Robin Hood’s an­cient wood

The Oldie - - TAKING A WALK - pa­trick barkham

Sher­wood For­est was al­ways one of those child­hood leg-stretches to al­le­vi­ate long car jour­neys north to the Lake District.

When I strolled into its shade more re­cently, I was trans­ported back in time by the homely old coun­try-park vis­i­tor cen­tre hid­den in the woods, with a cafe­te­ria serv­ing food that also re­called the 1970s.

All that’s been swept away this au­tumn with the open­ing of a swish vis­i­tor cen­tre built by a char­i­ta­ble con­sor­tium led by the RSPB. Say what you like about the RSPB, and plenty do, but it has mas­tered the art of the vis­i­tor cen­tre. There’s a swoosh­ing roof, plenty of wood, and bet­ter fa­cil­i­ties for the 350,000 an­nual vis­i­tors who pop into this na­tional na­ture re­serve to walk their dogs, ride bikes or breathe in trees.

Strolling into this well-peo­pled for­est is an act of com­mu­nal wor­ship, with wood­peck­ers’ drum­ming for hymns and leaf lit­ter for in­cense. It is also a walk with giants. Yarns about Robin Hood lure vis­i­tors, and most peo­ple pot­ter along the main track to ad­mire Sher­wood’s most charis­matic res­i­dent. Not Robin, but the Ma­jor Oak, a tree so large and ven­er­a­ble it was re­puted to have en­abled Robin to hide in its hol­low trunk.

Like any great celebrity, the Ma­jor Oak keeps its age to it­self but, even ac­cept­ing one cal­cu­la­tion that puts it at 1,146 years old, the Robin le­gend is non­sense be­cause the tree would not have been hol­low in the myth­i­cal out­law’s day. But there’s still a swirl of good sto­ries around the Ma­jor. One win­ter, while other trees were laden with snow, not a flake fell on its mighty limbs. In an­other snow­fall, an im­age of Friar Tuck ap­peared on its trunk. Some say the Ma­jor is not one tree but three, fused to­gether.

It was called the Queen’s Oak dur­ing Vic­to­ria’s reign but re­turned to be­ing called Ma­jor, not be­cause of its size (although its limbs spread out­wards for 92ft), but in hon­our of lo­cal his­to­rian Ma­jor Hay­man Rooke. An ear­lier name is the Cock­pen Tree: the oak may be wor­shipped to­day but, in the past, it was prag­mat­i­cally put to use, hold­ing birds be­fore a cock­fight.

Now we are penned out be­cause bar­ri­ers re­strain our de­sire to reach out and touch it. Hug­gers must wait for the an­nual acorn fes­ti­val to ca­ress its strong, cool bark. As I leaned on the bar­rier, I’m sure other vis­i­tors were also pon­der­ing the pace and brevity of our own lives and the im­por­tance of trea­sur­ing those things that will out­live us.

The Ma­jor Oak is in good hands to­day but we al­most killed it with kind­ness in the re­cent past. The tree has swal­lowed the metal chains that were de­signed to sup­port its branches in 1904. Later, the Ma­jor was filled with con­crete and its limbs were patched with lead and fi­bre­glass. We strug­gle to let it die – its great limbs are still sup­ported by a Zim­mer frame of old props – but the Ma­jor’s senes­cence is a long and im­por­tant part of its life.

Wan­der­ing far­ther along Sher­wood’s well-trod­den rides, I en­coun­tered oth­ers among 997 in­di­vid­ual oaks of 400 years or more, prob­a­bly the largest group of an­cient oaks in Europe.

These an­cients are low, dark and brood­ing among del­i­cate, sil­ver-trunked birches and ram­rod-backed stands of Napoleonic oaks. The old timers seem devil-may-care, smelling of fun­gus and taunt­ing grav­ity with their wild limbs like stag’s antlers. My favourite, a ‘phoenix’ oak called Me­dusa, was not much more than a rot­ten stump that had some­how pro­pelled new limbs into the sky. They waved like the arms of an oc­to­pus and, as I im­bibed this an­cient wood­land magic, I felt like wav­ing back.

* The Ma­jor Oak is a 15-minute walk from the vis­i­tor cen­tre (it’s even marked on the OS map) and there are plenty of tracks and cir­cu­lar trails to fol­low for a longer walk with the an­cients. Sher­wood For­est Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve, Ed­win­stowe, Nottinghamshire NG21 9HN. Map: Ord­nance Sur­vey Ex­plorer

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