Welcome to Robin Hood's merry England

The latest Ridley Scott epic highlights some of the myths that exist abroad

By Anthea Gerrie, May 13, 2010
Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire: King John, a villain of the Robin Hood era, died here

Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire: King John, a villain of the Robin Hood era, died here

Robin Hood will be riding through the glen yet again this month, at least on the silver screen - and no doubt Ridley Scott's epic is not the last we'll see of Friar Tuck, Maid Marian or Robin himself.  Nor of Merlin, Lancelot and King Arthur, for that matter, given the fact that myths and legends are woven into our national psyche, and we seem to love keeping them alive.

To make it easier to follow in the footsteps of Robin and other legendary heroes - not to mention a fair few real and legendary villains - Visit England has launched a new Myths and Legends map and website.  

Naturally, the new movie will focus attention on Sherwood Forest, though there's no evidence Robin actually hung out there. Still, it's a beautiful nature reserve and a good place to explore the myth of the man through an exhibition which traces the folklore. Nearby Nottingham is a thriving city often overlooked by tourists, though not for much longer, given that the evil Sheriff who was Robin's nemesis had his HQ in the Castle. 

There is some fine art in here, and the nearby caves, which date back to the Middle Ages, and will be popular  with children. Grown-ups could take respite, as the crusading knights did, at the Old Trip To Jerusalem, a 12th-century inn carved into the castle rock. Its cellar was once part of the castle jail and would certainly have held outlaws from Sherwood Forest.

King John, another villain of the Robin Hood era, is also linked to Nottinghamshire. He died at Newark Castle, a spectacular ruin with a fine Norman gatehouse whose towers and dungeons can still be toured.

In truth, Robin of Sherwood may have been Robyn Hood of Wakefield or Robert Hod, who fled York after defaulting on a debt in 1226. But he is most likely to be Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, whose tomb stands close to Yorkshire's Kirklees Prior. 

It's here the fictional hero was bled to death by his cousin, and then shot an arrow through the window, telling Little John to bury him where it fell  The clue lies in the epitaph engraved on his tombstone, which includes the lines: "Never was there archer as he so good... and people called him Robin Hood."            

Whatever the truth, Yorkshire is a beautiful county and a great place to explore legends, starting perhaps by gazing upon the Rudston Monolith near Bridlington in the East Riding. 

The tallest standing stone in England, this 50-ton slab is three storeys high and nearly five foot wide and believed to have been dragged there by Druids 2500 years ago. Legend has it that men who touch the rock with their wedding ring three nights in succession will never have to resort to Viagra.

Not far away is the spooky Burton Agnes Hall. In this Elizabethan Mansion lies a so-called Screaming Skull, said to belong to Anne, the youngest daughter of the family. A victim of murder, her dying wish, was to be laid to rest in the new home she would never survive to enjoy. Her sisters refused, but soon after Anne was buried, strange happenings began to take place. Her head was returned to the Hall, but future attempts to remove the skull resulted in more hauntings, so it has been carefully hidden in the building - and hopefully visitors won't trip over it.

Unlike Anne, Ursula Shipton grew up to become a famous soothsayer of the 16th century. Mother Shipton, as she was known, foresaw the Spanish Armada, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the Civil War and even the invention of the steam ship. The cave where she was born lies beside the river in pretty Knaresborough, on the doorstep of the Yorkshire Dales, where it has predictably become a visitor attraction. 

Given that Arthurian legend is centred on south-west England, the north-east also has unlikely associations with Guinevere and Lancelot.  The Queen and her favourite knight are said to have escaped, after their adulterous affair was discovered, to Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast.  

Whatever the truth of the rumour, this coastline is glorious, particularly Holy Island and Lindisfarne - both replete with their own legends - and kids will enjoy exploring Alnwick Castle, celluloid home of that much more modern legend, Harry Potter.       

Tintagel, on the north Cornwall coast, is where King Arthur is said to have been born - and what a spectacular ruin it is today, a wonderful place to wander in, standing over the sea, and perhaps relax in one of the grassy "rooms" with a good book.  But travellers should beware a much more modern legend, the Beast of Bodmin, as they drive south on the A30 - this large black feline has been sighted on the moor many times.

Camelot is not the only legendary kingdom to be centred on Cornwall.  The Lost Kingdom of Lyonesse is said to have stretched 28 miles out into the Atlantic from Lands End, a land of thriving towns and farms that was home to tragic lovers Tristan and Isolde. Fascinatingly, the two legends have some crossover - it was in Lyonesse that Arthur is believed to have fought his final battle against Mordred, and the Scilly Isles are believed to be the remnants of the mythical kingdom.         

Where there's sea, mermaids are never far away, and there's a plaintive tale linked to the one carved into the 600-year-old bench at St Senara Church in Zennor on the west Cornwall coast. This is where handsome Matthew Trewhella once sang the closing hymn, enchanting a fish-tailed girl from nearby Pendour Cove with his lovely voice. 

She used to turn up to services wearing a long dress to hide her tail, but eventually had to come clean about being a creature of the sea - whereupon young Matthew carried her back into the waves and was never seen again.   Visitors sitting above Pendour Cove  still report hearing him singing at sunset on warm summer days.

Whether returning to London, Manchester or Birmingham, the route back from Cornwall leads through Somerset, England's capital of myth and legend.   Here lies Wookey Hole, occupied by a wicked witch who ruined hundreds of young lives until she was exorcised by the Holy Clerk of Glastonbury.   

Now mercilessly exploited as an attraction, Wookey has recruited a 21st-century woman to play a witch for the entertainment of visitors. But Glastonbury itself is home to at least 100 real witches.

The town, which is built on the confluence of several ley lines, is a centre of Wicca and full of shops selling magic wands and other spell-weaving stuff. Glastonbury is also believed to be the seat of the King of the Fairies, a Druid sanctuary, a beacon for UFO's and the hiding place of the Holy Grail. No wonder the Festival is always a sell-out! 

Even those of us who live in cities are never far from legends, it seems.  South of Manchester is Alderley Edge, whose Wizard inn is named for the old man believed to be Merlin who tapped a rock at this lovely wild site with his staff to reveal iron gates leading to a hall full of sleeping knights.

To the north lies the land of the Pendle Witches, hanged following the nation's most famous witchcraft trial, while to the west lies Beeston Castle, where Richard II is said to have dumped his treasure at the bottom of a well shaft before abdicating.

London is home to Dick Whittington's stone on Highgate Hill, the ravens of the Tower of London and - yes - Camelot, believed by some to be located on the small moated island hidden in a beech wood behind Trent Park.

It seems there's no getting away from Arthur, and if we are all being led a dance through Merrie England looking for him and Guinevere, Robin and Marion, beasts and witches, it will at least be a beautiful midsummer night's dream - providing the weather holds.

Last updated: 11:19am, May 13 2010