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Sherwood Forest is no longer as wild as it once was. The visitor centre at Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire, northern England, is a well-organised set-up, selling family lunches, Robin Hood hats and postcards, and stands at the centre of a network of well-marked woodland paths.
If you follow one of these through the pines and birches, though, the sense of timelessness grows stronger with every step. In summer, the vast green canopies of sturdy oak trees, thick with leaves and birdsong, quickly blot out most traces of the modern world. The limbs of some of these stout veterans are twisted, while their once-straight trunks bear the scars of persistent campaigns by the wind and weather. Some have been blasted by lightning, leaving bald boughs black as the masts of tall ships amid the rippling waves of green. They stand as if in waiting. The stately congregation of old trees is enough to steady even the youngest visitors for their encounter with the most awe-inspiring of them all: the Major Oak.
This arboreal colossus holds court in a huge clearing of its own. A circular fence keeps visitors at a respectful distance. So weighty are the outstretched branches that they rest on a series of tall, steel poles and taut wires. It looks almost like the landing craft of a green-headed alien, except the corrugated trunk is so deeply rooted that any real movement is limited to the quiver of leaves, fall of acorns or straining of branches in a storm. This is the oak of all oaks in Sherwood, the grand patriarch of the woods, and not just because of its size. The Major Oak has long been imagined to be the hiding place of Robin Hood and his men, who took refuge from the Sheriff of Nottingham in its vast hollow trunk.
It’s no surprise that in the first Tree of the Year competition to be held in Britain, in 2014, the Major Oak was voted England’s favourite tree. Although the Major Oak saw off stiff competition to win the national accolade, it did not fare quite so well in the European finals the following spring. Here, the Major Oak came sixth in the polls, losing out to a Czech pine tree, a Polish oak, a Spanish poplar pollard, a Hungarian plane tree, and the ultimate winner: an oak tree growing in the middle of an Estonian football pitch.
The Major Oak was no stranger to fame when it topped the national poll in 2014 — it had been attracting visitors for at least two centuries. A Victorian railway poster encouraging day trips to “the Dukeries” placed the Major Oak centre stage, towering over Chatsworth House, Welbeck Abbey, Bolsover Castle and Rufford Abbey. There are no supports in the poster-portrait — they were yet to be installed — but otherwise the great tree looks little changed. Even before the railway age opened Sherwood Forest to mass tourism, the Major Oak had a special following. It was named after Major Hayman Rooke, the enthusiastic antiquarian who published sketches of the forest in his book, Remarkable Oaks in the Park at Welbeck, in 1790. His favourite tree has preserved his name much better than the book did, though it does allow us to see how little the great tree has changed in 200 years: Rooke measured the trunk as 34 feet and 4 inches, and it is still about the same.
Before the Major made it his own, the tree was known as the Cockpen Oak. This might have been inspired by its beautiful wavy leaves, so like the outline of a cockerel’s crest, but in fact referred to the unlucky fowl bred and fed for fighting, and kept penned up in the hollow trunk. The exact age of the oak is hard to compute: it has already outlived King John, whose ruined palace is at nearby Clipstone, by some 800 years.
Many of the Major Oak’s contemporaries, such as the huge cavelike oak known as “Robin Hood’s Larder”, only survive in old pictures and local anecdotes, having succumbed to storms, fires or natural decay. The Major Oak has faced such challenges, too, and at times its chances have seemed slim. Once the rich seams of Nottinghamshire coal were discovered, mineshafts were sunk deep into the local landscape. Two world wars meant urgent demand for coal and timber, and Sherwood Forest became a site for training camps and gun emplacements. The mines and the military are gone now, but the oak remains, its rings marked with the residue of fumes unknown to its ancient inner heartwood. Since 1954, when Sherwood Forest was declared a site of Special Scientific Interest, the Major Oak has been in safer hands. The days are gone when visitors could clamber up the trunk to pose and see how many people could get inside. The old tree is now so well propped and protected that the biggest threats are also the smallest: the two-spotted oak buprestid beetle and the oak processionary moth.
The beetles prey on trees afflicted with the withering disease chronic oak dieback, but can also spread the more lethal acute oak decline, which causes deep, weeping wounds in the bark and eventual death. The little brown moths, on the other hand, will march nose-to-tail in arrow-like formations, munching their way through thick clusters of foliage to leave even the mightiest oaks stripped bare. The Forestry Commission battles against the oak assassins, but the task is hard.
Whatever fate awaits the magnificent Major, something looks set to survive. In 2000, special permission was granted to John Palmer to gather 500 acorns from the tree for a new project in Dorset. Palmer had been enchanted by a visit to the Major Oak as a boy and so, when he retired, he threw his energies into setting the acorns and nurturing the oaklings until they were strong enough to plant out. Although they have had to contend with floods and drought, the saplings have been steadily growing since 2004. In 500 years, the Major Oak’s descendants may be as tall and broad as the grand old patriarch and, far from receding into historical legend, should be enjoying their second home near the south coast.
Fiona Stafford is a professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and author of ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ (Yale University Press), £16.99
Photographs: Tracey Whitefoot; Three Lions/Getty Images; Darren Ball/ Alamy