Thursday, 19 June 2014
Great Trees of England: #3 Major Oak
Well, because it's a huge tourist attraction, one that draws visitors from all round the world to the centre of England. They overlook the decrepit, seventies visitors centre and head off into trees, imagining themselves back in Merrie England.
At the heart of what's left of Sherwood Forest is Major Oak, a geriatric old tree held up with scaffolding. You don't get many oak trees this large and this old still standing. Most fell over in the great storm of 1987 and, tragically, were subsequently chopped up and taken away. Tragic, because even a dead oak is still an amazing ecosystem. Major Oak, even if horizontal, would still be something amazing.
But surely even the most gullible tourist can't really believe that Robin Hood and Maid Marion really courted beneath its branches. This isn't a giant redwood, and even with the most optimistic dating the tree can't have been much more than an acorn when bad King John ruled the land.
Not that anyone really thought it did until relatively recently. It was originally 'The Major's oak', a reference to one Major Hayman Rooke, a Georgian antiquarian who went around cataloguing significant oak trees and drew a picture of it. Tourists soon followed and before long the tree had an important role in the story of England's most famous outlaw.
However as well as having the wrong tree, they may even have been in the wrong part of the country. The first version of the story (c1420) has him in Cumbria and the next two in Barnsdale, Yorkshire. Medieval England was peppered with Robins and Hoods and the most promising candidates come from York and Northamptonshire, not Nottinghamshire. So the odds against the chap in green being a Notts Forest supporter look rather slim.
However there is hope. A 15th century manuscript in Lincoln Cathedral Library that mentions "Robyn hod in scherewood stod, Hodud and hathud, hosut and schod. Ffour and thuynti arowus he bar in hi hondus". This is pretty cryptic but translates as "Robin Hood in Sherwood stood, Hooded and hatted, hosed and shod. Four and twenty arrows he bore In his hands", so here you have the man and his bow in the Sherwood Forest.
So there is a chance that the man himself was once here.
And even if he wasn't, other outlaws were. One Roger Godbeard, for example, had a price put on his head in 1270. It is not known if it was collected.
Sherwood Forest in those days was 95,000 acres and stretched from Nottingham to Worksop.
There is less of it now, but is still magical. The paths keep the visitors from trampling the undergrowth and so if you slip over the fence in the early morning or evening twilight you are in an unmistakably ancient forest.
And Major Oak itself is a majestic tree. Up close it turns out to be hollow and apparently made of plastic, a result of conservation measures. Someone skinny could even slip inside.
I don't try, lest I damage the most famous tree in England. Or rather trees for either by Nature, or the hand of Man, it is believed to be at least two trees welded together so thoroughly that you can't see the join. Similarly whether or not England's most famous outlaw really did walk these woods, and pass it by when it was a sapling, his legend has so completely fused with this place, and this tree, that they will forever be joined.