A Trip to Mansfield

Hannah and Rob travelled to Mansfield for a regimental dinner and a visit to Sherwood Forest

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Seaforth Highlanders (Notts Branch) 48th Annual Dinner

On Saturday 26th April, we were invited to attend the 48th annual dinner of the Seaforth Highlanders Regimental Association (Notts Branch), which was held at the Oakham Suite, Mansfield. But perhaps we should start with a bit of background about this invitation…

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At the outbreak of WWII, Hannah’s English grandfather, George Priest, enlisted in the army and was sent to Scotland to join the Seaforth Highlanders. (At the same time, confusingly, her Scottish grandfather was signed up to the Welsh Guards.) George’s experiences with the Seaforths during the war were (unsurprisingly) a very significant part of his life, and Hannah grew up listening to his stories and reading his (as yet unpublished) memoirs of WWII. Although he left the army after being demobbed, George remained an active member of the Regimental Association until his death in 1995.

One of the things George learnt during the war, and which continued to be a passion throughout his life, was the bagpipes. He continued to play in the Pipes and Drums band, attending practice in Nottingham before setting up a Mansfield band in the early 60s. Hannah has many happy memories of listening to her granddad play and, when she was old enough, of going along to band practice with him (as did her younger brother). Her granddad even taught her the basics of playing the practice chanter, until her dad made it quite clear he’d rather hear her play the clarinet. (A love of the bagpipes skipped a generation in Hannah’s family!)

A couple of years ago, Hannah decided to look up the Notts branch and see if the band was still going strong. Happily, she found it was. But also discovered that the current Pipe Major, Robert Orridge, had written some lovely words about George on the band’s website. She sent a quick message via the site—just to say how happy she was that her granddad was still remembered and that the band he had co-founded was thriving—and received a response back soon afterwards. A few months later, we were invited along to the annual dinner.

Hannah’s granddad was the Regimental Association secretary for a number of years

The Regimental Association dinners were a big part of the social calendar for Hannah’s grandparents. George was Association secretary for a number of years and so organizing the annual events was a part of his role, but it was Hannah’s grandma Nora who was the real driving force behind this. Nora was incredible at organizing parties (whether formal events or family gatherings), and Hannah remembers the huge amount of work she put into the preparations for the Seaforths dinners—especially as she was sometimes roped in to fold raffle tickets. Given how important these events were to George and Nora, it seemed right that we accepted Bob’s invitation and went along to the 48th annual dinner.

We weren’t really sure what to expect. The band has a lot of new members, and we weren’t sure how many of them would remember George and Nora. It was also a little strange to be going along as ‘interlopers’, albeit ones with a tenuous connection to the branch. But we had nothing to fear. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted very warmly by the Pipe Major and seated at a table with old friends of Hannah’s grandparents, who shared plenty of stories about George and Nora (and a lovely photo of them at a dinner in the 70s). The company, meal, toasts and speeches were great, but the highlight for us was definitely when the band entered and played.

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Hannah had another nice surprise later in the evening, when the prizes were handed out. Unbeknownst to her, the band were still awarding the ‘George Priest Memorial Trophy’ to the piper who had shown the most improvement. George was a patient and encouraging teacher, so the award seems a really appropriate one to give in his memory. Until 2014, the band trophies were wooden plaques with engraved shields (adding a new name each year). Seeing the awards trophies brought more nostalgia for Hannah, as she remembered George and Nora’s spare bedroom being filled with them—one of George’s roles as secretary was to ensure that the new recipients’ names were added in time for the annual dinner. Sadly, the plaques were retired in 2014, but as a final little surprise, Hannah was asked if she would like to keep the George Priest award as a memento of her granddad’s legacy. It now has pride of place in our living room.

And so the evening came to an end (with us promising to go back again the following year). We were staying a little bit outside Mansfield, so had to make sure we didn’t miss our taxi—otherwise it would have been a very long walk!

We stayed at Sherwood Forest Lodge Bed and Breakfast, a relaxed and welcoming B and B surrounded by beautiful views of the countryside. Good hospitality, a comfy bed and a tasty breakfast—what more could you ask?

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Sherwood Forest

On Sunday, we decided to make the most of our location and visit Sherwood Forest.

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Sherwood Forest was an ancient hunting forest, which covered around a quarter of the county of Nottinghamshire (stretching from Worksop to Nottingham) at the time the Domesday Book was compiled. The core remnant of this forest is now the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve, which includes most of the 450-acre country park that most people think of when they think of Sherwood Forest. As well as being an NNR, Sherwood Forest has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, and the Sherwood Forest Trust has been set up to protect and preserve the forest’s natural and cultural heritage.

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The forest’s ecology is diverse and fascinating (including nightjars, woodlarks and hawfinches, and some rare beetles and insects, but it’s probably the oak trees that are most famous—and one oak tree, in particular. The Sherwood Forest NNR is home to around 1000 ancient oak trees, most of which are more than 500 years old. In the midst of this ancient woodland stands the Major Oak, a great-granddaddy of a Quercus robar, still standing (with a little help from its friends) after somewhere between 800 and 1000 years.

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The Major Oak—the Woodland Trust’s Tree of the Year 2014—weighs an estimated 23 tons and has a girth of around 33 feet and a spread of over 92 feet. One of the earliest mentions of the tree, then named as Cockpen Tree, comes from the 18th century, and there’s a legend that the tree’s interior was used to pen birds to be used for cockfighting. After that, the tree was known as the Queen Oak, before it acquired the name of The Major’s Oak after its inclusion in Major Hayman Rooke’s book on the ancient trees of Sherwood. In 2015, the tree is still living and is inspected regularly by tree surgeons and forest rangers. And it still produces the odd acorn too—though the forest’s SSSI status means that these are protected by law (although reports sometimes surface of illegal trade).

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The distinctive hollow trunk is due to fungus rotting the tree’s core, a common feature of ancient oaks

It has been speculated that the tree’s unusual shape and giant size are due to it originally growing from several trees that fused together as saplings. Alternatively—though less likely—the tree may have been pollarded. Either way, the oak’s massive limbs have needed support for the past few centuries, and the tree has been supported by scaffolding since the 1700s. In the Edwardian period, the tree was supported by metal chains and lead sheet; however, these were removed in the 1970s and replaced with wooden struts. Today, there are a series of much less obtrusive steel poles that support the mighty weight of the ancient tree. The distinctive hollow trunk, which Hayman Rooke claimed could easily have been widened (with the help of an axe) to admit a carriage to pass through, is due to fungus rotting the tree’s core and is apparently a common feature of ancient oak trees—there’s a lot of really interesting information about ancient oaks in this blog post.

But fungus or not, the tree’s characteristic ‘opening’ has led to the most popular legend about its history: it is said that Robin Hood himself took shelter within its colossal trunk. Because, of course, Sherwood Forest is now best known for its association with the world’s favourite sylvan outlaw.

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Tempting as it is to believe when you look at it, it’s unlikely that Robin Hood was able to hide in the Major Oak. At the time that Robin was stealing from the rich to give to the poor, this majestic tree would have been naught but a sapling. But Sherwood Forest has been home to oak trees for a long time, so it’s always possible Robin took shelter in some other now-lost oak.

The home of Robin Hood

Sherwood has been the accepted home of Robin Hood since the earliest recorded versions of his tale. Today the forest presents this history in a family-friendly way, encouraging visitors to engage with the legends that they know from film and television—though perhaps occasionally straying a little from historical accuracy. In 2014, the visitor centre provided a lively and familiar exhibition about Robin Hood, surrounded by his faithful Merry Men and the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. While Hannah’s medievalist brain hurt a little from some of the broad claims that were made about life in the twelfth century (and Rob had to politely ask her to stop adding footnotes to everything), there is something very enjoyable about revisiting the characters and plots that we’ve all known since childhood. And for Hannah, there was a pleasant nostalgia in returning to the place she used to visit with her grandparents when she was a child. (Hannah and her brother once pestered their granddad to buy them a ‘Robin Hood’ bow-and-arrow set at the gift shop; he responded by teaching them how to make their own bow out of a garden cane and some twine… and that was a lot more exciting.)

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The current visitor centre was built in the 1970s and sits on NNR-designated land. Notts County Council have planned to build a new visitor attraction, and ideas have included a theme park and a ‘Robin Hood experience’. However, in August 2015, it was announced that a consortium led by the RSPB is the preferred bidder for the contract to design and run a new centre, which will focus on conservation management as well as sustainable visitor experience. Contracts are yet to be signed, but this could be the beginning of a whole new chapter in the Sherwood Forest story…

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London: The Natural History Museum

A flying visit to London for a talk at the Natural History Museum

This was a very quick visit to the capital! In 2014, the Natural History Museum held an exhibition entitled Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, which showcased some of the earliest artefacts in human history. It was an ambitious and fascinating exhibition, and it included the Swanscombe skull, the 500,000-year-old tibia of ‘Boxgrove Man’ and the oldest spear in the world among many, many other things. The exhibition built on the work of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, and included a lot of information about the findings of the project researchers (not least the discoveries that reveal human occupation of Britain 950,000 years ago—some 450,000 years earlier than was previously thought).

Cannibalism: What’s All the Fuss?

The reason for our visit in April was that Hannah had been asked to speak at an ‘After Hours’ public event tied in to the exhibition: ‘Cannibalism: What’s All the Fuss?’ The event brought together Dr Kaori O’Connor, social anthropologist at University College London, Jill Cook from the British Museum’s Department of Prehistory and Europe and Hannah, with her academic hat on as a popular culture expert, to discuss the history of cannibalism in cultural practice and the cultural imagination. It was a very well-attended and lively event—despite (or perhaps because of) the rather gruesome title—and after the speakers finished their initial presentations there were a lot of questions and discussions from the audience. With a huge conversation covering Neanderthals, homo sapiens, endo- and exocannibalism in various cultural practices (or in myths of cultural practice), corpse medicine, cultic ritual, horror fiction and Soylent Green, we came very close to missing our train back to Manchester! Poor Hannah had to attempt a not-so-swift exit shortly before the end of the event, trying to remove her mic while still answering the last few questions.

The Natural History Museum probably doesn’t need much introduction here, as it’s one of London’s many iconic buildings and is very well-attended by both national and international visitors. The museum is housed in a building in South Kensington designed by Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed the Manchester Museum (which we’ve talked about in a previous post) and Manchester Town Hall. The museum itself dates back to 1753, when Parliament purchased the collection of Dr Hans Sloane and decided to display Sloane’s collection of around 71,000 natural history and cultural artefacts to the public. A new museum—the British Museum—was created and housed in Montagu House, Bloomsbury; it opened its doors to the public (free to ‘all studious and curious Persons’) in 1759.

Waterhouse made extensive use of terracotta tiles to withstand the smog of Victorian London

In 1856, Richard Owen took charge of the British Museum’s natural history collection and, among many changes Owen brought in, the need for a separate building to house the collection was proposed. A national competition was launched to find someone to design the new building and, in 1864, architect Francis Fowke won the commission to build the museum’s new home in South Kensington. Sadly Fowke died unexpectedly before being able to execute his designs, and Waterhouse was appointed to take over the project. Making extensive use (both inside and out) of terracotta tiles to withstand the smog of Victorian London—as well as his characteristic Romanesque style—Waterhouse created the building that we know and love today. Not only that, but Waterhouse’s design (and Richard Owen’s vision of a museum that could showcase all species—no matter how big) resulted in a building grand enough to house everything from the Danionella translucida to the Diplodocus carnegii.

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The museum continued to be part of the British Museum for another century, with its formal name being The British Museum (Natural History). However, many supporters of the Natural History Museum—including Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace—pushed for the museum’s independence from the British Museum. Eventually, in 1963, this was achieved when Parliament passed the British Museum Act 1963, although the museum’s name didn’t change formally until 1992. In 1986, the museum absorbed the Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey (which was housed next door), and a gallery was opened to connect the two buildings in 1989. The museum is now also home to the Darwin Centre, which houses both historic specimens and contemporary research facilities.

NHM Foyer
Photo: heatheronhertravels via Creative Commons

Many of the museum’s exhibits can truly be called iconic. Most famously, Dippy the Diplodocus, the 32-metre cast of the Diplodocus carnegii skeleton that has greeted guests since 1905, was the subject of the 1975 Disney film One of Our Dinosaurs in Missing, is set to go on a UK tour from 2017, and has its own Twitter account.

But equally impressive (though not on public display) is Archie the Giant Squid—or Architeuthis dux to give her formal name—an 8-metre giant squid accidentally caught in a fishing net and now preserved undissected in ‘wet storage’. Archie is the ‘star’ of one of Hannah’s favourite books—China Miéville’s wonderfully off-the-wall urban fantasy Kraken, a detective story about a stolen squid, mysterious cults and the end of the world. Miéville’s description of the museum’s research facilities—and of the building that houses them and the city that surrounds them—is evocative, unsettling and captivating. But Archie herself remains suitably mysterious throughout the book.

For more information about the Natural History Museum’s giant squid, curator Jon Ablett explains the rare specimen in this short video:

A Trip to the Forest of Dean

Hannah attended a training session in the Forest of Dean, one of the surviving ancient woodlands of England

Recently, Hannah travelled to the Forest of Dean for a training session. It was only a flying visit, but this post gives a little taste of the area.

The Forest of Dean is an area of woodland in the west of Gloucestershire—one of the surviving ancient woodlands of England. The Forest was originally part of a hunting reserve demarcated in 1066, and was England’s second largest crown forest throughout the later Middle Ages. The Forest is now around 43 square miles of mixed woodland, and gives its name to a local government district and a parliamentary constituency (both of which comprise larger areas than the historic Forest of Dean itself).

Evidence of early sea trading and Iron Age forts has been found in the area

The area is rich in both prehistory and history. Megalithic monuments were discovered in the area, including the Longstone at St Briavels (sadly destroyed in 1875) and the Wibdon Broad Stone in Stroat (which may have been placed during a stone-throwing competition between the Devil and Jack o’ Kent, or so the stories say). Archaeological evidence of Bronze Age field systems, early sea trading and Iron Age hill forts has also been found in the area.

The medieval and post-medieval history of the area reveals a lot about the history of the English landscape, of the relationship between the ancient forests and the crown, of how this intersects with the aristocratic pursuit of hunting, and of the impact of this on the rest of the population. The story of the Dean Forest Riots, for instance, gives an insight into the devastating effects of enclosure on foresters’ traditional way of life—as well as the ways iron and coal miners tried to resist the exploitation that came with the Industrial Revolution.

Forest of Dean
Photo: Angel Ganev via Creative Commons

If I’d been staying in the area a little longer, I would’ve been interested in visiting the ‘dark tourism’ museum at Littledean Jail, near Cinderford. This museum is housed in a former prison (built in the late eighteenth century), which was considered a ‘revolutionary’ house of correction in its day. Nowadays, Littledean Jail houses a museum of crime and police memorabilia, as well as a bizarre array of truly disturbing artefacts—including (according to their website) ‘instruments of punishment and torture through the ages’, ‘freaks of nature, oddities and curiosities’, a ‘Gypsy caravan’ and ‘Princess Diana’s letters’. They also hold regular paranormal investigations. Perhaps I’ll return to visit the Jail and it’ll be the subject of a later post.

The tale of the bears of Ruardean

The Forest of Dean also boasts some fabulous folklore, legends and tall tales. One of the darker stories about the area is the tale of the bears of Ruardean. The story goes that, in 1889, a group of Frenchmen arrived in Cinderford with two Russian (performing) bears. Supposedly, a popular myth at the time was that performing bears were fed on the flesh of children, so it was only a matter of time before the travellers and their animals were implicated in the death of a local child. An angry mob formed, and two of the Frenchmen were chased and beaten. The bears were killed. Residents of nearby Ruardean witnessed the attack and rushed to the performers’ aid, before sheltering the men and tending to their wounds. The attackers were fined, but the legal proceedings erroneously referred to them as residents of Ruardean instead of Cinderford, leading to a long-standing animosity between villages (characterized by the taunt of ‘Who killed the bears?’, which apparently still stings to this day).

But back to my visit…

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The training session was held at Deanwood Holidays, a caravan and camping site near the village of Yorkley. The holiday park only opened in 2013, so it has a fresh and clean feel to it. It also boasts an impressive number of facilities for both holiday-makers and other groups.

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The campsite has hard standing pitches for caravans and motorhomes, as well as grass camping pitches over two fields. There is a heated shower block, and a washing-up room (with access to a washing machine, tumble dryer and freezer). The site also has a sports hall and the Deanwood Indoor Play Barn (complete with bouncy castle, space hopper
race track and pedal tractors).

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Our group had hired one of Deanwood’s function rooms, with accommodation in the bunk house style dormitories. As there were no other bookings that weekend, we had exclusive use of the (large) kitchens and dormitories. These facilities are ideal for an informal meeting followed by a communal meal with socializing afterwards—which is exactly what happened. The kitchens are also equipped to commercial standards, so I presume more formal catering for larger groups would not be a problem.

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Deanwood is bit of an unusual venue—in a good way. The grass camping pitches are in gently sloping fields looking out over the peaceful landscape of the Forest of Dean—apparently you can see as far as the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons—and surrounded by woodland paths. On the other hand, the barn itself is huge, new and shiny. On a first visit, it’s quite easy to get lost between the kitchen, meeting rooms and dormitories. It’s really a place of two halves.

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Perhaps this says more about the sort of films I watch than Deanwood itself, but I can’t help but feel that this would be exactly the sort of place a hardened band of zombie apocalypse survivors would barricade themselves into. There’s something about the labyrinthine, industrial kitchens and bunkhouses coupled with the picturesque rural seclusion that feels a bit 28 Days Later (and I don’t mean the good guys). I floated this idea to my colleagues, but they claimed I simply have an overactive imagination. Still, immersive zombie apocalypse experiences are popular at the moment, and you could run an amazing game at Deanwood…