These early feelings were in some degree revived when I found myself in the very heart of the far-famed forest, and, as I said before, I took a kind of schoolboy delight in hunting up all traces of old Sherwood and its sylvan chivalry. One of the first of my antiquarian rambles was on horseback, in company with Colonel Wildman and his lady, who undertook to guide me to Borne of the moldering monuments of the forest. One of these stands in front of the very gate of Newstead Park, and is known throughout the country by the name of “The Pilgrim Oak.” It is a venerable tree, of great size, overshadowing a wide arena of the road. Under its shade the rustics of the neighborhood have been accustomed to assemble on certain holidays, and celebrate their rural festivals. This custom had been handed down from father to son for several generations, until the oak had acquired a kind of sacred character.
The “old Lord Byron,” however, in whose eyes nothing was sacred, when he laid his desolating hand on the groves and forests of Newstead, doomed likewise this traditional tree to the axe. Fortunately the good people of Nottingham heard of the danger of their favorite oak, and hastened to ransom it from destruction. They afterward made a present of it to the poet, when he came to the estate, and the Pilgrim Oak is likely to continue a rural gathering place for many coming generations.
From this magnificent and time-honored tree we continued on our sylvan research, in quest of another oak, of more ancient date and less flourishing condition. A ride of two or three miles, the latter part across open wastes, once clothed with forest, now bare and cheerless, brought us to the tree in question. It was the Oak of Ravenshead, one of the last survivors of old Sherwood, and which had evidently once held a high head in the forest; it was now a mere wreck, crazed by time, and blasted by lightning, and standing alone on a naked waste, like a ruined column in a desert.
“The scenes are desert now, and bare,
Where flourished once a forest fair,
When these waste glens with copse were lined,
And peopled with the hart and hind.
Yon lonely oak, would he could tell
The changes of his parent dell,
Since he, so gray and stubborn now,
Waved in each breeze a sapling bough.
Would he could tell how deep the shade
A thousand mingled branches made.
Here in my shade, methinks he’d say,
The mighty stag at noontide lay,
While doe, and roe, and red-deer good,
Hare bounded by through gay green-wood.”
At no great distance from Ravenshead Oak is a small cave which goes by the name of Robin Hood’s stable. It is in the breast of a hill, scooped out of brown freestone, with rude attempt at columns and arches. Within are two niches, which served, it is said, as stalls for the bold outlaw’s horses. To this retreat he retired when hotly pursued by the law, for the place was a secret even from his band. The cave is overshadowed by an oak and alder, and is hardly discoverable even at the present day; but when the country was overrun with forest it must have been completely concealed.
There was an agreeable wildness and loneliness in a great part of our ride. Our devious road wound down, at one time among rocky dells, by wandering streams, and lonely pools, haunted by shy water-fowl. We passed through a skirt of woodland, of more modern planting, but considered a legitimate offspring of the ancient forest, and commonly called Jock of Sherwood. In riding through these quiet, solitary scenes, the partridge and pheasant would now and then burst upon the wing, and the hare scud away before us.
Another of these rambling rides in quest of popular antiquities, was to a chain of rocky cliffs, called the Kirkby Crags, which skirt the Robin Hood hills. Here, leaving my horse at the foot of the crags, I scaled their rugged sides, and seated myself in a niche of the rocks, called Robin Hood’s chair. It commands a wide prospect over the valley of Newstead, and here the bold outlaw is said to have taken his seat, and kept a look-out upon the roads below, watching for merchants, and bishops, and other wealthy travellers, upon whom to pounce down, like an eagle from his eyrie.
Descending from the cliffs and remounting my horse, a ride of a mile or two further along a narrow “robber path,” as it was called, which wound up into the hills between perpendicular rocks, led to an artificial cavern cut in the face of a cliff, with a door and window wrought through the living stone. This bears the name of Friar Tuck’s cell, or hermitage, where, according to tradition, that jovial anchorite used to make good cheer and boisterous revel with his freebooting comrades.
Such were some of the vestiges of old Sherwood and its renowned “yeomandrie,” which I visited in the neighborhood of Newstead. The worthy clergyman who officiated as chaplain at the Abbey, seeing my zeal in the cause, informed me of a considerable tract of the ancient forest, still in existence about ten miles distant. There were many fine old oaks in it, he said, that had stood for centuries, but were now shattered and “stag-headed,” that is to say, their upper branches were bare, and blasted, and straggling out like the antlers of, a deer. Their trunks, too, were hollow, and full of crows and jackdaws, who made them their nestling places. He occasionally rode over to the forest in the long summer evenings, and pleased himself with loitering in the twilight about the green alleys and under the venerable trees.
The description given by the chaplain made me anxious to visit this remnant of old Sherwood, and he kindly offered to be my guide and companion. We accordingly sallied forth one morning on horseback on this sylvan expedition. Our ride took us through a part of the country where King John had once held a hunting seat; the ruins of which are still to be seen. At that time the whole neighbor hood was an open royal forest, or Frank chase, as it was termed; for King John was an enemy to parks and warrens, and other inclosures, by which game was fenced in for the private benefit and recreation of the nobles and the clergy.
Here, on the brow of a gentle hill, commanding an extensive prospect of what had once been forest, stood another of those monumental trees, which, to my mind, gave a peculiar interest to this neighborhood. It was the Parliament Oak, so called in memory of an assemblage of the kind held by King John beneath its shade. The lapse of upward of six centuries had reduced this once mighty tree to a mere crumbling fragment, yet, like a gigantic torso in ancient statuary, the grandeur of the mutilated trunk gave evidence of what it had been in the days of its glory. In contemplating its mouldering remains, the fancy busied itself in calling up the scene that must have been presented beneath its shade, when this sunny hill swarmed with the pageantry of a warlike and hunting court. When silken pavilions and warrior-tents decked its crest, and royal standards, and baronial banners, and knightly pennons rolled out to the breeze. When prelates and courtiers, and steel-clad chivalry thronged round the person of the monarch, while at a distance loitered the foresters in green, and all the rural and hunting train that waited upon his sylvan sports.
‘A thousand vassals mustered round
With horse, and hawk, and horn, and hound;
And through the brake the rangers stalk,
And falc’ners hold the ready hawk;
And foresters in green-wood trim
Lead in the leash the greyhound grim.”
Such was the phantasmagoria that presented itself for a moment to my imagination, peopling the silent place before me with empty shadows of the past. The reverie however was transient; king, courtier, and steel-clad warrior, and forester in green, with horn, and hawk, and hound, all faded again into oblivion, and I awoke to all that remained of this once stirring scene of human pomp and power—a mouldering oak, and a tradition.
A ride of a few miles farther brought us at length among the venerable and classic shades of Sherwood, Here I was delighted to find myself in a genuine wild wood, of primitive and natural growth, so rarely to be met with in this thickly peopled and highly cultivated country. It reminded me of the aboriginal forests of my native land. I rode through natural alleys and green-wood groves, carpeted with grass and shaded by lofty and beautiful birches. What most interested me, however, was to behold around me the mighty trunks of veteran oaks, old monumental trees, the patriarchs of Sherwood Forest. They were shattered, hollow, and moss-grown, it is true, and their “leafy honors” were nearly departed; but like mouldering towers they were noble and picturesque in their decay, and gave evidence, even in their ruins, of their ancient grandeur.
As I gazed about me upon these vestiges of once “Merrie Sherwood,” the picturings of my boyish fancy began to rise in my mind, and Robin Hood and his men to stand before me.
“He clothed himself in scarlet then,
His men were all in green;
A finer show throughout the world
In no place could be seen.
Good lord! it was a gallant sight
The horn of Robin Hood again seemed to resound through the forest. I saw this sylvan chivalry, half huntsmen, half freebooters, trooping across the distant glades, or feasting and revelling beneath the trees; I was going on to embody in this way all the ballad scenes that had delighted me when a boy, when the distant sound of a wood-cutter’s axe roused me from my day-dream.
The boding apprehensions which it awakened were too soon verified. I had not ridden much farther, when I came to an open space where the work of destruction was going on. Around me lay the prostrate trunks of venerable oaks, once the towering and magnificent lords of the forest, and a number of wood-cutters were hacking and hewing at another gigantic tree, just tottering to its fall.
Alas! for old Sherwood Forest: it had fallen into the possession of a noble agriculturist; a modern utilitarian, who had no feeling for poetry or forest scenery. In a little while and this glorious woodland will be laid low; its green glades be turned into sheep-walks; its legendary bowers supplanted by turnip-fields; and “Merrie Sherwood” will exist but in ballad and tradition.
“O for the poetical superstitions,” thought I, “of the olden time! that shed a sanctity over every grove; that gave to each tree its tutelar genius or nymph, and threatened disaster to all who should molest the hamadryads in their leafy abodes. Alas! for the sordid propensities of modern days, when everything is coined into gold, and this once holiday planet of ours is turned into a mere ‘working-day world.’”
My cobweb fancies put to flight, and my feelings out of tune, I left the forest in a far different mood from that in which I had entered it, and rode silently along until, on reaching the summit of a gentle eminence, the chime of evening bells came on the breeze across the heath from a distant village.
I paused to listen.
“They are merely the evening bells of Mansfield,” said my companion.
“Of Mansfield!” Here was another of the legendary names of this storied neighborhood, that called up early and pleasant associations. The famous old ballad of the King and the Miller of Mansfield came at once to mind, and the chime of the bells put me again in good humor.
A little farther on, and we were again on the traces of Robin Hood. Here was Fountain Dale, where he had his encounter with that stalwart shaveling Friar Tuck, who was a kind of saint militant, alternately wearing the casque and the cowl:
“The curtal fryar kept Fountain dale
Seven long years and more,
There was neither lord, knight or earl
Could make him yield before.”
The moat is still shown which is said to have surrounded the stronghold of this jovial and fighting friar; and the place where he and Robin Hood had their sturdy trial of strength and prowess, in the memorable conflict which lasted
“From ten o’clock that very day
Until four in the afternoon,”
and ended in the treaty of fellowship. As to the hardy feats, both of sword and trencher, performed by this “curtal fryar,” behold are they not recorded at length in the ancient ballads, and in the magic pages of Ivanhoe?
The evening was fast coming on, and the twilight thickening, as we rode through these haunts famous in outlaw story. A melancholy seemed to gather over the landscape as we proceeded, for our course lay by shadowy woods, and across naked heaths, and along lonely roads, marked by some of those sinister names by which the country people in England are apt to make dreary places still more dreary. The horrors of “Thieves’ Wood,” and the “Murderers’ Stone,” and “the Hag Nook,” had all to be encountered in the gathering gloom of evening, and threatened to beset our path with more than mortal peril. Happily, however, we passed these ominous places unharmed, and arrived in safety at the portal of Newstead Abbey, highly satisfied with our green-wood foray.