Robin Hood’s secret was stealth – the ability to materialise from the trees, trouser the loot and melt away with only a swirl of leaves. How ironic then that the approach to Sherwood Forest today screams his legacy with all the subtlety of neon. Aah yes, that’ll be the Hungry Friar public house on the left, the Maid by Marion burger van in the layby, and the Green Man garden centre. Sadly I don’t think the nearby town of Edwinstowe is yet ready for the Men in Tights alternative hosiery emporium.
So, as we pulled in to the altogether wholesome surroundings of Sherwood Pines Forest Park, I was dwelling on the cultural connections we make with woodland dwellers, from Robin and Marion, to Tarzan and Jane to that Ewok and his mates on Endor. It’s almost as if we have some hidden genetic memory. Darwin was on to something you know, and doubters need no further proof than our modern urge to Go Ape.
My 10-year-old son Edward was in tow. Partly for the perspective from a younger generation but also, I thought, a middle aged man needed an excuse to climb trees, and playing with your offspring seemed a good ‘un. But as we joined the rest of the group wriggling into our safety harnesses, I saw all ages and abilities. Aside from being aged at least 10 and 1.4m (4ft 6in), there really is no limit.
All sessions begin with 15 minutes on the basics of how the course works and how not to fall off. Our instructor, Dawn Sansom, showed how the harness comes complete with three attachments hanging off 60cm (2ft) of tough lanyard. Two of these end in a karabiner and the third in a clip with wheels. The principle is simple – unless you’re standing on the ground, one, two or all three of these is attached to a safety line. It’s what they call the cow’s tail system. Dawn took time to be sure we had all understood, but then you’re on your own, trusted to look after your own safety. Go Ape think leaving you this element of responsibility increases your involvement and fun, and I think they’re right.
We’re off up the first ladder and across the first high wire, with the rolling block on a line above our heads and we’re shimmying along a cable with our feet. Some planks of wood strung between trunks with yawning gaps follow; between them is a queasy void to the forest floor, like aerial stepping stones. Then it’s back to earth on a short zip wire. From then on the courses get higher and harder and the descents longer and faster. The challenges are graded like ski runs: green, blue, red and black. They are all totally safe because you’re always clipped on, but some feel scarier and require more effort.
The design means that all the stages are open to all ages. Edward went in front so I could check he was safe, but our size gap meant we discovered different difficulties. Some he found tricky that I found easy and vice versa. It all added to the fun.
The loudest screams came from the Tarzan swing. Standing on a narrow platform you clip the hanging wire to your middle and step off. It’s a cross between a bungee swing and a zip wire which hurtles you into a cargo net, and having bounced off that a few times you end up stuck to it like a fly caught in a web. It’s unhinged, unpredictable, undignified and totally addictive.
The toughest challenges are the routes where you have only pendulous footholds: rope loops or logs hanging from above that feel most untrustworthy and result in the splits. The lack of reliable support from below leaves your arms to take the strain and don’t you know it. Since the evolutionary descent from the trees our upper limbs have weakened, especially those who normally just move a mouse and find lifting a large latte a bit strenuous. You may sense a mental proximity to your primate cousins, but physically you’ll feel the distance.
If you do feel like a break there are refreshments on site and at the base of every course there is a display board with information on forest ecology or the importance of research into the canopy habitat. This isn’t just green wash. The founder of Go Ape is passionate about forest preservation and research, believing broadening access to the trees is the best way to increase public support for them. And more woods are being colonised by us primates every year. There are now 28 Go Ape venues. Most are allied to the Forestry Commission but increasingly they’re getting enquiries from private land owners and country houses. By adding a Go Ape course, a half-day venue can become a whole day trip and offer a tempting incentive to reluctant children. Also, with around 15 new jobs per site and around 35,000 visitors, it’s a sizeable boost to the rural economy. The idea came from France, where they have approaching 500 similar attractions.
Once selected, the individual trunks are protected from the cables by what they call sacrificial battens – strips of wood that spread the load and can be replaced as the trunk expands with growth.
Rested and refuelled we were up again. The highlight of this course was a very lengthy zip wire. It’s long enough to think: “I appear to be flying through the forest. That’s a first,” before skidding to earth on a wood chip landing strip. The next one had zips between trees. These were slower but I always seemed to spin round, thereby meeting the trunk with my spine. Ouch. Thankfully, padding softened the blow.
Fun for all
As dusk fell, manager Jamie Marshall told me a little more about the range of clientele. It ranges from family groups and big kids’ parties to work bonding sessions. They have had a double amputee, a blind lady and have just broken their age record, as 90-year-old Janet Ellen enjoyed swinging from the trees in Hampshire. Go Ape are even planning a wheelchair ramp to open access further.
Sometimes people freeze on the higher, apparently more perilous sections and have to be talked through it, but it’s often these same people who end up having the best fun. To me this points up Go Ape’s great strength but also a weakness. If you suffer from mild vertigo, lead a sedentary life or haven’t done something childish for the last 50 years then you’ll have a fun, edgy and thrilling time. But if you take part in a few other outdoor sports and indulge your inner child all too often then you’ll still have fun, just not a total blast.
On the final zip wire, the work party ahead of us found their own way to ramp up the risk. Each employee had to slide through a stinging blizzard as their colleagues pelted them with pine cone confetti. Now that’s bonding.