Visiting Lincoln a few weeks ago, it was impossible to miss the Cathedral that dominates the city’s skyline. By any standard it’s a massively impressive building, but even so I was surprised to learn that in the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries it was the tallest manmade structure in the world (around 160m), having claimed the title previously held by the Great Pyramid of Giza!
A brief history of Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral was originally commissioned by William the Conqueror, who was anxious to stamp his mark on the territory he had captured from the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Work began in 1071 and after just 20 years the Cathedral was consecrated, but a couple of decades later it was ravaged by fire. More shockingly, in 1184 the building was partially destroyed by an earthquake.
Earthquakes are very rare in England, and when they do happen damage is usually minimal. Not so in Lincoln in 1184, when the unprecedented event caused massive damage to a building that was not even 100 years old. Paradoxically, however, the earthquake was the making of Lincoln Cathedral.
Undaunted by the scale of the challenge facing him, the incumbent bishop – Hugh – oversaw the building of a magnificent new Gothic-style cathedral. Although it included some surviving sections of the original building, it was altogether much larger and grander than its predecessor, and incorporated state-of-the-art architectural features such as flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches. Thanks to the earthquake and Bishop Hugh’s response to it, today’s Lincoln Cathedral is reckoned to be one of England’s finest Gothic cathedrals.
The Cathedral became the world’s tallest building in the early 14th century, when a wooden spire was added to the stone central tower originally commissioned by Bishop Hugh. The record held until 1549, when a hurricane – almost as rare in the UK as earthquakes! – caused the spire to collapse.
Had the spire survived, Lincoln Cathedral would have remained the world’s tallest building until the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889. The full-height tower and spire must have been a remarkable sight in medieval Lincoln, an otherwise unremarkable English provincial city.
The legend of the Lincoln Imp
Even without its record-breaking central spire, Lincoln Cathedral remains a magnificently imposing structure, a monumental masterpiece. And yet perhaps its most famous feature is – relatively speaking – tiny. The Lincoln Imp is a grotesque, a small carving situated at the top of a soaring stone pillar supporting two arches. Just 12 inches (30cm) in height, it would be easy to overlook if you didn’t know it was there.
Legend has it that one day Satan was feeling particularly mischievous, and decided some devilment was in order. To do his work he sent some badly behaved young imps out into the English East Midlands. One made its way to the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield where it made a mess of the local church spire (I wrote about the twisted spire of St Mary and All Saints Church in Chesterfield here), while two others were despatched to cause mayhem at Lincoln Cathedral.
The naughty imps lived up to the Devil’s expectations. They forced their way into the Cathedral and started to cause havoc by smashing windows, breaking furniture, dancing on the altar, throwing rocks and tripping up a priest.
An angel intervened and told the imps to behave themselves. But the imps were having a good time and decided the angel could safely be ignored. Wrong! The angel promptly turned one of the little devils into the stone image that visitors to the Cathedral still seek out today, thereby reminding all who see it that good will ultimately triumph over evil. The second imp did a swift risk assessment, didn’t like the answer it gave him, and made a run for it.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its rebellious nature, the imp has become the unofficial emblem of the city of Lincoln. Locals have taken it to their hearts, nicknaming the city’s professional soccer team The Imps. Some pubs and bars in and around the city are named in honour of the imp, while the Cathedral shop sells various items, from fridge magnets and greetings cards to socks and earrings, all depicting the Devil’s tiny sidekick.
The legend of the Lincoln imp is just a piece of harmless fun. But its impact should not be underestimated, as it encourages people who might otherwise have little interest in architecture to explore the city’s magnificent Cathedral. Lincoln Cathedral may no longer be the world’s tallest building, but it is still an awe-inspiring structure that’s well worth a visit.
Andy Warhol is said to have observed that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. By extension it might be argued that everywhere will be famous too, that each and every place under the sun will become well-known for something, albeit in most cases something rather insignificant. Chesterfield, for example, is famous for the crooked spire that graces its medieval church, but for little else.
Chesterfield, for the uninitiated, is a town in the north of my home county of Derbyshire. Home to around 100,000 people, for the most part it’s a pleasant though unremarkable place. The coal industry that once dominated the landscape and economy of this part of Derbyshire is all gone now, and today Chesterfield’s role is primarily as a service centre for the surrounding area.
Bizarrely, just as I was about to start writing this post, a news report popped up in my inbox declaring that, according to a recent survey, Chesterfield is the happiest place to live in the whole of the English East Midlands. Really? I worked there for a couple of years in the late 1980s and don’t recall it being unusually joyful. But maybe the outbreak of local happiness coincided with my departure? Sounds plausible!
Reading the newspaper report more closely, I see that even some of the local residents query the accuracy of this accolade. Objectively, I suspect most unbiased observers would regard Chesterfield as memorably unmemorable, were it not for the iconic architectural imperfection otherwise known as the parish church of St Mary and All Saints.
Completed around the year 1360, St Mary’s and All Saints is Derbyshire’s largest church. It’s famed for its unusual crooked spire, which leans 9 feet 5 inches (nearly 3 metres) from true. To be clear, this is not an eccentrically flamboyant design statement…the spire is meant to point straight up, like every other church spire in the known universe.
So what went wrong? The traditional explanation is that it was built with green, unseasoned timbers, which warped over time. But that can’t be it. Builders in the Middle Ages were accustomed to using used green timber, and would have made allowances to cope with it.
A more convincing explanation is that the spire’s 32 tonnes of lead tiles were simply too heavy. According to this theory the sheer weight of the tiles, combined with the failure to use cross-bracing, caused the spire to twist and lean alarmingly.
The omission of cross-bracing has been blamed on the Black Death, a plague that swept through the country between 1348 and 1350. If the experienced craftsmen working on the new Chesterfield church were killed by the disease, the spire may have been finished by unskilled builders to whom the concept of cross-bracing was totally unknown.
Accurate though this explanation may be, it’s disappointingly boring. Unsurprisingly, local folklore offers some more entertaining possibilities. One of these tells that the Devil was resting on the spire, where he was able to keep his balance only by wrapping his tail around it. However the smell of holy incense from inside the church offended him so much that he sneezed violently, jerking his tail in the process and causing the spire to twist.
A second explanation also blames the Devil. Old Nick was resting up on the church spire, his tail tightly wrapped around it while planning mischief and mayhem. In fear for the souls of his fellow townsfolk, one brave man rushed to the church, determined to warn everyone by ringing the church bells. The din was cacophonous. Taken totally by surprise, a shocked Devil lost his balance and toppled from the spire, twisting it as he plunged to the ground.
A third local legend once again points the finger of suspicion at the Devil According to this story, Satan was resting on the spire, tail wrapped round it in the now familiar manner. Looking below, he noticed a wedding about to take place in the church. On closer inspection he realised that the bride was a virgin, an occurrence so surprising in Chesterfield that he fainted from shock. As the unconscious Devil hurtled towards the ground his tail, still wrapped around the spire, twisted it into its current shape.
The fourth theory lets the Devil off the hook, and instead puts the blame squarely on the healthy sexual appetite of Chesterfield residents. According to this version, a virgin got married in St Mary’s, and the church itself was so surprised that its spire turned around to get a better look at such a rare specimen. The legend continues that if another virgin ever marries in the church, the spire will return to its original form again. Don’t hold your breath, folks!
Further explanations for the origin of Chesterfield’s crooked spire are available if you care to look, most of them involving the Devil or unexpected virgins. A definitive, agreed version, doesn’t seem likely to emerge any time soon. However, one thing is beyond dispute: the locals have taken this quirky architectural blunder to their hearts.
For example the local professional soccer team, Chesterfield Town FC, are known to fans as the Spireites, while over the years various local businesses have referred to the crooked spire in their branding and promotions. And who can blame them? Chesterfield’s crooked spire is a spectacular sight, and ensures that an otherwise rather unexceptional town enjoys its 15 minutes of fame. Andy Warhol would be impressed.
Popular culture tells us that horseshoes bring good luck. If this is so, then Rutland should be the luckiest county in all of England. A tradition dating back hundreds of years requires nobles visiting Oakham, Rutland’s biggest town, to present the local Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe. All horseshoes thus gifted to the Lord are displayed on the wall of his Great Hall at Oakham castle. As we discovered when we visited Oakham earlier this year, the horseshoe collection numbers over 200 and continues to grow.
But in a cruel twist of fate, Rutland’s horseshoes may not be lucky after all. Traditionally, British people believe that horseshoes can only be lucky if they are hung with the closed cup at the bottom, and the two open ends pointing skyward. But in Rutland they do it the other way round. Are these people crazy, or have they got a point? Read on, and I’ll tell you more.
Why are horseshoes considered lucky?
To begin, however, let’s explore why horseshoes are considered to be lucky. In times past the blacksmith was regarded as something of a benevolent magician. Here was a man who could, with only fire and brute strength to assist him, conjure from useless rock a valuable metal with a thousand useful applications. If blacksmiths were magicians, then iron and the wares they fashioned from it, such as horseshoes, must be imbued with good fortune too.
Added to this was the fact that horseshoes were traditionally secured with seven nails. Within our culture seven is regarded as the luckiest number, and this – combined with the good fortune attached to blacksmith magicians – confirmed the association between horseshoes and good luck.
There’s also a religious dimension, dating from the 10th century. Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Dunstan worked as a blacksmith. One day the Devil appeared before him and asked the future Archbishop to shoe his horse. Although recognising his visitor, blacksmith Dunstan said nothing, while secretly hatching a cunning plan.
Instead of fixing the shoe to the horse’s hoof he nailed it to the Devil’s own foot. The Devil howled with pain and rage. He probably swore a bit too, and demanded to be released. However Dunstan stood firm, and only agreed to remove the shoe after receiving Satan’s solemn promise that he would never enter a dwelling with a horseshoe nailed to the door. And so, according to the story, horseshoes are so imbued with good fortune they can even keep the Devil at bay.
The traditional British way of hanging horseshoes, with the cup nearest the floor, is said to ensure that the good luck will be safely stored there, and will not spill out to be wasted. Rutland folk, however, believe that nailing a horseshoe to the wall with the open end at the bottom will ensure that good luck falls onto those passing beneath it. This way of hanging it is also said to prevent the Devil hiding in the cup of the horseshoe, from where he might otherwise orchestrate mischief and mayhem.
So which way of hanging up a horseshoe is correct? Who knows?…I certainly don’t, but anyone of a superstitious disposition may be wise to have two horseshoes, one hanging with the cup at the bottom and the other with it at the top. It’s called risk management, guys!
Rutland’s historic obsession with horseshoes
Anyway, moving swiftly on to Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes, which dates back many hundreds of years. At the time of the Norman Conquest, one Henry de Ferrers was Master of Horse to the man who became known to history as William the Conqueror. Henry’s coat of arms featured six black horseshoes (with the closed, or cup, end at the top!) on a silver background. Later, as a token of his gratitude, William rewarded Henry with many grants of land, including the manor of Oakham, where the de Ferrers family later built a castle with a Great Hall.
The de Ferrers family name is a corruption of the word French word ferrier (farrier – a person who shoes horses – in English), and therefore hints at the family’s long association with the iron industry. So at some time in past, probably after too much ale had been consumed, some bright spark in the family came up with the crazy notion of demanding that all noble visitors be required, on their first trip to Oakham, to acknowledge their host’s heritage by presenting the Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe.
It tells us something about the power of the de Ferrers family that visitors went along with this daft demand. But typical of the aristocracy, before long they’d turned it into a contest, visitors trying to outdo one another with the size and extravagance of the horseshoes they presented.
The oldest horseshoe remaining in the castle collection was given by King Edward IV in the late 15th century, and is decorated with the royal coat of arms. From the late 18th century onwards the practice emerged of donors decorating their horseshoes with coronets to signify their rank within the British peerage system. In a stroke, therefore, the horseshoes were turned into status symbols, showing off how wealthy and “well-bred” the donors were.
Although there are approaching 250 horseshoes on display in Oakham castle’s Great Hall, this is only a fraction of the number that have been presented over the centuries. In the early days of the tradition, horseshoes were displayed on the castle gates rather than the inside wall of the Great Hall, making them vulnerable to theft. Also, over the years, some of the less impressive donations have been quietly “mislaid” and forgotten. And in the early 20th century great numbers of horseshoes were melted down as scrap metal to help the war effort during the First World War.
Despite all of the losses, the collection remains mightily impressive. The internal walls of the Great Hall are festooned with the good, the bad and the ugly of the horseshoe world. And yet it’s still possible to find room for a new one when a member of the Royal Family comes calling: in 2003 Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, presented a horseshoe. Eleven years later his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, followed suit.
Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes is quintessential British quirkiness. You couldn’t make it up. But it’s also strangely endearing, a bit of harmless fun. I just wish they’d hang their horseshoes the correct way up. In these troubled days of pandemics and wars, climate crises and mass extinctions, mankind needs all the good luck it can muster. Carelessly allowing good fortune to leak out and blow away by hanging your horseshoes upside down just isn’t good enough, Rutland!
Although famed in the 19th and 20th centuries for its coal industry, Derbyshire’s association with mining goes back much further. Lead has been mined in areas of the county since at least Roman times, and extraction continued until the 1950s. Last to close – in 1954 – was Magpie Mine, located on the edge of the lead-bearing limestone plateau near the Peak District village of Sheldon. Maybe it would still be producing lead today, were it not for the notorious Widows’ Curse!
These days it can be difficult to appreciate the importance of lead to our ancestors. By the 17th century it was widely used on the roofs of churches, other public buildings and the grand mansions of the wealthy, to help make them watertight. It was also commonly used for the manufacture of window frames and glazing bars. And, in the days before the risks of lead poisoning had been recognised, this metal was the preferred solution for water storage and piping. Lead mining was therefore big business, and it’s reckoned that between 1750 and 1850 the UK brought more lead ore to the surface than any other nation.
Magpie Mine started up around 1740. Several other lead mines were also working in the same area, and bitter disputes erupted between them over the right to mine particular veins of ore. Shafts belonging to Magpie Mine and the nearby Maypitt Mine intersected in places, tempting miners to light underground fires in order to smoke out their opponents and claim sole ownership of the vein they were working.
Tragedy struck in 1833, when three Maypitt miners were suffocated by fumes from fires lit by workers from Magpie Mine. No fewer than 24 Magpie miners were put on trial for murder, and could have been hanged if found guilty. However, conflicting evidence, inability to prove fore-knowledge or intent amongst those who lit the fire, and a failure to prove who actually started it, meant that all were ultimately acquitted.
The widows of the Maypitt Three were, inevitably, distraught at the verdict. Their response was to place a curse on Magpie Mine and all who worked there. Magpie Mine closed just two years later, and I guess the widows congratulated themselves on a job well done.
However, the opportunity to make a profit proved too tempting for Magpie Mine’s owners to resist. So, in 1839, they brought in famous Cornish mining engineer John Taylor to re-open it. Within months Magpie Mine was back in business.
However, despite Taylor’s undoubted expertise, the mine closed again in 1846. From that time onwards production of lead at the site was sporadic, spells of mining activity being interspersed with periods of closure. It never managed to make a sustained profit again, and locals muttered darkly about the Widows’ Curse when confronted with Magpie Mine’s chequered performance and the series of fatal accidents that befell the unfortunate miners.
Dwindling reserves of ore, combined with the challenges of keeping a shaft over 680 feet (208 metres) deep free from floodwater, ultimately proved to be Magpie Mine’s undoing. When it closed for the last time in 1954 the Maypitt Three could finally rest in peace, but according to legend the Widows’ Curse remains in place to this day.
Today the site is an atmospheric but confusing and incoherent jumble of 19th century stone buildings in various states of disrepair. Magpie Mine is now a peaceful spot, disturbed only by the song of skylarks and an occasional click of a camera shutter. It’s difficult to picture this place as a hive of industrial activity, or to imagine the hardships and suffering of those who once toiled – and died – here. Seemingly still more improbable is the notion that aggrieved widows would have felt driven to place a curse on what is now such a tranquil, isolated and inoffensive corner of my home county.
Although its industrial archaeology and associated human history is fascinating, today Magpie Mine site is also a notable natural habitat. The landscape is managed to prevent it returning to scrubland. Cattle are used to keep invasive species at bay, allowing a rich variety of wildflowers to flourish on the unimproved grassland. Some of the species (including Spring Sandwort, also known as leadwort) found here are particularly well adapted to the local conditions, being able to tolerate high quantities of lead in the soil.
If truth be told I’d rather remember our visit to Magpie Mine for the glory of its wildflower meadow and the song of the skylark, both so rare in today’s intensively farmed countryside, than for the dubious legend of the Widows’ Curse!
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If the storyof the Widows’ Curse has caught your imagination you might want to take a look at this video on YouTube, which I came across during research for this post. In a mixture of commentary and verse local poet Simon Unwin tells more about the history and traditions of lead mining in Derbyshire, before launching into the story of the Widows’ Curse. It runs for nearly 40 minutes and so requires some investment in time to see it through to the end. But I enjoyed listening to it, and you might too. So why not give it a try?
Derby is obsessed with rams. The city centre boasts at least three statues featuring rams. The local professional soccer team (Derby County) are nicknamed “The Rams” and have a mascot called Rammie. Derby’s annual half-marathon event was for many years known as the Ramathon. Even the city’s library service, when first introducing public internet computers in the late 1990s, called its new service Cyber-RAM.
This infatuation with rams (male sheep, also known as tups) is captured in a folk song known as The Derby Ram, or alternatively As I was Going to Derby. The story it tells can be traced back at least to the early 18th century. It’s a far-fetched and humorous, if somewhat gory, account of a huge ram taken to Derby market and the challenges townsfolk encountered when processing it for meat.
The song is well known in folk-singing circles in many parts of the English-speaking world. Even George Washington is reputed to have taken time off from thrashing the Brits to belt out his own rendition, although I’m not sure how we know this story is true. Links to a couple of recordings of the song are given at the end of this post.
How this tall tale came to be associated with Derby is unclear. More widely, however, during the Middle Ages rams were regarded as symbols of physical strength and sexual potency. It therefore takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why Derby folk might have been pleased to encourage a legend that linked them with such a feisty and formidable beast.
The link continues to this day, and is being celebrated during summer 2021 by an arts project called The Derby Ram Trail. Organised by the local Museums Trust, this is a free public art trail comprising 30 ram sculptures vibrantly decorated by a range of artists.
The sculptures are made of lightweight, fire-resistant fibreglass and are based on Michael Pegler’s millstone ram, which has been a Derby landmark for around a quarter of a century. The trail weaves its way through the city centre, and its organisers hope it will “[encourage] local people to explore and enjoy their city from an exciting new perspective.”
The Derby Ram Trail website explains how the project has been organised:
Businesses across the area were invited to sponsor a blank ram sculpture – the 3D canvas! New and established artists were then invited to submit designs to transform the blank rams with individual artworks. Design ideas were presented to sponsors in January 2020 who each selected their favourite. Successful artists were then commissioned to apply their designs to the sculptures in a wide range of media, both traditional and new, including fine art, illustration, graffiti and mosaic amongst others.
Forming a trail of discovery, the sculptures provide an exceptional, creative opportunity to engage people in important topics – from health and well-being to history and culture, to name a few.
Source: Derby Ram Trail website, retrieved 13 July 2021
For those with good local knowledge, the subject matter of some of the designs has an obvious connection with Derby or the surrounding county of Derbyshire. For example, decorating a ram to reflect artistic fashions current at the time the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses the Great, over 3,000 years ago, isn’t an obvious choice. However, once you understand that generations of local children have been inspired by two ancient Egyptian mummies displayed at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, all becomes clear. Rameses is one of my favourite rams, and the pun’s pretty good, too!
Another striking design with local connections is Royal Ram, inspired by one of Royal Crown Derby’s decorative animal paperweights. Royal Crown Derby pottery is made about a mile south of the city centre, and is sold to appreciative collectors across the world. Local heritage is also recognised in Nurse Nightingale, which honours the life and achievements of pioneering 19th century nurse Florence Nightingale, who was born just a few miles north of Derby. And standing outside the new Museum of Making, housed in the historic Silk Mill building, Derby Industries celebrates the city’s remarkable achievements in science and manufacturing.
The significance of For Those About to Rock initially escaped me, until I read on the trail’s website that the piece was inspired by music festivals held annually in Derbyshire, particularly Download and Bloodstock. The website explains that “in the Heavy Metal tradition of battle jackets, the ram is wearing a denim jacket covered in patches which, along with his tattoos, represent significant events and Derbyshire-related subjects.” By way of contrast, Woolly Rammy (a ram in sheep’s clothing) has a more obvious local connection, depicting a ram wearing a Derby-inspired woolly jumper which proudly displays a recognisably local street scene.
Doodle Derby is a bit more whimsical, being “based on all of the awesome things about our city from architecture, culture and outdoor spaces to real ale and how Derby first invented the hotdog! ‘Doodle Derby’ takes you on a tour of all the brilliant things you can do in the city and celebrates a diverse, colourful place of happiness and positivity – an inspiring Derby!” Hmm, hyperbole is alive and well, and living on the Derby Ram Trail website…but what the heck, it raises a smile, and don’t we all need that with Covid infections soaring yet again.
In some cases the connection between Derby and the ram’s design is distinctly tenuous. For example, Derby has no obvious links with pirates (some people claim it to be further from the sea than just about any other English city), but nevertheless Pirate Sheepmate seems to have made himself at home there. I love the parrot on his shoulder. Meanwhile the fierce-looking Rambo seems to be little more than an excuse for fond memories of “Sly” Stallone….and, of course, another groan-inducing pun!
Some of the rams are intended to convey a message that has universal relevance, rather than being specific to Derby. Memories Fade but Warmth Remains is perhaps the most obvious and poignant of these. The website explains that the artist “has combined the symbolism of the forget-me-not flower – a flower often associated with dementia – with that of the sunflower, symbolising warmth, deep loyalty and hope. Lynne wanted to create a message about the power of enduring love: that memories can fade but the warmth of the human spirit continues to shine.”
Walking the trail, which at a leisurely pace took us about half a day and included plenty of photo stops (Mrs P took over 400 pictures!), encouraged us to explore parts of the city centre that we’ve never seen before. It also took us past recent developments that are seeking to breathe new life into the place. Plenty of other people were also seeking out the rams, and I suspect were also discovering parts of Derby that were new to them.
The organisers set out to create a feel-good project, and from my point of view they definitely succeeded. Derby is not an especially attractive city, and has little to recommend it in either architectural or artistic terms. The decorated rams are therefore a welcome – albeit temporary – addition to the urban landscape, and certainly brighten up those parts of the city centre in which they are located.
With one exception – an old guy complaining (wrongly) that the cost of the project would result in his taxes going up – everyone we spoke with seemed to be enjoying the Derby Ram Trail, and found at least some of the artworks to be inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the whole experience was the way the trail encouraged total strangers to talk to each other, and, even more remarkably, got them talking about art! That’s an achievement in which the organisers should take pride.
The sculpture trail will grace the city until 22 August 2021, after which the rams will all be herded together and sold by auction. The proceeds will go to Derby Museums Trust to support the delivery and development of their services, which seems like an appropriate reward for the organisation that was the brains behind the Derby Ram Trail. Moreover, Derby is planning an application to be the UK’s next city of culture, so its heritage and arts organisations need all the funds they can raise. Watch this space!
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Links to recordings of The Derby Ram. The following link is to a version credited to Keith Kendrick, Pete Castle, Roy Harris and Derrick Hale. I’m not familiar with them, but must be from hereabouts as they’re singing it in a Derby/Derbyshire accent, which although quite distinctive is barely recognised outside the area. You don’t hear the accent so much these days, so it’s good to have fragments of it preserved here.
The YouTube video includes the lyrics. As with all folksongs the words to The Derby Ram have mutated over the generations, and this version is a case in point. The mention of the Baseball Ground (at around two-and-a-half minutes into the song) references Derby County’s home soccer ground between 1895 and 1997. It could never have appeared in the original, traditional (18th century) version of this song, and doesn’t belong in 21st century versions either.
Sherwood Forest once covered about a quarter of the historic county of Nottinghamshire, an area of around 7,800 hectares (19,000 acres). Today it’s a shadow of its former self, the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve weighing in at a measly 423 hectares (1,046 acres). And yet the magic lives on, courtesy of the legend of Robin Hood, hundreds of ancient oak trees and a few wandering nudists. Sounded like a fascinating place to visit, so we decided to give it a go.
In medieval times kings and their retinues of noble cronies hunted in Sherwood Forest, chasing down the buck and the boar and whatever else took their fancy. They lived the good life, with no regard for the pains and hardships of the poor. Ordinary people needed someone to fight their cause, and in Robin Hood they found just the man.
The Robin Hood story first emerged in the thirteenth century CE. Legend has it that Hood and his gang of outlaws hid out in Sherwood Forest, emerging from time to time to defend the rights of common folk, robbing from the rich and giving the proceeds to the poor, and all the while teaching the nobles a few much-needed lessons.
As is inevitable with any oral tradition the legend of Robin Hood was embellished over the centuries, courtesy of the vivid imaginations of countless storytellers, poets and balladeers. Hard evidence of the famous folk hero’s actual existence is impossible to find, but that doesn’t really matter.
As a species, we humans call superheroes into existence because we need them to exist. The Robin Hood story emerged and flourished because our downtrodden ancestors desperately needed to believe that someone was looking out for them, and that their oppressors would be held to account.
Robin Hood is part of English national consciousness, a cultural icon. He’s been portrayed countless times on both the big and small screens, played by stars as diverse as Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner and Kermit the Frog. The remakes and reinterpretations keep on coming, each generation retelling the story in its own way, and although there was no sign of him when we visited Sherwood Forest last month, Hood’s spirit lives on.
Also surviving in Sherwood Forest is a magnificent collection of ancient oak trees, many of them dating from the time when the Robin Hood legend first emerged. King of them all is the Major Oak, which is estimated at between 800 and 1,100 years old. Surprisingly the name doesn’t relate to its size and great age but instead references Major Heyman Rooke, who in 1790 wrote a book detailing his local oak trees.
When Mrs P was growing up (I’ll not say exactly when, but we’re talking several decades ago!) it was possible to walk right up to the Major Oak, to touch it and even to play hide-and-seek in and around it. Sadly those days are gone. Today admirers are kept at a respectful distance by picket fencing, thus preventing soil compaction which would damage the tree’s roots.
Since the 1970s the massive boughs of the Major Oak have been propped, another precautionary measure to help protect Sherwood Forest’s most venerable resident. Plainly the tree is in the twilight of its life, but looks in surprisingly good shape for its age. A bit like me, I suppose!
Some of the other trees are not faring so well. Rotten Roger has clearly seen better days, but a nearby notice (text reproduced below) wittily explains that decaying trees like this play a vital part in Sherwood’s ecosystem.
Oooh, I’m rotten to the core, just like my namesake. [Rotten Roger] was a nasty outlaw, a spy for the Sheriff, who was caught and locked inside my trunk by Robin Hood. Now I’m rotting from the inside out, but don’t be alarmed, it’s all part of my natural cycle. When a crack appears in an old tree like me, fungi creeps in and begins to rot away my heartwood. This rotting wood is great for beetles, flies and lots of other insects…not good for outlaws though. So although I may be a little heartless, I’m much loved by all these little creatures.
The leafy trails through the Sherwood Forest Nature Reserve are wonderfully atmospheric, not least for the symphony of birdsong that echoes all around, and the butterflies that bring extra colour to the greenwood. Birdsong and butterflies are not unexpected in a place like this, but nudists are. The official Sherwood Forest website warns that there is a long history of nudists – or naturists, as I believe they prefer to be called – wandering the forest trails.
Now I’m a broadminded soul and have no problem with my fellow citizens letting it all hang out wherever the fancy takes them, but common sense tells me this behaviour may be unwise. Thickets of briars and patches of stinging nettles hidden round every corner are an obvious hazard, to say nothing of columns of marching ants and the occasional random hedgehog lurking in the undergrowth. Nudism has its place, but I humbly submit that Sherwood Forest may not be it.
When we visited the nudists were nowhere to be seen, or perhaps they were simply off somewhere nursing their injuries? Never mind, their presence or absence is of no consequence. Sherwood Forest is a majestic, tranquil haven where nature is protected and allowed to flourish, a place etched into our country’s folklore through the tales of Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws. It’s well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.
And finally, because it’s my ambition to share my taste in folk music with a wider audience, I invite you to listen to Barry Dransfield singing about Robin Hood and the Pedlar. The song, which can be traced back over 100 years, tells how our hero and his merry sidekick Little John encounter a pedlar, one Gamble Gold by name, and plot to rob him. A fight breaks out, but then it’s revealed that Mr Gold is in fact Robin Hood’s cousin. At this point they all adjourn to the nearest pub to sup some ale and get even merrier. Fanciful stuff, a bit cheesy I suppose. But nevertheless Robin Hood and the Pedlar is a lot of fun, and Dransfield puts in some lively guitar work for us to admire. Enjoy!
Postscript: If ancient trees are your thing you may be interested in this post about the Old Man of Calke, another majestic oak believed to be around 1,200 years old.
The good folk at SongBird Survival (SBS), an independent charity which funds research into the declining numbers of Britain’s songbirds, have declared next Monday – 21 December – to be National Robin Day. And who can blame them? The instantly recognisable robin has an appeal that extends way beyond dedicated birders, so celebrating this bird table superstar is an inspired way of gaining more publicity for their worthy cause. To mark the day, I thought I’d share some random facts and folklore about this iconic bird.
1 Robins are British Christmas card icons
It’s no accident that the SBS chose mid-December as the best time to celebrate National Robin Day. In Britain robins have been associated with Christmas since the 19th century, when postmen were dubbed robin redbreasts because of their red tunics. The mail they delivered at Christmas brought happiness to householders across the country, and the link was quickly made between redbreasts and seasonal merriment. Robins soon started appearing on Christmas cards, and they’ve been there ever since.
2 The naming of robins
The original English name for the robin was purely descriptive: our ancestors called it the redbreast. But they got it wrong. Even a cursory inspection in good light will reveal the bird’s breast to be orange, or perhaps an orangey-red, rather than pure red. The word orange, describing a colour, was unknown in English until the 16th century when it appeared as the name of the now-familiar citrus fruit. But by this time earlier generations had already adopted the next most appropriate word in the language – red – to describe the colour of the robin’s signature plumage.
The word robin, when applied to the bird, emerged in the 15th century when it became popular to give human names to familiar species. This new practice resulted in the birds becoming known as robin redbreast, which was eventually shortened to robin
3 The robin is Britain’s unofficial National Bird
In the 1960s the Times newspaper organised a poll of its readers to find Britain’s most popular bird, and the robin came out on top. Around half a century later, in 2015, popular birdwatcher and author David Lindo organised a similar survey. Over 200,000 people took part and the robin won again, having received 34% of votes cast, ahead of the barn owl (12%) and the blackbird (11%). Despite these public votes the UK government has remained on the fence and, for now at least, officially we don’t have a National Bird. Unofficially, however, the robin clearly takes the title.
4 Robins are nestbuilding mavericks
When it comes to choosing a place to nest, robins aren’t fussy. Just about anywhere will do. Most commonly their nests can be found about two metres off the ground, within some kind of hollow or crevice and sheltered by vegetation. But others will nest on the ground, perhaps behind the overhang of a grassy tussock, or occasionally beneath fallen twigs covered by leaf litter.
However, radical freethinkers within the robin population choose to nest amongst the flotsam and jetsam of human life. Old teapots, discarded kettles, watering cans, coat pockets, wellington boots, farm machinery, flowerpots, hats, barbecues, an unmade bed and the body of a dead cat have all been selected by robins as a suitable place to bring up a family!
Although their nestbuilding strategy may seem bizarre, it delivers the goods. There are estimated to be 6,700,000 breeding territories in the UK. Since 1970 the robin population has increased by around 45 per cent.
5 Male and female robins both have vivid breast plumage
Robins are highly territorial, and – particularly in the breeding season – adult males like to show off their vividly coloured breasts in an attempt to intimidate other males. Although females are less competitive, they too have orangey-red breasts. The two sexes look very similar, and their brightly coloured breast plumage got them into trouble towards the end of the 19th century when robin skins were for a time a popular adornment for ladies’ hats.
It’s worth noting that juvenile robins have a speckled brown breast and don’t develop the species’ distinctive plumage until after their first moult. The youngsters therefore belong to the group that is the nemesis of birders everywhere: they are Little Brown Jobs.
6 Robins sometimes fight to the death
You wouldn’t think it to look at them, but robins are aggressive little birds prone to acts of violence. It’s all about territory. It begins with a singing contest, males belting out their songs at one another while trying to get to a higher perch from which to flaunt their brightly coloured breasts. If one or the other doesn’t back down the dispute can become physical, resulting in injuries and even – on occasion – the death of one of the combatants. Shockingly, in some populations, up to 10 per cent of adult mortality is due to these avian turf wars.
7 Robins, friends to gardeners everywhere
Putting aside the connection with Christmas festivities, another reason for the robin’s popularity is its confiding nature. The robin presents as a friendly, trusting bird, more so than any other species that regularly visits British gardens.
Gardeners in particular often get up close and personal with robins. As ground feeders, robins enjoy nothing more than cheekily scavenging earthworms and other invertebrates dug up by gardeners going about their business. They’re also regular visitors to bird tables during the winter months, feisty feeders that aren’t shy about claiming their share of the feast.
Interestingly, robins are less confiding on continental Europe. This is thought to be because in many parts of the continent, particularly in the southern part of the robin’s range, the locals have the detestable habit of hunting small birds. It therefore pays the robin to keep its head down, skulking in the undergrowth, where hunters are less likely to find them. In Britain, where this horrible hunting tradition doesn’t exist, there is no evolutionary incentive for such caution.
8 How the robin became
Unsurprisingly for a bird that associates so closely with humans, many stories have grown up to explain the robin’s distinctive colouring. One legend says that when Jesus was dying on the cross, a robin flew to his side and sang into his ear in order to comfort him. At this point the robin’s plumage was a dull, unremarkable brown colour. However the blood from Jesus’ wounds stained the robin’s breast. In that moment the world welcomed its first robin redbreast, and from that day onwards all robins bore the mark of Christ’s blood.
An alternative version of this tale tells us that one day an ordinary brown bird was flying high over Golgotha, near Jerusalem, when it looked at the ground below and spotted Christ suffering on the cross. Determined to ease Jesus’ torment it flew down and tried to remove His crown of thorns, but as it tugged in vain at the cruel affliction some of the Lord’s blood stained its breast. And this was how the robin became.
A third robin creation myth also makes a link between Jesus and the robin’s colouration. According to this story, shortly after Mary had given birth in the Bethlehem stable a small brown bird appeared and – in a noble attempt to keep the Christ Child warm – started to fan the flames of the dying fire. However, embers from the fire scorched its chest feathers, leaving the bird red-breasted. Mary saw what had happened and declared that the red breast was a sign of the bird’s devotion to the Lord. She went on to promise that the bird and all its descendants would forever onwards wear a red breast in memory of this selfless act of love.
9 Q: When is a robin not a robin? A: When it’s an American robin
The species of robin seen in British gardens is found all over Europe, extending as far east as Western Siberia and south to North Africa. Robins are also found in North America…or are they? Well, no, actually they’re not. The American Robin isn’t really a robin at all, and belongs instead to the thrush family. Early European settlers in the Americas, desperate for reminders of home, noticed its reddish coloured breast and named it after the bird they knew from back home. Ornithology plainly wasn’t their strong point as, other than the colour of the breast, the two species bear little resemblance.
Interestingly, in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews, the director got the wrong bird. Despite Dick van Dyke’s laughable attempt at a London accent, Mary Poppins is clearly set in England. However the bird that lands on Mary’s finger during the song A Spoonful of Sugar is an American Robin rather a European robin. Why am I not surprised by Hollywood’s cavalier relationship with factual accuracy?
10 Who killed cock robin?
The robin appears in the well-known English nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin?, a gruesome tale describing the murder and the funeral of a robin. The unfortunate redbreast is shot by a sparrow, and subsequent verses reveal who organises his funeral, who digs his grave and who plays the role of chief mourner. The person who concluded that such a verse constitutes suitable entertainment for children was clearly in need of therapy.
The nursery rhyme first appeared in print in 1744, in a volume entitled Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. However the story appears already to have been an established part of England’s oral tradition. A stained glass window dating from the 15th century and showing a robin killed by an arrow can be seen Buckland Rectory (Gloucestershire), while in the early 1500s John Skelton wrote and published a similar story called “Phyllyp Sparowe.”
There are now multiple versions of the nursery rhyme, some of which have been put to music. My favourite is by the American folk-singing duo Dana and Susan Robinson. They are brilliant performers – we’ve seen them perform on a couple of occasions in the UK – and for us Who Killed Cock Robin? is always the highlight of their gigs.
So, dear reader, as you reach the end of this little post, please join me in celebrating our National Robin Day by listening to Dana and Sue’s rendition of the tragic tale of one robin’s untimely end, courtesy of the YouTube link below.