their wealth was assured by the coal which was discovered beneath the forest in Victorian times and that’s when villages were built, to house colliery workers. Now that the coal mines have closed, the land is gradually being returned to its pristine state and the villages have become clean and charming. In 1969 a small part of the forest was leased from the Thoresby estate and 540 acres was opened to the public. In 2007, a new tract of heath land was added, almost doubling the park’s size to 1,050 acres, still small, but it’s a start.
On the penultimate day of our visit to England, we head for the village of Edwinstowe, almost exactly halfway between the M1 motorway and the busy A1 and about three hours driving north from London. It’s easy for us as we are based nearby and with the late September weather giving the country a respite from the advance of autumn, it seemed a good opportunity to visit the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve. Even mid-week the visitor centre is busy with tourists and parties of school children. Once onto the clearly marked forest trails, serenity returns and we enjoy a leisurely stroll past ancient oaks, thickets of birch and bracken and grazing land. A green sign on a stile reassures us that there are no cattle roaming today.
The mediaeval hunting lands were not the dark and gloomy forest portrayed in the movies, but a mixture of woodlands, interspersed with open heath, sunny glades, villages and farmland, so the areas of the nature reserve are very true to the original.
Our destination is an ancient tree, which according to local folklore was Robin Hood’s principal hideout. In 1790 an army officer wrote about Sherwood’s oaks and described this fine specimen which later became known as the Major’s Oak, a name since compressed to the Major Oak, the largest and oldest tree in the forest. For more than 100 years, its spreading branches have been extensively propped up, but old though it might be, it’s still virile, creating a new crop of acorns every year.
As we come along the path towards the forest giant, the sun comes out between scudding clouds and back-lights the dense green leaves. The effect is magical and for a few moments we just stand in awe at the tree’s size and rugged beauty. The trunk is vast and gnarly and the branches spread over a wide area, but it’s not particularly tall. The tree has so much character it’s not hard to imagine how legends have come to surround it.
It’s extraordinary that after so many years when oak was a valued house and ship building resource, that any of these giant trees are left in the park. Perhaps the answer is that these surviving oaks were considered inferior for timber, as many of them have hollow trunks and hence were allowed to continue their growth. It’s possible the Major Oak’s great girth is a result of three or four saplings fusing together as they grew more than 800 years ago.
Conservation efforts continue to save and nurture the oldest oaks in the reserve, many more than 500 years old, with competing saplings and undergrowth being removed to give the ancient trees room and light to sustain growth. Some of the older trees, like the Major Oak, need help with banding or propping, although of the thousands of oaks in the park, only five have been banded and six propped.
Along the trails, explanatory plaques give us further details about the forest and it’s rich ecology. One reveals that over 200 species of spider and 1,500 species of beetle live in the trees and undergrowth, along with many rare fungi. It’s not exactly a big game park, but the fat little birds seem to be thriving on the bugs. We’re not personally keen on beetles so we’ll leave them alone for the next passing coleopterist.
In the next couple of years there will be a new visitor centre, but the present one is worth a visit. The shop is excellent and has every type of Robin Hood souvenir you could imagine. The licensed café was doing a bustling trade. And the good news is that parking and the park are free during the week.