A Trip to Mansfield

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

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a very significant part of his life, and Hannah grew up listening to his stories and reading his (as yet unpublished) memoirs of WWII.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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