The heaths and glades of Sherwood Forest are the remnants of a significantly larger royal hunting forest that stood 1,000 years ago. Here, that mercurial cove Robin Hood led the Sherriff of Nottingham a merry dance, poaching deer and becoming a folk hero for the oppressed ever since.
Whether he ever existed in the deepest greenwood is a matter of conjecture; the rebel in Lincoln green is an intangible, fanciful link to the England of yore. Sherwood Forest’s majestic Major Oak, on the other hand, is very much the real thing.
This is the tree where, according to folklore, Robin plotted, feasted and hid. It’s over 900 years old and remains one of England’s biggest oaks, but the Major’s seen better days. Its immense hollow trunk throws out vast boughs to all points of the compass, but requires a girdle of poles and stays to support the leafy limbs that would otherwise fracture and fail. The famous tree, nowadays fenced-off for conservation’s sake, is easily reached on accessible paths from the new RSPB Visitor Centre (and café) at Edwinstowe.
Old men of the forest
Appreciate the mighty Major, then head into the surrounding landscape where one of Europe’s greatest concentrations of ancient and veteran trees slumbers. Follow waymarked trails west into the nearby Birklands plantation to discover what happened to the Major’s siblings, and will eventually become of the old chap himself.
The woodland of dells and thickets is dotted with over 1,000 skeletal oaks in various stages of decline. It’s a magical, living fairy tale; Tolkien’s ents emerging from a mythical forest where pale, wizened forms loom wraith-like from the shadows. Some cling to life, sprouting sparse leaves on stubby, finger-like branches, with wispy, failing crowns reflecting their centuries of life; others stand bare, sun-bleached and contorted, shattered shades of ancient glory.
Horns and antlers
It’s an oddly moving experience, wandering past these survivors of medieval England and pondering their longevity. It’s a daydream enhanced by magnificent longhorn cattle that graze the glades, an evocation of the wood-pasture that Robin and his merry men would recognise. Conversely, the outlaws’ legendary hunting prowess means few deer now roam Sherwood.
Red deer just may be encountered in heathy Budby South Forest, immediately north of Birklands. Autumn is the best time to visit as this marks the rut, when roaring stags lay claim to territory and hinds. The heath, a glorious autumnal haze of heather, is a fine inclusion on a gentle five-mile circular walk from Edwinstowe.