Crime fiction continues to be the world’s best-selling genre and there are reasons why. All stories help us understand the world and our relationship to it. They teach us about risk, about pleasure, about right and wrong – and crime fiction does all this more openly than any other type of writing. What’s more, when you’re dealing in crime, you’re automatically dealing in characters who are hiding the truth, or fictionalising their lives in some way. The connection between truth and fiction is a key element. As a thriller writer, I made sure that every element of the scandal I wrote about in Sea of Bones was rooted in reality. I spent a long time researching the asylum system and the politico-media complex in order to be able to convincingly blur fact and fiction. Why? Because, when you invite people to see their fears and worst experiences reflected, it’s your duty to tell a story that is powerful in its truth. If you are testing moral boundaries, it’s important that a story can’t simply be dismissed as make-believe. That is how a story inflames indignation and – ultimately – how it offers hope.
One of the most enduring crime fiction stories is that of Robin Hood – that behatted, forest-dwelling outlaw. He has successfully exercised our imaginations and our sense of justice for hundreds of years. ‘Robehod’ was a nickname given to bandits and thieves (and woodland spirits) as early as the 12th century. In other words, calling yourself ‘Robin Hood’ would be like someone today telling the police his name is ‘Mickey Mouse’. Ballads from the Middle Ages tell of a yeoman called ‘Robin Hood’ who lived in Sherwood Forest with a band of followers and fought with the Sheriff of Nottingham. He has been portrayed as a vicious, murderous rebel as well as a dispossessed noble who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. In the 15th century, there seemed no question in chroniclers’ minds that Hood was a real historical figure, though modern historians have struggled to find evidence. Still, this hasn’t stopped 20th century film-and-tv-makers exploiting the legend of hope, justice and right over wrong – and with reason, because Robin’s hold over audiences remains as strong as ever. The more the mystery surrounds the figure, the more he seems to become a cipher for the conflicts and moral dilemmas of different epochs.
So, whether you’re a fan who wants to retrace his steps or a writer looking for inspiration, where can you go hunting down the essence of Robin Hood?
1. Sherwood Forest
Robin’s hiding place was among the trees in Sherwood – a primeval woodland in the heart of England, dating from the last Ice Age. Once a royal hunting ground, the forest now boasts over 400 hectares of protected National Nature Reserve, and is managed jointly by a charitable trust, the local council, the Forestry Commission, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The former infrastructure here, concrete car parks and a visitor centre, are being adapted and rewilded.
One of the forest’s major attractions is its collection of ancient oaks, including the Major Oak – a 1000-year-old colossus said to have sheltered Robin and his band of men. This venerable tree and witness to history has had to be supported by scaffolding since Victorian times.
2. Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire
In the absence of any clear link to Robin Hood’s legend, this gorgeously picturesque fishing village on the Yorkshire coast probably got its name from associations with smugglers or bandits or woodland spirits. A letter from Louis, Count of Flanders, dating from the 14th century, begs for the return of his stolen ship taken to ‘Robin Oode Bay.’ By the 18th century, the village was the busiest smuggling community in Yorkshire, protected by marshlands on three sides. Regular battles took place both on land and at sea, and people from all walks of life had a hand in contraband. Wives would throw scalding water out of windows over excise men and there were so many secret nooks and crannies and passageways that it was said a bale of silk could pass top to bottom through the village never entering the streets. Today, the village’s beach provides family fun on the sands and in rock pools. Visitors can enjoy the small shops, cafes and pubs and glorious coastal walks.
Not far away in the attractive coastal town of Whitby, Robin Hood and Little John are said to have had an archery contest. The two skilled archers fired off shots from the roof of the monastery. The arrows are said to have flown more than a mile to Whitby Lathes, where fields are named after each man. It’s possible to walk the 7 miles between Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay, and even to come back via a circular route taking in the ‘Cinder Track’ – the former Scarborough to Whitby railway. And when you’ve done that, you’ve deserved some traditional British fish and chips from one of the town’s many highly-rated Fish ‘n’ Chip purveyors.
4. St Mary’s Church, Edwinstowe
Dating from 1175, this beautiful village church is said to be where Robin Hood and Maid Marian were wed. A statue of the pair stands outside the village library. The village name of Edwinstowe means Edwin’s Holy Place and King Edwin’s body was allegedly laid over here after he was martyred in the Battle of Hatfield in 632. Later, Henry II is supposed to have had the church restored as an act of penitence after the assassination of Archbishop Thomas a Becket. According to nave scholars, Henry’s face glaring at the Archbishop is carved into the nave’s stonework.
Loxley is a village situated in greenbelt in Sheffield’s outskirts. According to John Harrison in the Exact and Perfect Survey and View of the Mannor of Sheffield of 1637, Robin Hood was born in a house or cottage at Little Haggas Croft. According to legend, Robin became an outlaw when he murdered his father and fled to the woods with the support of his mother. There’s no trace of Little Haggas Croft left, but local historians say it is around Loxley Commons. The current Normandale House may stand on the site. This 8-mile walk will give you a flavour of the area’s beautiful valleyed landscape and industrial history, taking you past mills, old ceramics factories and along country lanes and river paths.
6. Robin Hood’s Grave, Kirklees Park
Legend has it that Robin died when he became ill and fled to his aunt, the Prioress of Kirklees, seeking shelter. Persuaded by Sir Roger de Doncaster to murder her nephew, the Prioress slowly bled Robin to death. His strength waning, Robin blew his horn and Little John came to his aid but was too late to save his friend. Allegedly, they went to the window where Robin fired an arrow and asked to be buried where the arrow landed. A mound with an inscription in Kirklees Park supposedly marks this spot. Modern historians however say that the distance from the priory is too far for a medieval arrow’s flight from the priory and neither is there any evidence of a burial here. To make matters worse, the ‘grave’ site is on private property which can only be visited once a year or by arrangement. Perhaps a better tribute would be a trip to Hathersage Church in Derbyshire, where a gravestone is inscribed for Little John. ‘Little’ John was an ironic nickname for a tall man and the churchyard’s layout reflects that large stature.
7. Barnsdale Forest
Some versions of the tales of Robin Hood take place not in Nottingham’s Sherwood, but in Barnsdale Forest, South Yorkshire – including many of his most memorable exploits. ‘Forest’ is a bit misleading: even in medieval times the area was sparsely wooded but still, ambushes were common. The site where the ‘Bishop’s Tree’ once stood lies here. Robin and his men were discovered by the Bishop of Hereford roasting the King’s venison by the roadside. The Bishop challenged them and vowed to show them no mercy, but Robin blew his horn and 60 more men appeared, surrounding the Bishop. They held him for a ransom and made him dance an undignified jig below the tree.
8. Nottingham Castle
The site of a legendary showdown between Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, Nottingham Castle is not the medieval fortress that visitors expect, having been twice destroyed and rebuilt – the last time in the late 19th century. However, these days the Castle offers immersive interactive gaming, including archery and hand-to-hand sparring, to bring 14th-century England to life. What’s more, in a Georgian townhouse not far from the castle’s gates, the Robin Hood experience offers immersive character-based Robin Hood storytelling, the chance to ‘meet’ a medieval peasant family, and an encounter with a Master Bowmen.