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Thursday, March 27, 2003

Recently I spent a few days at Ravenscar on the east coast about ten miles north of Scarborough. The dining room windows of the Raven Hall Hotel take in a breathtaking vista across the wide bay and I decided I must get out there and walk along the cliff top to Robin Hoodís Bay. As I walked, it seemed so peaceful in the early morning sunshine, with yellowhammers trilling in the gorse bushes close by and the sound of a distant motorboat on patrol. I was reminded of a time not quite so tranquil when, according to local legend, Robin Hood had a hideout on this spectacular stretch of coastline.

Robin Hood's Bay

Everyone knows that Robin Hood is one of Englandís most famous romantic heroes, but did he really exist? This is a continuing puzzle and there are many stories of his life. One of them claims Robin Hood was born at Wakefield in West Yorkshire where the manor court rolls of 1272-1307 show the existence of a forester called Adam Hood. In 1290, he and his wife produced a son called Robert, a name which at that time was often shortened to Robin.
The young Robin was taught the ways of forest life and was once fined 2d for stealing wood. In 1315, when he was 25, he married Matilda who was described as "a bonny fine maid of worthy degree" and for a time they lived at Campsall between Wakefield and Doncaster. It is possible that Matilda was surnamed Fitzwalter and the daughter of the Baron of Arlingford. Sometime after their wedding, the couple leased a plot of land at Bickhill near Wakefield for which they paid two shillings. It was ten yards long by five yards wide, and there they built a five-bedroomed house. The site was near a medieval market and is near the present Bull Ring.
Robin was recruited by the Earl of Lancaster to fight against Edward II (1307-27); he had no choice but to fight because the land he had leased belonged to the Earl of Lancaster. Robin Hood was 32 when the battle was fought at Boroughbridge in 1322, the king being the victor.
Robin, now considered a rebel because he had fought against the king, had his house confiscated and thus he and Matilda were homeless. She called herself Marion, a name often given to girls called Matilda and the couple fled into the forest to live as outlaws. The dales of Yorkshire were heavily afforested at that time, the massive forest of Barnsdale stretching south from the Yorkshire Dales to join the huge Sherwood Forest near Nottingham.
Robin made two firm friends, one being a seven foot high sailor called John Little and another called Will who always dressed in red. He became known as Will Scarlet. It is known that Edward II began to take a keen interest in Robin and his expanding band of friends because this group of outlaws were rapidly becoming a legend. They roamed the forests around Harrogate and Knaresborough - the story of him meeting Little John on a footbridge and being knocked into the river is said to have occurred near Fountains Abbey. Friar Tuck also hailed from Fountains - there's a lovely story of Robin's first meeting with the "curtal fryar" in the grounds of the abbey.
In one of his battles with the king's men, however, Robin Hood was severely injured and taken to his cousin's convent at Kirklees near Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. She was Elizabeth Stainton, a noted physician and prioress of the convent, and as his supporters waited in the woods, she treated her ailing cousin. But she allowed him to bleed to death for reasons which are not clear. The dying Robin shot an arrow from the room in which he lay and said he wished to be buried where the arrow fell. That grave is in the grounds of the present Kirklees Priory but there is no public access.
If these facts are true, it means Robin Hood was a Yorkshireman, a suggestion that is akin to treason in Nottingham. There are other references to him in Yorkshire; but did he really come to Robin Hoodís Bay when the Kingís men were hunting for him? These stories perpetuate the mystery of Robin Hood but we still donít know whether his life was one of pure fiction or whether the man of this enduring legend actually lived.

Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 08:04 PM GMT [Link]

Monday, March 17, 2003

Next Friday is officially the first day of spring and we sense a feeling of cheerfulness at the prospect of the forthcoming season. It brings a promise of milder weather, fresh flowers and foliage in our gardens and, in the countryside, bird song and new life all around us.

There is little wonder the poets went into raptures about spring. Wordsworth's lakeside host of golden daffodils are too well known for his verse to be repeated here, but he also wrote about the cuckoo, W.H. Davies wrote about singing skylarks, Edmund Spenser featured the 'sweete violet, the pincke and purple cullambine' as well as cowslips, kingcups and daffadowndillies. Browning delighted in the chaffinch singing in the orchard, while Gray spoke of the warbler and John Clare liked peewits, rooks, lady-smocks and horse-blobs but one poet has left us with a puzzle.

What is the sea-blue bird of March that Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) mentions in his poem ĎIn Memoriamí:

When rosy plumelets tuft the larch,
And rarely pipes the mounted thrush;
Or underneath the barren bush
Flits by the sea-blue bird of March.

He might be thinking of the swallow which can arrive in some parts of the country in the early days of March, although we would expect to see our swallows later in the month or even well into April. The nuthatch has a greyish-blue back but its colouring can hardly be called sea-blue and not even the blue tit fits that description.

It follows that not many English birds can be described as sea-blue; perhaps the kingfisher is the most apt. It is present all the year; it is a dazzling sight along our river banks and lake sides in the spring, summer and autumn but migrates to the seaside during a tough winter, where food is more readily available. Its wonderful colouring might be considered the same as a deep blue sea even if it has a lot of red and white among its feathers.

So which bird can claim to be Tennysonís sea-blue bird of March?

Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 04:27 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, March 5, 2003

5 March 2003
A few years ago, I received an interesting letter from a reader of my Countrymanís Diary column in the Darlington & Stockton Times about bird nests. The birds are now singing loudly and practising their spring courtship rituals in order to attract a mate. I have noticed bluetits taking an interest in my birdbox and they have been pecking at the wood in order to rid the box of insects which may have moved in over the winter.

My correspondent gave me a nice little story of how the birds decided on their various nesting habits. Once upon a time, the story goes, all the birds were gathered together for a lesson in nest-building. The wren paid very close attention to what the teacher said and later built a perfect nest. It had a roof, it was cosy and it was weather-proof. The magpie listened intently but it was easily distracted and heard only part of the lesson. As a result, its nest, although rounded with a roof, was far from weather-proof. The pigeon and doves only heard snippets of the lesson because they were far more interested in each other, and so they built a very poor nest with twigs which was flat and open to the elements. Song birds like the thrush and blackbird decided that singing lessons were more important than nest-building and so they managed to built only the bottom half of a nest, while the cuckoo, who regularly played truant, never built a nest at all. It laid its eggs in someone else's nest and let its young be reared by others.

The robin thought it knew more than the teacher and used other things in which to build its nest, like old kettles, pans and derelict cars, while the kingfisher drilled into a riverside bank and decided it was easier to live in the tunnel as it was, rather than build a nest.
And what of the birds that lay their eggs in nests on the ground, and those that donít bother with nests at all but lay their eggs on bare cliffs, or make use of holes in trees? Some build platforms of reeds in lakes and rivers, and some construct very splendid examples under the eaves of our houses. Our nest-builders are very skilled and versatile and I wonder who really did teach them?

Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 03:13 PM GMT [Link]

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