String your bow, sip some acorn gin, and capture the spirit of legendary outlaw Robin Hood in and around England’s Sherwood Forest.
Intro: Think Iron Man and Wonder Woman are superheroes? Try firing arrows from horseback, living by skill and wits in the woods, and robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
A new Robin Hood hits screens November 21, starring Taron Egerton of the Kingsman franchise. Whether your Robin Hood is Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, or a Disney animation fox, Sherwood Forest inspires thoughts of dodging the Sheriff of Nottingham on horseback and bedding down near an ancient oak.
Easy to get to by train, England’s midlands are places of rugged beauty and history, including legends about a crafty and generous outlaw who was handy with both bow and sword.
Contemporary architecture mixes with historic buildings in post-industrial Birmingham. The central location makes it a good starting point for a Robin Hood adventure. There is excellent shopping in the Bullring complex opposite the busy train station. Luxury retailer Selfridges & Co., with its wavy skin of shiny aluminum discs, is a local landmark. Half-a-dozen chic cocktail bars are located in former bank buildings in the city center, including The Lost & Found, which makes the most of soaring ceilings to play with lavish décor. The multi-colored Library of Birmingham, its wedding cake shape encircled with interlocking metal hoops, is a modernist gem.
You’ll find a mini version of Burning Man-meets-Glastonbury, with a side of TED Conferences at Timber International Forest Festival, held in July on the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border. The fest celebrates all things woodland and the ambitious transformation of a onetime bleak mining landscape into the National Forest. The fest gets to the heart of forest culture with camping, music, eclectic performance art, campfire stories, bathing under the sky in outdoor hot tubs music, woodcrafts, torchlight parade, food and drink and speakers on a range of outdoor topics, all coming together for a happening weekend in the trees.
INSIDER TIPRent a glamping bell tent from Tinker’s Bells, for those who prefer to rough it on the deluxe side.
Robin Hood and the gang probably had to forage for their meals. Expert guides from Totally Wild Foraging in Derbyshire lead small-group tours through meadows and woods to source edibles to be incorporated into a three-course forager’s lunch at nearby Fischer’s Baslow Hall heritage inn. Pick water mint from beside a rushing stream, nibble edible flowers, taste fruit cordials and sloe gin made from foraged fruits and nettles and learn what’s deadly as well as delicious in the woods. Hedgewood celery, anyone?
WHERE: Peak District
Located in the heart of the peaceful and picturesque Peak District National Park, the stepping stones at Lindale cross a narrow spot in the fast-flowing River Dove. Tucked between dramatic limestone hills, the flattish, square stones were placed there in the 19th-century and had their brush with fame when they appeared in the final scenes of Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. Anglers will love that Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler in 1653, fished in the Dove.
INSIDER TIPGetting to the stepping stones by taking a gentle hike through pastures with Thorpe Cloud hill in the backdrop adds to the experience.
WHERE: Peak District
The Merry Men and company lived by their wits and did things by hand. A forest survival session with Red Oak Bushcraft teaches wilderness skills that would have come in handy in the Middle Ages, like making surprisingly strong cord from bulrushes and nettles and building a fire by using a piece of wood and a handmade bow drill. It only took a few minutes before we were able to nurse a spark into a flame.
WHERE: Matlock Farm
Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and the crew were always on horseback onscreen and in stories. Sherwood Forest was a huge area of woods and meadows in the Middle Ages, defined as the king’s royal as hunting grounds. With the help of your trusty steed, join a guided group on a horseback tour of fields and forests at Matlock Farm in the Peak District. Robin didn’t need someone leading his mount, but as a novice rider, you may feel better having someone hold your dobbin’s halter if you like.
Sherwood Forest had plenty of places for a weary outlaw and his posse to bed down. But why rough it? Upscale cabins at Forest Holidays have decks with hot tubs and barbecues, fireplaces and comfy beds. You can even book a chef to prepare and serve an excellent three-course meal in your cabin. Pick up a bottle of wine at the camp café and store or start the day with a full English breakfast, including a vegetarian option. There’s thick tree cover on the property and the cabins are surrounded by the forest, making them feel beautifully isolated.
The Sherwood Forest Archeology Project welcomes volunteers. Who knows what you’ll find on a dig behind the medieval church? The Vikings were here, too. And King John’s palace was nearby. It’s not just digging and sifting dirt: anybody who helps is contributing to long-term local research and the on-site archaeologists and historians have plenty of stories to share. They’re also on board the Robin Hood Express, a double-decker London bus that tours various sites associated with Robin and the Merry Men around Sherwood and nearby Nottingham.
The 1,300-year-old Major Oak near the village of Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire was said to be where Robin Hood made his forest home. Locals call it Robin Hood’s Tree, although it looks like it would be a wonky stay today, with spread-out limbs propped up by a timber supports. Legend has it 13 or 14 men could fit in its hollow heart at one time. Read all about Robin Hood in displays next to the tree, one of thousand ancient oak giants in this area of Sherwood Forest that’s accessible by easy walking paths from the new visitors center, which introduces you to all things Robin.
You can’t be Robin Hood without picking up a bow. Take an archery class in a Sherwood Forest clearing with Adrenalin Jungle. Classes explain safety and the mechanics of the sport and after a few practice rounds, you’re competing with the group to determine who is the finest archer in Sherwood Forest. How Robin Hood can you get?
Nottingham does indeed have a sheriff, but she’s a city politician and hardly Hollywood’s scowling, Christmas-canceling movie bully. The real surprise in Nottingham is its Northern-cool vibe, including a busy central market and cool hidden bars, some within caves. Nottingham is built over more than 800 limestone caves, using some for tours and tippling. Lost Property, tucked down a hallway and behind a faux front of piled vintage luggage, has a cave bar. A door off the main room in the 13th-century Ye Olde Salutation Inn opens on winding stairs to a series of well-lit caves below to explore, while Nottingham Underground Festival goes deep to celebrate all things below ground.
INSIDER TIPExpect to hear: “Aye up, me duck!” Nottingham lingo for a warm, “Hi, how, how are you?”
There’s no evidence Robin Hood existed. But why wouldn’t you want to go on a tour of Nottingham with a guy in green with a bow slung over his shoulder? Actor Ade Andrews is a charmingly convincing version of the man in tights. Hear stories about the famous outlaw and how he got his name and fame. Was he really Robin of Loxley, brave Crusader and defender of Richard the Lionheart? Stop at St. Mary’s church where the pious Robin Hood went to pray in the 15th-century ballad Robin Hood and the Monk and finish up with a pint in Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. Claiming to be England’s oldest pub, it was built in rock at the base of Nottingham Castle in 1189, a place for knights to share a farewell cup before departing for the Crusades.
Newly released Castle Gate Gin is made in with acorns gathered in Sherwood Forest, including some foraged from below the Major Oak. Made in small batches and hard to find outside Nottingham, Robin Hood appears on the label of Gin No. 1, which gets creamy notes from roasted acorns. Brilliant pink Gin No. 17 gets its color and bright flavor from strawberries, mellowed with a hint of lavender. Maid Marian is on the label and the distiller recommends elderflower tonic for a G&T, Maid Marion style.
Relax with some pampering in a modern waters spa at Ye Olde Bell Hotel, which began as a carriage stop in the late 1600s along the Great North Road on the edge of Nottinghamshire. Queen Victoria and various movie stars have slept there but the hotel has its eye on more modern pursuits, opening a spa building in 2017 that’s filled with a range of experiences. Hit the steam room, then cool off in what’s billed as “the only snowstorm experience in the U.K.” The glass-walled indoor corridor has sound and light effects and a push-button choice of gentle snowfall or amped up mini-blizzard. Three different saunas have picture windows facing onto a courtyard with Nordic-inspired relaxation huts, heated lounge chairs, and firepits. Relax in the salt inhalation room then sip a juice in the indoor-outdoor thermal pool.
The Church of St. Mary, Edwinstowe in this pretty village in the heart of Sherwood Forest is said to be the place where Robin Hood and Maid Marian were wed. It’s just down the road from the Major Oak, so you could say it’s close to home. The church was built in 1175 on the site of the original church building, which dates to 633. And if you fulfill some requirements, you could get married there, too. It’s across the road from Launay’s Restaurant, an excellent dining room that specializes in English and French cuisine with a local and seasonal focus, including veggies from the back gardens and greenhouse. Or have a pint at The Royal Oak next door.