Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire is considerably smaller than it once was. The National Nature Reserve, which attracts around 350,000 visitors a year, is around 1,000 acres in size, whereas the original Forest occupied much of the county of Nottinghamshire at the time of Domesday Book in 1086.
One feature that makes the Forest particularly attractive is the preponderance of magnificent oak trees, many of which are extremely old. As one walks through the Forest on the well-maintained tracks and paths, it is impossible not to notice a number of carcasses of very old trees that must once have been absolutely massive. There are also many younger oak trees to be seen, at various stages of maturity, as well as other species.
What one can see today is evidence of how the Forest was managed in past centuries. During the heyday of Britain’s colonial expansion, and her dominance of the seas from the time of Queen Elizabeth I onwards, there was a huge demand for large wooden ships, which were built from English oak. Sherwood Forest supplied a considerable amount of timber for this purpose, as did other English woodlands.
Oak trees are naturally long-lived, maturing over hundreds of years. Some may even live for up to 1,000 years. Foresters seeking oak trees to harvest for timber would look for trees that were neither too old nor too young and not misshapen. That means that many trees in a natural woodland such as Sherwood Forest would not be suitable and would therefore be left.
The rejected trees that were too young to harvest in, say, the 18th century are fully mature today. The older and misshapen trees have since reached the ends of their natural lives and have formed the carcasses that can today be seen dotted around the Forest. It is clear from some of the dead trees, which are twisted into the most extraordinary shapes, that they would never have been suitable for providing timber for Nelson’s Navy.
The gaps left by the harvested oaks have been filled by later growth, not only of oak trees but also other native species such as beech, birch and ash.
The Major Oak
One tree that visitors flock to see is a massive oak that could be as old as 1,000 years, although an age of around 800 years is probably more likely. Although it is “major” in the commonly accepted meaning of that word, having a girth of 33 feet (10 metres), that is not why it is so called. It owes that adjective to Major Hayman Rooke, who wrote a description of it in 1790.
The Major Oak is popularly associated with the legend of Robin Hood, who was supposed to have sheltered beneath it, along with his merry men, during their sojourn in the Forest while hiding from the Sheriff of Nottingham during the last years of the 12th century. The timing would only be correct if the tree is indeed 1,000 years old. If the younger estimates are closer to the mark, the major oak might only have been a sapling, or even an acorn, at the time.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the Major Oak has certainly been revered for a very long time. The tree would almost certainly have collapsed and become yet another forest carcass had the Victorians not propped up its lower branches with the scaffolding poles one can see today.
It has been suggested that the Major Oak is actually three trees growing together. It is not uncommon for oak saplings to fuse together, and that could be one reason why the tree was never felled for timber. It might have been thought that the wood lacked internal strength as a result of its structure.
Whatever the reason for its survival, the Major Oak is definitely worth seeing!