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History & Character Of Place

May 29, 2012

History & Character of Place

Above: Dawn Chorus volunteers recorded a good mix of species in this ancient hedge in Paplewick.

Moore, 1987 (pg.20) “The animus of a place does not have to be taken in any spiritualistic sense but as the geography, the climate, the history and the character of the place, informing all who come in contact with it… A place emanates logos, so that its specific animus is heard and perceived; animus is not merely an organ of human intelligence”. The Genii Cuculati-Hooded Spirit, Genii Loci-spirit of place may have given rise to Robin Hood. He is Sherwood Forests green man, rising from its very earth, roots & foliage. An internationally recognised archetype, he is anima mundi: “a world soul.

Below: a tree with character; do you think this could be the oldest tree in Bradgate Park?


The May or Maiden Marion has strong associations with birch trees, through the imagery of the birch maypole, often a site of May Marrying…a term in common medieval usage.
Birklands in the heart of Sherwood Forest, is arguably named after the Norse birch goddess Birkana; bordering the forest, we have places clearly named after & possibly sacred to Scandinavian gods (Balderton/Balder, Thurgaton/Thor, Calverton has strong Odin associations) could this be the origin of the Maiden? Many fine, old birch trees survive in Sherwood, with a good example at Hollinwell. Certainly the forest throws up evidence of Scandinavian culture, in contrast to the Trent Valley which evidences Anglo-Saxon heritage. Did the name Sherwood come from “Shining-wood” in reference to the birch, no one knows.

Below: Veteran oak in Birklands, Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve.


“The Old Grey Mare is Best” gives a true Nottinghamshire perspective on the Robin Hood story. Folk historians believe that “The Old Grey Mare is Best” is a very ancient tale that has been embellished down the centuries. It ties in with Robin as the Hooden or Hodden Horse, Norse niding and Epona & Rhiannon traditions:

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, when beans were as big as a man’s fist, apple pies grew on trees and socks never smelled. There lived an old squire, in a village in Nottinghamshire. Now the Old Squire’s youngest son, knowing all would go to his older brother, left to seek his fortune elsewhere. But the older son died before the Squire. The Squire then up and died of a broken heart. The bailiff was sent to find the younger son and bring him home. But where to find him, where did he fly? Some folk said he had gone to the wild jungle; some folk said he had gone to the hot desert lands.

Below: children searching in the forest. Photograph by one of our supporters.


When the bailiff had gone away, an old “Twister” from Yorkshire came to the village. He had a letter and claimed that it said that the old squire had left everything to the “Twister”. Now the old parson was blind and could not read the letter and none of the village folk, in those days, could read or write. The next day, the “Twister” came back with his men and a cart and shouted “whoa!” as they entered the village. They loaded the cart, took everything, stripped the village bare. They took: the team of oxen – clem, tom, prince and gem, the big black cart horse – vi’let, the goat-moll, the milking stool, the candle sticks, the good red apples, the firkins of beer, the pancheons and balm pots and pipkins, they cut and stoked the standing corn on that wagon, they took the cabbages from the gardens, they even took the next days eggs! The village folk despaired and cried: “pity us poor folk, out in the mire, leave us a stick to put on the fire”. But the “Twister pitied not”.

Two strangers came into the village, in hooded cloaks. Some folk said they were Robin Hood and Little John. They had a plan to help the folk and whispered it, at the back of the crowd gathered round the “Twister’s” cart. One man piped up – “Twister, you’ve taken most but left the best The Old Grey Mare is best. She will go to market, she will go, she willing goes – and back by herself; she pulls the water from the well, she will – to the well herself; she carries butter on her head – oh yes; she even up and walks on her two back legs”.

“This I must see”, the “Twister” said. “Look at the head land, where the plough turns”, the folk said. And there was a grey-haired farmer’s wife, prancing in the furrows, digging her toes in, drawing a perfect bout, with a woman at the reins and plough line of an old broken sling harness that the “Twister” had rejected, shouting “Gee-up”. The wife had become a horse transformed – but not a nag of course! She tossed her grey haired head to ring the lead bell and make the peewits fly up and the hare run into the gorse and follow; she larked and made a fool of the “Twister”. The folk said, “There she goes, our old Grey Mare is the best and you are a fool”. The “Twister” was angry and thrown into confusion before he could make off with his loot.

Just then into the village rode the bailiff, triumphantly, with the young son, the new squire, dressed in finery: lace collar and cuffs, high boots and shining buttons, and upon a beautiful horse. The village folk gave a great cheer, much rejoicing followed.

When the folk remembered the “Twister”, he had fled with his men, leaving behind the wagon of goods. The folk turned to toast Robin Hood and Little John with a plum and a cherry and all things merry and a jug of beer just for good cheer, but Robin Hood and Little John had gone too. But they had saved the day with the timely prank. The Old Grey Mare had done a good job with an ood and a hod and that’s the story.

Below: oak birch mix in Birklands.


So the folk-lore of the land can arise from its physical qualities & its creatures. Here is an example of a bird whose life style (like that of the owls) has given rise to many myths. Even the name of the Nightjar is a myth. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, thought that the bird stole milk from the udders of goats, causing the goats to go blind. This gives the Nightjar the scientific name, Caprimulgus from “Capra” nanny goat and “mulgus” milk, giving rise to “goatsucker”. This untruth is part responsible for this nocturnal bird’s vampire associations. The chicks, theory goes, hatch at full moon. But certainly the wide, whisker-mouthed parent birds can better feed them by catching heathland and woodland insects in the dusky moonlight. The nests are of twigs and leaves on the ground. Parents can move eggs and chicks if the site is threatened. The birds are well camouflaged, tawny in colour & rarely seen. They have external ears – as only nocturnal birds have & make a “churring” sound in the gloaming often as they fly, disorientating the listener.

Because the bird is active at a time associated in folklore with fairy activity, it is not surprising that the Nightjar enters fairy lore. They are associated with Puck. “Nightjar” is a nickname for the biblical Lilith: “….there for the Nightjar shall rest and find herself a place for repose.” Isaiah 34:14. Lilith was Adam’s first wife, they were created from dust. Lilith (a feminist) thought herself equal to Adam, so left him, only to be punished by God & become a fabled shadowy figure, like the bird. Nightjars prefer to nest on the floor of heathland, fringed by trees, they hunt the tree line for insects to take back to the nest.

Below: typical Nightjar habitat at Sherwood Pines.


The cousins of the UK Nightjars, America’s Whipoornils were said by the Native Americans to hibernate. Scientists find some truth in the myth & it is the only bird to exhibit such behavior. Native Americans thought the Whipoornils were made from human brains and that the birds call was questioning. They for-told death by answering “no” to the bird; if it stopped calling, a person would die, if it continued, the person lived. Hence the Whipoornil is called “corpse bird” and “corpse fowl”, reflecting the myth and reflecting its dusk habits, seen as reflecting movement between day-time and night-time, life and death. “Satanic Nightjar” is a name given to Heinrich’s Nightjar – stories relating to it are too gruesome to tell. In South Vietnam the Nightjar is called the Blacksmith bird and wonderful smith-craft skills are given to anyone dreaming of a Nightjar.

The RSPB have published maps charting the decline of Golden & Sea Eagles since AD 500.  Arnold is little town on the west edge of the southern Nottinghamshire dumbles. “Arnold” means valley of the eagles…it must have been a great sight to see Eagles flying above  Arnold from Dorket Head. Dorket Head means the gate to the valley! Know any one called Arnold?


In the winter you could think this hawthorn bush dead. It stands in Winkburn, near Southwell, not far from the knights Hospitaller church of St John of Jerusalem, a church built on Saxon foundations and with an early Norman tower and Nave. At Whitsuntide, the seemingly dead wood it is all May blossom. In the Christian calendar Whitsuntide is Pentecost, so it is fitting that the tree stands near the Hospitaller’s church.  The week following Whit Sunday used to be a holiday for medieval farm workers, to mark the start of summer, when the white blossom is out. At this holiday girls used to dress in white & Whit fairs took place in some parts of the country, with country dancing, these were called Whitsun Ales. Whit Monday the day after Whitsun, remained a holiday in Britain until 1971. Both the festival and the hawthorn bush in May have become associated with the white goddesses.  On May Day or Beltane, it was said that witches could transform themselves into hawthorn trees. Nimue, Merlins perhaps sister, goddess & queen of witches, trapped Merlin in the thorns of a hawthorn tree. Todays druids & wiccans sometimes hang cloutties or ribbons in hawthorn trees, to ask for wishes or healing, but many green witches ask that this is not done for fear of littering not only the physical but also the magical area around the tree.

Above, Magical bluebell woods in Rutland and ancient woodland in leicestershire.

Below, group of service users on a Dawn Chorus facilitated educational visit to Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve; in an area showing the woodland-heathland mosaic.

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