When you think of Robin Hood you probably think of Sherwood Forest in Nottingham but what purports to be his cave is in Derbyshire (in his era Sherwood Forest spread up all the way up to Sheffield.) Here I am on a walk up to it on a Saturday afternoon.
It wasn’t a good start. I tried to park the car on an uneven grass verge and could feel the exhaust box catching the earth. A passing walker peered through the windscreen with a “Oooohh” wince but it meant I could chat to him and find out where the cave was. He was about 70 and a typical GOM (Grumpy Old Man) with a permanent frown straining his face.
“Oh, I curse that bloody vicar in Hathersage who released a map of walks showing where the cave is,” he groaned, “All the masses flock to it now.”
The big bag of laughs continued, “The cave was a secret once but it’s like bloody Blackpool here at the weekends.” He said the cave was easy to miss and told me keep my eyes open for a certain rock that points down to the cave.
“It won’t be long till they put a bloody MacDonald’s up there,” he said, “And some lights and a bloody viewing balcony.”
I set off. Before me was Stanage Edge, a gritstone escarpment and I had to meander up through a wood on a zigzag path to get up to it. In the trees I passed a carrot-haired man coughing and spluttering so much I went to check he was okay. His eyes and nose were streaming so much he needed a mop - a tree allergy, he murmured between nose blows. It worked out he lived in Burnage which is not far from home.
“Have you ever seen the Gallagher brothers visiting their mum?” I asked referring to Oasis, Manchester mega group. He looked puzzled.
“Liam or Noel; when they got rich they offered to buy their mum a mansion but she decided to stay in her council house in Burnage, she just wanted a new number “5" for her gate?” He looked even more puzzled.
He’d lived in Burnage for 20 years and didn’t know that’s were Oasis sprung from - that’s all Burnage is known for - nothing else. Where had he been living for 20 years - up a tree? Probably not bearing in mind the allergy.
We chatted as we did the zig-zag walk up to the cliffs. He was numbingly boring and I couldn’t find any purchase on his mind on which to make some conversation. I thought “when we get to the top I’m going whichever way he isn’t going.” Thankfully he suddenly stopped. “Fag break,” he said and pulled out some cigarettes and sat on a rock. I made my escape.
Later on the walk down the same path I would pass two old men puffing and panting and overhead one say, “I stopped going when they took kippers off the menu.” I once rented a flat to a man who called his son “Kip” and he said his nappies had smelt like kippers. I’ve never eaten kippers but like the word. Up on the cliffs I passed a group of mentally-handicapped kids with guardians. One lad was in a wheelchair. Not sure how they had got him up there but good on them for not leaving him strapped to the van’s roof rack.
The GOM I’d spoken to before said Robin Hood’s cave was “about two-thirds along” the cliffs but when you’re stood on them it’s difficult to get a measure of them. I had a long stroll along the cliffs and tried not to go too close to the edge. There’re traces of an old packhorse path and I wondered what day the last horse pulled its cargo along it. Sheep with lambs looked nonchalantly at the Latex-clad climbers suddenly appearing at the cliff edge or going over it. I saw no foxgloves that seem to thrive in hardy conditions, no litter, not one of those cardboard Kosta Coffee cups seem to populate rural locations.
I was engrossed in an audio book and, in my imagination, I was being hunted by a killer in a forest in Canada - so much that I missed the stone which points down to Robin Hood’s cave. I walked for a mile before I spotted a man with a map and asked if Robin Hood’s cave was on it. I had walked passed it and turned back. I removed the ear plugs so I could concentrate. One woman climber about to go over the edge was hugging a rug like it was made of gold. She looked terrified, “I don’t like. I don’t like it. I don’t like it! No - no!” she said to her partner. Another person filming her continued to capture her fear. I felt uncomfortable and moved on. I didn’t blame her for being scared; I felt queasy on the top deck of a bus.
Suddenly I happened up Robin Hood’s cave and found it easily accessed. I could understand why people could settle there; the photos don’t show it but there are dug out areas, cubby holes, one or two round “rooms” you live or store food in. Near the ‘lounge’ there’s a bath where Robin washed himself, a “look-out” bit and a few pot holes where Maid Marion might have washed her frocks. I’m not sure Robin Hood existed but I could see how someone could make a wee home there through the summer months.
The first known literary reference to Robin Hood and his men was in 1377 and manuscripts in the British Museum details his life saying he was born in around 1160 in Lockersley (probably present day Loxley) in South Yorkshire. Ballads tell of a violent yeoman who lived in Sherwood Forest with his men and frequently clashed with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Rather than a peasant, knight or fallen noble man he was a commoner. Little John and Will Scarlet are part of this Robin’s “merry” crew (at the time “merry” meant an outlaw’s gang) but Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and Alan-a-Dale were probably added to the legend to colour to infuse some colour into the May Day rituals.
He had a coastal refuge at Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire. A well-known story about Robin that places him in the monastery at Whitby, Yorkshire. He and Little John had a friendly archery contest - who could shoot an arrow the greatest distance. The arrows fell at Whitby Lathes (more than a mile away - blimey) and the fields where the arrows landed are known as Robin Hood's Close and Little John's Close.