Posted 2nd Oct 2015
Nottinghamshire isn’t just home to the legend of Robin Hood. With a thriving city, beautiful rural pastures and a wealth of history that shaped it, it’s a destination for all seasons, made even more magical at this festive time of year
Welcome to Nottinghamshire, Robin Hood’s county, reads the sign as you cross the border into one of England’s most famous districts, where the legend of the world’s favourite folk hero is brought to life. The adventures of Nottinghamshire’s notorious son have been retold for generations, played out in books, on the stage and even in blockbuster films, yet no one knows for sure whether this historical character from England’s humble heart really existed – though meet any local and they will proudly tell you he did.
It’s really no surprise Robin Hood is still alive in our imaginations as our fascination with the famous outlaw stretches back well over 600 years, when the romantic image of a medieval hooded figure and master bowman was first created. The first literary references were made in a series of ballads recorded as early as 1377, when he was mentioned in William Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’. These early stories point us to a yeoman living outside the law in the leafy depths of Sherwood Forest along with his Merry Men during the reign of King Richard I, well known for his disputes with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Over the years the story evolved and Robin became a popular folk hero for his antics of robbing the rich to give to the poor. To this day Robin Hood remains at the soul of this magical part of Britain where many treasures await discovery just a stone’s throw from the busy A1 and M1 roads that run through it. Too often seen as a stop off destination en route to the most northerly counties in England and Scotland, Nottinghamshire is a holiday spot in its own right, with a wealth of stately homes, museums, wildlife havens and world-famous historical sites weaved between the roads that shape it. So, what better place to start your discovery of Nottinghamshire and Robin Hood’s legendary tale than in the very haunt he was believed to have roamed, Sherwood Forest.
Once a Royal hunting forest, this ancient patchwork of enchanting woodland is home to some of Europe’s oldest trees and a delicate ecosystem of protected wildlife thanks to the natural decay of fallen timber that has left the forest brimming with rare insect life and fungi. Today the National Nature Reserve is home to a glorious 450-acre country park with waymarked trails, a visitor centre, Robin Hood exhibition, restaurant and gift shops to be enjoyed year-round. Follow the meandering trail from the visitor centre and discover the world-famous Major Oak tree nestled at the heart of the forest. This impressive oak, thought to be around 1,000 years old, stretches its branches a whopping 28 metres, and it was at this very spot that Robin Hood and his Merry Men were thought to meet before setting off on their adventures. Although Robin Hood is a huge attraction for most visitors here, there is plenty more to whet your appetite around the rest of the forest. Keen bird watchers will find a wealth of fascinating bird life to pique their interest amongst the heaths and woodlands, from nightjars and woodlarks to lesser spotted woodpeckers, willow tits and hawfinches, whilst adrenaline junkies can scale the forest at nearby Sherwood Pines on the miles of off-road cycling paths. Visitors can even step into the shoes of Robin Hood himself and have a go at archery under the guidance of expert coaches or come face to face with a bird of prey on a traditional falconry experience. Come December the forest is transformed into a winter wonderland as it is illuminated with thousands of twinkling lights for the Sparkling Sherwood celebrations, when the gnarled ancient oaks will be beautifully lit up for the Christmas season.
If Christmas festivities are what you’re after then head to the nearby Thoresby Park just four miles away where a Winterfest of Yuletide arts and crafts takes place in November, along with a fantastic food festival held under glittering lights in the majestic cobbled courtyard. Thoresby Park has been owned by the Pierrepont family since 1600 when Robert Pierrepont, the 1st Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull, acquired it, and today remains the picture of a traditional country estate surrounded by several thousand acres of parkland, the original Thoresby Hall built by the 3rd Earl Manvers in 1860, now a hotel, and a splendid courtyard once home to the old stable block, coach houses and riding school, today imaginatively converted into a courtyard of shops, museum and event venue. Explore the British makers and gift shops housing everything from toys, clothes and venison from the Estate, to wines, crafts and hand-blown glassworks demonstrated daily. Head into the English Wine Cellar, the original tack room, and browse the best of British tipples, whilst in Hazel Walker Ladieswear you can enjoy the latest country fashions in the old stables where charming original features are still in tact. Just next door the chance to step back in time is offered at The Queen’s Royal Lancers and Nottinghamshire Yeomanry Museum. Free to enter, the museum explores the history of the cavalry and the great tank battles of the Second World War right up to present day operations in Afghanistan through a fascinating collection of paintings, artefacts and memorabilia – don’t miss the incredible underground bunker replica brought to life downstairs on your way out.
This resplendent North West corner of Nottinghamshire is known as The Dukeries and encompasses some of the county’s finest former Ducal estates and countryside, including the enchanting Thorseby Park, once home to the Dukes of Kingston. The Dukeries are just an hour from the bustling city of Nottingham but provide a peaceful country escape perfect for exploring Thoresby, Clumber House, Worksop Manor and the stately Welbeck Abbey.
Welbeck is a large estate acquired by the Bentinck family in the 18th Century and became the main seat of the Earls and Dukes of Portland. The descendants of the Cavendish Bentinck family still live on the estate today, part of which is open to visitors. Some of the former outhouses and buildings have been regenerated to house the magnificent Harley Gallery, Welbeck Farm Shop and café, set within the area of the original kitchen garden that once stretched for 22 acres, as well as the School of Artisan Food and a handful of food and drink businesses. The Welbeck Estate is renowned for the intrigue created by its former resident, the reclusive 5th Duke of Portland, who undertook substantial building works on the estate in the 1800s, some of which include an impressive 396ft-long riding house, a network of underground tunnels excavated between the house and the riding school, even thought to stretch out towards Worksop, as well as a lavish underground ballroom. Today the Welbeck Estate welcomes visitors to its Harley Gallery, free to enter and home to the historic Portland Collection of fine and decorative art, as well as a gift shop of contemporary artwork and crafts. Just across the courtyard a delightful farm shop carrying meat, bread, coffee, meringues and beer produced on the estate, as well as a range of other local products from ice cream and chocolate to crisps and the famous Stichelton cheese, can also be discovered. Why not sample some of this delicious fare at the Harley Café opposite, where homemade treats and dishes using local ingredients and produce from the farm shop are served up daily? At the end of November the estate becomes rife with festive cheer as the annual Christmas Art and Food Market lights up the courtyard, in which artists, makers and food producers come together to sell their hand-crafted wares, whilst the Harley Studios open their doors to visitors – one of only two occasions per year they do so. If you can tear yourself away for just a short journey across the estate there is yet more to be discovered. The School of Artisan Food, housed within the old village fire station built in 1870, offers everyone from beginners to seasoned cooks and professionals the chance to get hands-on in one of their many practical courses. Set up as a charity, the school is dedicated to teaching skills in artisan food production and covers baking, butchery and charcuterie, cheese making, chocolate making, ice cream making, cider making and preserves courses, including a seasonal introduction to Christmas baking perfect for this time of year.
Proud of its food heritage, Nottinghamshire offers an Aladdin’s cave of artisan food and drink producers hidden in the most unlikely of places. One such place is the Pheasantry Brewery, run by the Easterbrook family at the heart of their working farm, situated just half a mile off the busy A57 in East Markham. On the approach to the brewery you are sure to be blown away as beautiful old farm buildings appear on the horizon, lovingly restored to house the state of the art microbrewery seen from outside through the vast glass windows. Over 200 acres of farmland once prominent in hop growing in the early 18th Century, when nearby Tuxford had its own Hop Fair, surrounds the brewery, where today malting barley crops used in the beer-making process are grown. Departing the car park lined with hop vines, head through the huge barn doors and find a well stocked shop perfect for picking up an impromptu Christmas gift or two, and the Black Peppermint restaurant and bar beneath it where the brewery’s award-winning ales and beers can be sampled along with some scrumptious local food – don’t miss trying the seasonal Beer Humbug dark Christmas ale, packed with delicious chocolate and malty flavours. On select Sundays through the month the brewery opens its doors for organised tours inviting visitors to learn about the traditional brewing process from start to finish, before heading to the bar for an all-important tasting.
For more information on Nottinghamshire visit www.experiencenottinghamshire.com.
By Natalie Crofts
Read the rest of the feature from p.116 of the November/December 2015 issue...
Images courtesy of: Visit England, Trevor Pritchard - Nottinghamshire County Council, Natalie Crofts