Robin Hood’s ancient wood
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