Robin Hood -- A Personal Journey

My Further Adventures in
Robin Hood Country

Like my last trip to Britain, this return vacation was based around a Robin Hood conference. It was held in York from July 7 - 10, 2003.  Before the conference, I made a brief stop at Huddersfield to crash at a colleague's house as I put the finishing touches on my conference paper. Huddersfield is very close to Kirklees and Robin Hood's grave, which I visited on my previous trip, but this time I didn't get to that Robin Hood site.  However, there were many other Robin Hood sites I did get to visit both during and after the conference.

The conference accommodations were at York St. John College, just across from Robin Hood's Tower on along one of the city's medieval walls.  The lectures were delivered a short walk away at King's Manor. King's Manor was once the private lodgings of the abbot who was Robin's legendary archenemy. (After the dissolution of the monasteries, King's Manor housed the Council of the North, governed by Sir Henry Hastings, Third Earl of Huntingdon. Some believe the Elizabethan Hastings was the inspiration for Robin's legendary earldom.)  King's Manor is next door to the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey, York. I first visited St. Mary's Abbey in 1993, and I was able to squeeze in a brief walk around the abbey grounds into the busy conference schedule.  Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to sample the many sights of York. I arrived later on Sunday, July 6, than I had originally intended. I did go shopping with some friends along the pedestrian shopping street of Stonegate and wandered down the old-fashioned Shambles after store hours.  And I did an early morning stroll along the medieval wall.  But then, this trip had many, many more pleasures than the tourist attractions.

As always, the conference was a celebration of all things Robin Hood. Topics ranged from genuine medieval outlaws of Barnsdale to the early ballads and plays to the later legend.  As usual, my paper was mostly based in the modern era. I examined the role of religion in the modern Robin Hood legend, although I cast a look back at the early ballads too. David Hepworth and I also chaired a small, informal session about Robin Hood and the Internet. Naturally, this site was a major topic of discussion.  I wrote a Spotlight giving a more detailed account of the conference. Photos of the Robin Hood sites on this trip can be found at my Picture Gallery.

Stephen Knight as Maudlin and Sayre Greenfield as Robin Hood in The Sad Shepherd This time, I took on a new role at the conference -- actor. Well, loosely speaking.  Tuesday evening, July 8, Linda Troost directed us in a communal reading of Ben Jonson's The Sad Shepherd. I had the dual role of Friar Tuck and Puck-Hairy. My performance was, regrettably, more worthy of Robin Starveling than the Robin Goodfellow I was attempting to portray. Luckily, there were several superb performances. Linda and Sayre Greenfield brought Marian and Robin to life. Scriptwriter Michael Eaton played a wonderfully weepy sad shepherd that was still infused with his natural jovial charm. But the stand-out performance was by Stephen Knight. Stephen's often called the top Robin Hood scholar, but it's clear he'd be equally adept in panto. Donning a fake nose, he played Maudlin, the witch of Papplewick. When Maudlin assumed Marian's form, he donned a bad blonde wig.

If that sounds a little bizarre, crazy and possibly fun -- then you've grasped the charm of these conferences. That's not to take away from the scholarship. New insights into the legend come up at the conferences -- Tom Ohlgren seems to have made a habit of it. But well ... it wouldn't be in keeping with the legend if there wasn't some fun -- including Paul Bracken's rendition of the ballads.

It was especially nice to be with such friends in so many locations associated with the Robin Hood legend.  On the last day of the conference, July 10, we toured various Robin Hood sites.

First up, our coach stopped at a place I've longed to visit -- Barnsdale. The Barnsdale region of Yorkshire was the setting for many of the medieval ballads and the name still occurs in later versions of the legend. It was never a royal forest like Sherwood, nor even heavily wooded. However, there are medieval records of robberies occuring in this area. The coach pulled in at Wentbridge at the northern edge of what was once Barnsdale.  In an early Robin Hood ballad, a potter that Robin fights is said to be from Wentbridge. On the bridge over the river Went, a blue plaque commemorates the area's Robin Hood connection. Even though quite a few Yorkshire sites are still mentioned in the modern Robin Hood tales, this plaque is the only one to acknowledge the outlaw's Yorkshire heritage.

A view of "the Sayles" in what was once Barnsdale Walking a bit southeast of Wentbridge, we looked over the plantation once known as the Sayles. In the early ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin tells Little John to walk up to the "Saylis" and see if there's a guest they can invite for dinner.  I nearly twisted my ankle on the path to the Sayles, but I guess the ballad "Robin Hood's Broken Ankle" was lost to history.  Or just perhaps Robin's more fit than I am.

Barnsdale isn't the first time I've stood somewhere associated with the legend. But it's still weird to picture the outlaw heroes once standing where I am. Unfortunately, there isn't a great deal to look at in Barnsdale.

After walking back to Wentbridge and having some tea, we visited another Barnsdale site -- Robin Hood's Well. It's one of many wells that bears Robin Hood's name, although this one has a long pedigree. The well-house was designed in the 18th century and in the 20th century, it was moved to accommodate a highway. But references to this well go back to the 17th century when it was a famous stopover. The well was near the now lost "Robin Hood's stone", the first recorded Robin Hood place name from 1422 (or 1322, depending on who you ask). 

Then as the coach zoomed through Yorkshire, other locations were pointed out to us. "Just behind those trees is Little John's Well." We drove near another Robin Hood's Well. When we drove through Wakefield, David Hepworth pointed out where a Robert and Matilda Hood of the 14th century once lived. We drove by the Pinderfields, where part-time Merry Man George a Greene aka the Pinder of Wakefield would have worked. Then, we disembarked at Ripon to spend a few minutes in the city's medieval cathedral.

Our last stop of the day was easily the best -- Fountains Abbey.  These enormous abbey ruins made St. Mary's, York look like a tabletop model set.  Actually, it was some Benedictine monks from St. Mary's who founded this abbey in 1132. Shortly after its founding though, it became a part of the Cistercian order. These monks, known has "white monks" for their undyed robes, were an order who wanted to get back to the early monastic tradition with stricter rules on poverty and dieting. That's ironic, considering the abbey's most famous resident was not known for his restraint. You've heard of him -- a friar by the name of Tuck.

You might wonder how an overweight, brown-clad friar could be associated with a Cistercian abbey.  Well, the abbey is mentioned as the friar's home in the 17th century ballad Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar. The friar isn't named in the ballad version, but the action is similar to a 1560 play with Friar Tuck. If you've seen the Errol Flynn movie or read many of the Robin Hood children's books, you would be familiar with the basic story. Robin jumps on the friar's back and forces him to cross the river. After a few reversals, Tuck dumps Robin into the water. And then they fight. In the ballad version, Tuck summons 50 arrow-catching dogs to battle the Merry Men.
The River Skell flowing towards Fountains Abbey. This story was well-known to the residents of nearby Ripon. At the conference, John Marshall delivered a hilarious paper about a Ripon festival in 1886 which recreated the ballad action on "the traditional spot" just behind the abbey. Unfortunately, by the time I wanted to take a picture, I had wandered away from John. The picture on the left is a little farther down the River Skell than the "traditional spot" which was closer to the abbey ruins. (On the other bank of the Skell is yet another "Robin Hood's Well".) Fortunately, I had misplaced the people who wanted me to ferry them across the water on my back.

But it's not just ballads that tie Fountains Abbey with outlaws. On the coach ride to the abbey, John pointed out that an area near the abbey was called Thieves' Wood and was the site of many medieval highway robberies.

In the abbey gift shop, I mentioned the Friar Tuck connections of the abbey. The girl behind the counter hadn't heard about that. It reminded me of my first visit to St. Mary's Abbey ten years ago, when the official tour guide didn't know about that abbey's frequent appearance in the Robin Hood legend.  Certainly, for the general public, the legend's Nottinghamshire locations are better known. And after we returned to York, I said goodbye to my friends and colleagues and boarded a train to travel back to Nottingham.

Fortunately, I didn't have to say goodbye to everyone quite yet. I shared the train ride with Nottingham resident Paul Bracken. Upon our arrival, we stopped of at the Olde Trip to Jerusalem for a farewell drink. This pub claims to have been founded in 1189 and is partially carved into the sandstone rock which "Nottingham Castle" sits on. I can personally recommend having a glass of Old Trip. I'm not a fan of beer, but I found this house brew very drinkable.

The Dolphin Morris Men at the Olde Trip to Jerusalem. That night, the Nottingham-based Dolphin Morrismen were performing at the Trip. Morris dances played a part at some of the old Robin Hood festivals. I had a chance to chat with some of the morris dancers, and also one of member of the rival Foresters. These talks and the dancing were a pleasant surprise and welcome to Nottingham.

Early Friday, July 11, I walked through the old Lace Market section of town. I paid a return visit to St. Mary's Church,  where Robin Hood prayed and then killed 12 men in the ballad Robin Hood and the Monk. The current church only dates from the mid-1400s (around the time of the ballad manuscript), but there was an earlier one on this site.  In 2002, archaeologists discovered a tunnel between the church and the "Galleries of Justice" across the street. The press at the time declared this was proof of the "real Robin Hood". (Actually, the ballad's action doesn't quite happen as the press claimed.) I met two people working in the church and mentioned this discovery. They both thought the press was full of nonsense -- an opinion that matched my own.

Still, a tunnel isn't too unusual for Nottingham. Built on sandstone, there are hundreds of man-made caves underneath the city. And my next stop was the City of Caves attraction at the Broadmarsh shopping centre. While there were a couple of tacky new age elements, it was mostly a good exhibit with people in period costume describing how the caves were once used for tanning leather and in World War II, they were used as an air-raid shelter. Also, the caves once provided refuge for the homeless of England.

A floral Robin Hood on the grounds of Nottingham Castle After the caves, I revisited classic Nottingham sites. I hung out by the metal Robin Hood statue outside the castle walls. I wandered into the castle grounds and discovered they had made a new Robin Hood figure from flowers. And of course, I bordered the personal carriage and was led through the Tales of Robin Hood attraction again. I've described these places on my previous holidays to Robin Hood Country.

Then, at 3pm, I had tea with the Sheriff of Nottingham. No, really. John Hartshorne was the latest person to hold the office associated with Robin's most famous enemy. It's largely ceremonial these days, mainly a cultural ambassador to drum up business and tourism for the city. But he's also a city councillor, and while serving as sheriff was also the Lord Deputy Mayor and picked to be the Lord Mayor of Nottingham in 2004. I interviewed Councillor Hartshorne. He was very gracious, shared his love of Nottingham history and gave me a paperweight.

On Saturday, July 12, I returned to Sherwood Forest, Robin's other legendary home. I interviewed Park Manager Izi Barton. Then, I once again walked to see the Major Oak. Since my last visit, the trees wooden supports had been replaced by metal ones. It might be a bit young to have been Robin's headquarters, but this tree (which some say was originally three trees that tangled together) is still impressive. And it rightly deserves its status as one of 50 Great Trees of Britain.

A tree in Sherwood Forest On my previous trips to Sherwood, I've always felt a bit rushed. This time, I was able to take a very long walk through the forest -- with only the vaguest sense of direction. I took a full roll of pictures -- just of trees. Mostly it was photo-reference for any Robin Hood stories I might write. But also it was an attempt to capture some of the forest's magic. When I showed the pictures to my mom, she said they reminded her a lot of the Ents from Lord of the Rings. That's not far off. The park manager told me how they had nicknames for various trees and how they seemed to have personalities. It didn't take much imagination to picture faces in some trees. Also on my trip, I heard some rustling among the bracken. I hoped to see a deer pop out and cross my path. But no such luck.

I returned to Nottingham, and concluded the day with a Ghost Walk which began at the other centuries-old pub, the Salutation Inn. It concluded in the pub's cave that I mentioned in my other writings on my travels.

Early Sunday, July 13, I took the train to London. Then, I took the tube to Heathrow and flew back to Toronto. So, have I seen everything in Robin Hood Country? No. There's still a lot I'd like to see. And the folks I've met in both Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire have made me feel very welcome. In the cliched words of a movie cyborg (who paraphrased Douglas MacArthur), I'll be back.

Next time, I returned it was on someone else's dime - or 10p - as I travelled once again to Robin Hood sites in 2006 as part of a TV documentary. You can read about that holiday on the next page.


Click here to see Robin Hood Locations on Google Maps. I designed this map to showcase some of the sites discussed on this page, as well as others related to the legend. The map is interactive and allows you to zoom in, switch to satellite or Google Earth views. And if you drag the orange figure to the map, you can navigate at street level via Google's 360-degree photos. Many sites are visible from the road.


View Robin Hood Locations in a larger map

Next: Once More In Robin Hood Country (2006)

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Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2013.

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