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Discovering magical realism in the story of Robin Hood.

As a child, there was nothing I liked better than swashbuckling movies about Robin Hood and his Merry Men who lived in England’s Sherwood Forest. I had a special reason. One of his favourite lieutenants was Little John…a seven-foot giant who had a way with a longstaff. My last name comes from Scotland not England, and it is spelled as one word, plus my family is not known for its towering stature. Still, I felt a strong kinship to the big guy who scooped Robin out of danger so many times. When an opportunity came up to visit Nottinghamshire recently, I grabbed it.

A statue of Robin Hood outside 1000-year-old Nottingham Castle.
A statue of Robin Hood outside 1000-year-old Nottingham Castle.

For most of us who know the stories, Robin Hood is a man of legend. According to historic-uk.com, documents in the British Museum state he was a real person –  born in 1160 in Lockersley, South Yorkshire.  He became a hero to the downtrodden when he and his Merry Men started robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Robin’s love was Maid Marion and his arch enemy was the Sheriff of Nottingham, who enforced King John’s laws that punished common folk who hunted deer for food in the royal forests. As Robin foiled many of the sheriff’s plans to capture him, his reputation grew among the local people.

Entering the leafy kingdom of Sherwood Forest, just north of Nottingham, I felt like I was like stepping back in time. “The forest once covered a third of the county. Now we have 450 hectares,” explained Sally Granger, the site’s visitor experience manager. Sitting in the café of the forest’s new Visitor’s Centre, we sipped tea and discussed the heroic outlaw.

The ancient Major Oak still stands where Robin Hood met his Merry Men in Sherwood Forest.
The ancient Major Oak still stands where Robin Hood met his Merry Men in Sherwood Forest.

In the gift shop, I got into the spirit and bought a green felt cap, complete with red feather, just like Robin wore. I wasn’t alone, numerous 10-year-olds were milling about in the same garb. Noshing on a grilled cheese sandwich, I listened as Sally fed me with facts. “We have 997 ancient oaks and most are more than 400 years old. Half of them are dead but they are still valuable for research.” My big question, was the Major Oak where Robin and his men gathered, still alive? My heart leapt when she smiled. “Yes! The Major Oak is 28 meters across, weights 90 tons and is 800-1100 years old.” A total of 11 people are needed to hug the grand old tree, which is hollow inside. “In the stories, Robin hid from the sheriff inside the tree. Later, the Victorians had tea parties in there,” said Sally.

My excitement mounted as we followed the trail and got closer. The trail was filled with children, and some adults, decked out in their green caps, carrying toy bows and arrows. Finally, we rounded the corner and the magnificent tree was before us. Multiple branches were propped up with wooden staffs and I could see the entrance to Robin’s hollow hiding place. I leaned against the fence around the tree and spent a few quiet moments, visualizing lithe men in tunics blending in with the forest as an angry sheriff came crashing by on his horse. Sally then led me down the Path of Giants. Gnarly and massive, the trees looked like Middle-earth Ents from a Lord of the Rings movie. I had never seen so many Goliaths allowed to stand, long after insects had descended upon their insides. “It takes an oak tree 300 years to grow, 300 to stand and 300 to die,” explained Sally, noting that the forest was a National Nature Reserve and all its flora and fauna were protected and studied by scientists. Red storks, nightjars, wood larks, woodpeckers, spotted flycatchers, rabbits, badgers and deer were just some of the creatures that made their homes there.

St. Mary’s Church, where Robin and Maid Marion exchanged vows.
St. Mary’s Church, where Robin and Maid Marion exchanged vows.

Robin and Maid Marion were said to be married in the village of Edinstowe, a 10-minute drive away. We made our way directly to St. Mary’s Church where we met Greg Abbott, a local historian dressed in period rig, complete with bow and arrows. “Robin Hood was an archer. In those days they could shoot 15 arrows a minute at a 200-yard target. When the locals walked through Sherwood Forest, they would make sure to take the string off their bow and tuck it under their hats so they wouldn’t get charged with poaching on the king’s land,” he explained. Even though there is no official evidence that the couple were married here, Greg said the ancient church was likely on this site in Robin’s time ­– in the forest that was his home.

That night, my husband and I stayed in a cedar bungalow in the heart of Sherwood Forest. The Sherwood Hideaway offered 22 luxury accommodations in a woodland setting. Our unit had two bedrooms, kitchen, laundry, hot tub and a wood-burning stove. The perfect place to unwind. Dinner was at a nearby pub called the Fox & Hounds. Family owned, the establishment had an excellent menu ­– I dug into a delicious plate of sea bream wrapped in bacon, while my husband enjoyed a savoury meat pie.

Looking for Ice Age rock art at Creswell Crags.
Looking for Ice Age rock art at Creswell Crags.

The next day we headed to Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge honeycombed with caves that featured the United Kingdom’s only Ice Age rock art. Plus, there was a cave where Robin and his men may have hidden, evading the sheriff.

The biggest thrill of this pilgrimage was our visit to Hathersage. We drove through the haunting moors and came to the St. Michael and All Angels’ Church. Exploring the graveyard, I came to a little sign pointing to a very long grave. Local lore says that in the years after Robin’s death (betrayed and killed by his aunt) a seven-foot-tall man came to live in the village.  When he died he was buried in this churchyard. Nobody can be sure it was Robin’s big friend, but my guiding sense of magical realism said it was.

Peaceful St. Michael and All Angels’ Church, where Little John is said to be buried.
Peaceful St. Michael and All Angels’ Church, where Little John is said to be buried.

Our final night on the Robin Hood trail was in the city of Nottingham.  We checked into the centrally located and refurbished St. James Hotel, just across the street from Nottingham Castle. The 1,000-year-old castle was closed for upgrading, so we went for dinner at the Hockley Arts Club, a local hipster hangout. After, we nipped over to Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, a pub that claims to have been around since 1189 and was a stop for crusaders before they traveled to the Holy Land.

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub, the perfect place to ponder a pilgrimage.
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub, the perfect place to ponder a pilgrimage.

Filled with nooks, crannies and rooms carved from rock, it was just the place to reflect on our own pilgrimage. I felt that Robin Hood and Little John had been real men, but what of the tales associated with them? Were they wildly embellished? Maybe, but I didn’t care. This was a journey of the imagination – one I’d never forget. The thrill of seeing my surname interlaced with such timeless heroes of the forest will stay with me forever.

WHERE TO STAY

  • The Sherwood Hideaway, Newark Upon Trent,
    Nottinghamshire: sherwoodhideaway.com
  • The St. James Hotel, Nottingham: stjames-hotel.com

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

  • Fox and Hounds, Nottinghamshire: foxblidworth.co.uk
  • Hockley Arts Club, Nottingham: thehockleyartsclub.com
  • Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham: greeneking-pubs.co.uk

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