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A Merrie Tale of Sherwood Forest

Enjoy a fascinating and enchanting walk among the age-old oaks of this legendary forest.

Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 278ft (85m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Easy woodland tracks and wide forest rides

Landscape Beautiful mixed woodland, more open to north

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 270 Sherwood Forest

Start/finish SK 626676

Dog friendliness On lead around visitors' centre, otherwise excellent

Parking Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre (pay-and-display)

Public toilets Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre

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1 Facing the main entrance to Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre from the car park, turn left and follow the well-signposted route to the Major Oak.

2 Go along the curving path as it completes a semi-circle around the impressive old tree and continue as far as the junction with a public bridleway (signposted). Turn left here and walk this straight and uncomplicated route for ¼ mile (400m), ignoring all paths off.

3 At a green notice board, warning of a nearby military training area, the main path bears left. Instead go straight ahead, past the metal bar gate, for a path that continues over a crossroads to become a wide, fenced track through pleasant open country of heather and bracken known as Budby South Forest.

4 At the very far side go through a gate and turn left on to an unmade lane, and walk this undulating route for ¾ mile (1.2km).

5 At the major junction just before the plantation begins, turn left, indicated 'Centre Tree'. With the rows of conifers on your right, and good views across Budby South Forest on your left, keep to this straight and obvious track. Where the track divides into two parallel trails, the gravelly track on the right is technically the cycle route, while the more leafy and grassy ride to the left is the bridleway, but either can be used.

6 When you reach the Centre Tree - a huge spreading oak - the two routes converge to continue past a bench down a wide avenue among the trees. Don't go down this but instead turn left and, ignoring paths off right and left, carry straight on along the main track back into the heart of the forest.

7 After almost ¾ mile (1.2km) you pass a metal bar gate on the right and then meet a bridleway coming in from the left. Ignoring the inviting path straight ahead (which returns to the Major Oak) bear right on the main track, past some bare holes and dips hollowed out by children's bikes. At a large junction of criss-crossing routes go straight on (signposted 'Fairground') so that an open field and distant housing becomes visible to your right. This wide sandy track descends to a field by Edwinstowe cricket ground. The Art and Craft Centre and youth hostel are on the far side, and the village centre beyond.

8 To return to the visitor centre and car park, follow the well-walked, signposted track back up past the cricket ground.

If Robin Hood or one of his merrie men were to return to Sherwood Forest today they would no doubt be surprised at how dramatically it has shrunk. The modern Sherwood Forest Country Park covers 450 acres (182ha), whereas the original area was more like 100,000 acres (40,500ha). But there again this vast ancient forest, which at the time of the Norman Conquest covered most of Nottinghamshire north of the River Trent, was not in fact a blanket forest but a mix of wood, heathland and scrub. It was the preserve of the nobility, where the king and his entourage hunted deer, and the commoners were subject to strict Forest Laws that could see a man's hand cut off for poaching.

In England and Wales 'ancient woodland' generally refers to woods that have existed since 1600 (1750 in Scotland). Here at Sherwood the surviving woodland, though small, is a wonderful mix of native broadleaved varieties, dominated by oak and birch. Both varieties of native British oak can be found in the forest - common or English oak, and sessile or durmast oak - while newer conifer plantations extend the tree cover east and west.

The ancient woodland is full of light and atmosphere, and the highlight is surely the gigantic old oak trees that pepper the forest. There are over 900 trees above 600 years old (sometimes known as 'druids'), and while a few are simply gnarled and hollow old stumps, others still dominate the surroundings with their massive 'stag heads' of twisted limbs and spreading foliage. The most famous of these is the Major Oak, visited on this walk, and one of the largest trees in England. Its exact age is somewhat uncertain, estimates having varied over the years from 500 to 1,500 years, but there's no doubting its sheer size. The hollow trunk is 33ft (10m) in circumference, and such is the spread of its colossal branches (92ft/28m) that they have to be propped up with artificial supports. But whether even the Major Oak's hollow trunk could have hidden Robin Hood and his entire band of merrie men, as legend has it, is rather more doubtful.

The evolution of Sherwood Forest over the last millennium has seen it change from its original role as a royal hunting ground to a source of valuable raw material. English oak was much in demand by a range of eager consumers, from shipbuilders and furniture-makers to miners and charcoal burners, Between 1609 and 1790 the number of Sherwood's oaks plummeted by 80 per cent. Today only 11.6 per cent of the United Kingdom's land area is covered by woodland. In other countries in the European Union, the average tree cover is around 36 per cent.

To find out more about Sherwood Forest, and about Britain's valuable woodland assets, make sure you take some time to explore the visitor centre before or after your walk.

While you're there

A few miles to the south of the country park, off the B6030 by Clipstone, is Sherwood Pines Forest Park. This huge Forestry Commission plantation incorporates a variety of waymarked trails for walkers and cyclists, offers a popular bike-hire service for all the family, and its visitors' centre and café are open daily.

What to look for

Part of the ongoing attraction of ancient oak woodlands such as Sherwood Forest is that they encourage a healthy wildlife count. Oak trees, for instance, support the greatest number of fungi of any native tree, and as many as 1,500 species of beetle can be found. Warblers and woodpeckers are joined by more unusual birds such as the nightjar. The hollow interior of the grand old oaks are particularly valuable (signs ask children not to clamber over them), providing a place of hibernation for bats, butterflies and spiders.

Where to eat and drink

The Forest Table Restaurant at Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre is open daily for all manner of food and drink, and the Granary Café in the Art and Craft Centre on the edge of Edwinstowe is open daily in summer, and Wednesday to Sunday over winter. For good food and decent real ale the best pub in the village is the Forest Lodge Hotel, near the centre on Church Street.

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