England: Taking in the sights of Robin's 'hood'

By Amy Laughinghouse

On the eve of this week's release of the new Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, the media rabble have stormed Nottingham Castle, situated on a hilltop above a statue of the feather-capped crusader.

Camera crews have amassed for a preview of a new exhibition featuring props and costumes from the movie, including a wasp-waisted bodice and skirt worn by Blanchett's Marian and gleaming gold chainmail and fur cape sported by Prince John.

Outside the castle, a modern-day version of the Sheriff of Nottingham is on hand and looking suitably menacing, with his shaved pate and black robes. He poses for a photo with a local Robin Hood, pumping hands with the notorious outlaw before wryly remarking, "There now. He's got my wallet."

When a heckler jokingly objects that the two are supposed to be enemies, the Sheriff offers a velvet-cloaked shrug, "It's our day off."

Inside, Robin Hood set designer Sonja Klaus, who has worked with Scott and Crowe several times, most notably on Gladiator, holds court against a backdrop of film clips portraying a gritty medieval world.

This film is definitely not about men in tights behaving badly - or indeed, any tights at all.

"We have none of those - and no peaked hats, either," Klaus laughs, adjusting a quiver strapped to a mannequin dressed in Crowe's moss-green tunic, leather trousers and brown suede hood. "This film is very real," she explains.

"It's about what it was like living then and being there."

In this latest incarnation of Robin Hood, "then" is 13th century England, and our hero is a former archer in King Richard the Lionheart's army. In actuality, just who he was and where he came from - or if he even existed at all - depends upon who you ask.

Down the centuries Robin Hood has morphed from a simple yeoman in early 15th century ballads to a disenfranchised earl in the late 16th century to an outer-space desperado in a 1960s cartoon series. In more down-to-earth portrayals he has been depicted as a former soldier in the crusades returning as a quasi-pacifist sickened by battle.

"People who are looking for the 'real' Robin Hood are barking up the wrong tree," frowns Ade Andrews, a Sherwood Forest heritage ranger and actor who offers a brooding take on the brigand as he leads a tour through the city.

Although at least half a dozen outlaws named "Robinhood" or "Robehood" appear in English records throughout the 13th century, from Berkshire in the south to Yorkshire in the north, Andrews believes the world's best-loved bandit is really an idealised archetype, "a symbol of truth, justice and freedom".

Decked out in studded leather trousers, brown-fringed vest and battle-tattered moss-green shirt that reveals a frankly distracting amount of chest hair, Andrews strides down Nottingham's shop-lined streets and cobblestone alleys, pointing out landmarks like the grand Market Square, where a disguised Robin Hood supposedly met the sheriff's wife, and a local shopping mall, perhaps the only mall on the planet with an entrance to a network of caves, where the scofflaw reputedly used to hide.

In front of St Mary's Church, Andrews pauses to explain that Nottingham derives its name from King Snott of Denmark, who settled this area in the sixth century. The city eventually dropped the "S", because the invading Normans couldn't pronounce it.

This church is one of the most important sites on the tour, for Robin was supposedly captured here after a heroic fight. He was then imprisoned across the street in the stone-columned jail where condemned felons were hung on the steps until 1864.

Today, the jail functions as the Galleries of Justice Museum and houses the largest collection of prison artefacts in the United Kingdom. More to the point for Robin Hood fans, there is also a recently rediscovered wine bottle-shaped dungeon in which the outlaw would likely have been imprisoned.

"There was no way to escape, because the walls were sandstone and would rip at your fingers," guide Helen Shepherd explains. But don't fret for old Robin, folks, because according to the story one of his Merry Men arrived with a rope to rescue him.

Beyond the city, pilgrims anxious to follow in the footsteps of Robin can pursue an audio trail that leads to a dozen key sites, including St Mary's Church in Edwinstowe, where Robin and Marian were married; Creswell Crags, limestone caves said to be another hiding place for the fugitive; and Sherwood Forest Country Park, home of the massive Major Oak where Robin gathered with his men.

A wide, flat path winds through this forest of silver birch and ancient oaks to the mighty Major, which rests its octopus-like branches upon sturdy poles, like a wizened old man leaning on a Zimmer frame. Little wonder that it needs support, given that the tree is an estimated 800 to 1200 years old.

But to really get inside Robin Hood's head, I get behind a bow and arrow at the Adrenalin Jungle Activity Centre within Sherwood Forest. After an obligatory cup of tea, instructor Dave Gallop leads us to a grassy field with a bulls-eye target at one end. Picking up a fibreglass bow, he instructs us to stand perpendicular to the target with our feet shoulder-width apart, draw the string back across the right cheek with the left arm almost horizontal, and release our arrows.

Amazingly, when I let my arrows fly, they actually hit the target (well, more often than not). When Ridley Scott casts his Robin Hood sequel, I'll be ready for his call.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to London. From London, you can take a train to Nottingham.

Things to do: Take a tour of Nottingham with Ade Andrews.

Explore the City of Caves, Broadmarsh Shopping Centre.

Visit Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery which has an exhibition of Robin Hood movie costumes and props until the end of October.

Further information: See visitbritain.com/movies, robinhoodbreaks.com and visitnottingham.com.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 25 Dec 2014 20:57:18 Processing Time: 1189ms