Forest Folk

The outlaws were the least of my worries; in Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire, I had two earls, a king, a pinder, several Knights Hospitaller, assorted peasants and, not least, a Sheriff to design and draw.

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin and Friends

In the comic strip section of my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire, I needed to make Robin instantly recognisable in every one of dozens of two inch square frames. I wanted to get away from the traditional Robin Hood hat, so I went for the medieval equivalent of a trilby!

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin Hood: a walk in Barnsdale Forest

There were 6 picture maps to draw for the 19 miles of my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire along with two short town trails, plus local views and historical details.

I love the maps in Tolkien and The Wind in the Willows and my aim is to try to make the places look delightful enough for my readers to feel they’d like to walk there but accurate enough for them to follow the directions in the text without the need for an Ordnance Survey map (although I do recommend people take one with them in case there are unexpected footpath closures or if they decide to stray off the route).

Robin Hood’s Yorkshire

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin Hood: Roughing it out

144 illustrations to plan – and that’s just the comic strip section! The idea of these lightning sketches for my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire was to make sense of my months of research and get rid of all those scary white pages by populating them with lively historical detail and traditional tales.

Rough visuals for the illustrations  from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin Hood Drawing Workshop

I WAS FACED with the problem of how to depict Robin Hood in the comic strip sections of my walks booklet (Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire), so at a workshop session at this weekend’s Robin Hood Scholars Conference I’m interested to see how some of the assembled academics would picture the outlaw.

Despite protestations that they never draw, I get a group together. In our first sketch, we need to dispense with the traditional storybook image of Robin; a feather in his cap, a bow in hand and a quiver of arrows over his shoulder (left), wearing a Lincoln green costume with scalloped edges to his cowl.

My version is on the right (as it is in the examples below). Barbara says I have a tendency to make all my characters look like me! I certainly ended up with a lot of bearded characters with straggly hair when imagining the outlaws, earls, kings and peasants of the medieval world in my Robin Hood booklet.

The ‘Real’ Robin Hood

 Next we imagine Robin as he might have been if he really was a historical character (as I believe he was); an outlaw living rough in the greenwood, quite a contrast to the dashing hero of storybooks and the movies.

My group of post-graduate academics get more expressive in their drawings when they’re allowed to get away from the storybook cliche.

The moody Robin (left) has a brooding physical presence. I definitely wouldn’t like to meet him as I walked through Sherwood Forest.

Robin & Reynaert

With yesterday’s talk on Reynaert the Fox in mind, I ask them to attempt an atavistic Robin, going back to the ancient roots of legend. They can draw their character anywhere on a sliding scale between a wily fox-like human Robin to an anthropomorphic character like the fox hero of Disney’s animated version Robin Hood.

Animal traits can help when designing a human character. The Robin Hood meets The Simpson’s figure (above, far left) is a cheeky, cheerful character – you can imagine his cute cartoon voice – a contrast to the Robin/Reynaert figure (right) who occupies the dappled shade of the forests we visit in fable and folk tale. I think he’s from a dreamlike Jungian world; from the animalistic depths of our storytelling collective subconscious.

The Sheriff

Robin can be an enigma, something of a blank at the still centre of the legends. At the start of The Gest he’s just there, with no explanation of his origins, leaning against a tree in Barnsdale Forest. It’s often the other characters who actually do things. Robin can’t be Robin without his friends and, of course, his foes . . .

I’m not alone in feeling that, in most of the movies and television adaptions, the Sheriff is my favourite character. Someone suggests this is because the role of the Sheriff always requires a good actor; Alan Rickman, Keith Allan and, in the 1950s television series that I grew up with, the urbane Alan Wheatley, bring a great deal more than pantomime villain to the role.

Henry de Faucumberg, the 14th century Sheriff of Nottingham who features in my version of Robin Hood was evidently an able administrator as he is one of only two men in history to be, at different times in his life, appointed both Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Sheriff of Yorkshire. As commander of the King’s ‘Yorkshire Array’ he played a decisive role in the downfall of Thomas of Lancaster after the Battle of Boroughbridge, an event which resulted in ‘my’ Robin being declared an outlaw. And yet, in his early years in Wakefield, Faucumberg was fined for stealing wood from the lord of the manor’s barn and of refusing to take the oath in the town’s Burgess Court. An intriguing character.

My thanks to the group for allowing me to feature their drawings here.

Robin Hood Scholars

Conference of the International Association of Robin Hood Scholars, Beverley

THIS IS my first academic conference and I’ve really enjoyed it – although it’s surprising how exhausting it is just to sit and listen to ten short talks in one day! Unfortunately I miss the opening session – which included a talk by Professor Helen Phillips on Guy of Gisborne – otherwise I would have heard a dozen.

One of the delegates tells me that I’ve chosen a good conference for my first; the Beverley Arms hotel, a former coach house dating back to 1794, is a friendlier setting than a big university would be. As it’s on a smaller scale, you get to know everyone who’s here, and, as there aren’t multiple talks going on at once, you don’t have to make difficult choices about which papers you’d like to hear.

Dr Lesley Coote of Hull University, who is organising and chairing the conference, tells me that she has experience in the theatre, working both on stage and behind the scenes as stage manager; ideal qualifications for a running a successful conference, which is a performance in itself.

People must think that I’m taking a lot of notes, but it’s an ideal opportunity for me to draw figures, something I’ve felt an urge to do recently, while catching up on the latest Robin Hood studies.


The first speaker (right) has been investigating interactivity in storytelling. He suggests that when the original Robin Hood ballads were told, in taverns or around camp fires, there was a degree of audience participation. Once a story is set down in writing there’s less opportunity for the audience to influence its progress.

There’s a parallel with the story structure of computer games; there’s a strong narrative framework but how the player gets from one set piece to the next involves a number of choices, drawing them into the story and making them feel that it’s their own.

John Marshall of Bristol University has made some new discoveries about Robin Hood pageants and how the tradition spread to London. It’s known that in 1516 Henry VIII attended a Robin Hood pageant at Shooters Hill. By checking out the date in the royal accounts Marshall has been able to supply some fascinating details about who supplied the costumes, the names of some of the performers and he’s thrown some light on the introduction of Friar Tuck as a member of Robin’s outlaw band.

I didn’t expect to hear a talk on pirates today but the next speaker charts the career of privateer turned Barbary coast corsair John Ward (c 1553-1622) who captained a ship called The Little John.

A French post-graduate student talks on how the medieval concept of chivalry was reinvented by Louis XIV and others.

In the afternoon we have talks on the inscriptions on Saxon swords and on how Disney has influenced the way we think of the middle ages; they’ve become a kind of historical playground, sufficiently removed from the present day.

The final talk is the story behind Richard Lester’s 1976 film Robin & Marian starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn.

If pressed, I think I’d have to say that Sean Connery was my favourite Robin Hood.


The Fox and the Rabbit

ON THE CORBEL of one door arches in St Mary’s Church, Beverley, there’s a medieval carving of a rabbit, possibly a hare to judge by those long ears, waltzing along with a scrip slung over his shoulder and looking rather pleased with himself. The triangular ‘buckle’ on his bag might be a scallop shell; a badge that suggests that he has made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestella.

He looks remarkably like Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, but also like the messenger Haigha (the March Hare) in Alice Through the Looking Glass, who carries a similar bag.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), better known by his pen-name of Lewis Carroll, had Yorkshire connections; from the age of 11 his family home was the Rectory at Croft-on-Tees, in the North Riding but he had relatives who lived not so far from Beverley in the East Riding. Because of his family connections with the Church of England it seems likely that Dodgson – who was ordained but who never became a priest – visited St Marys. The local story is that he occasionally preached here.

You can see how the figure of the ‘Pilgrim Hare’, also known as the ‘Jolly Rabbit’, might have inspired him to create the character that Alice follows down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

Fox and Geese

On the misericords (folding seats) in the choir nearby there are carvings of wildmen, dragons, wyverns, monkeys and a surprisingly accurate elephant.

In one scene (right) a woodwose (a wildman) has shot a fox with an arrow.

In another carving two wily foxes are doing their best to give the appearance that they are reformed characters. They’ve apparently taken holy orders as they are dressed in cowls, listening to a friar reading from a scroll. We can imagine that he is advising them that all they need take with them on their journey is a staff. Each fox holds a crozier but they’re not trusting in providence; in the hood of their cowls each has concealed a large goose. The friar hasn’t spotted the deception but in the foliage of the trees above two small dogs have their eyes on the geese.

Above the choir is a painted ceiling dating from the 15th century. It depicts the pre-conquest kings of England.

Reynaert and the Wild Man

I’m here in Beverley for the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference and there couldn’t be a more appropriate venue for the two opening speakers than here in the nave of St Marys.

Professor Lorraine Stock of the University of Houston is talking about The Transformation of the Medieval Wild Man and Robin Hood on the 1598 London Stage and Professor Paul Wackers of the University of Utrecht is delivering a paper on Reynaert and Society: An Uncertain Relationship.

Seeing the carvings, then learning something about the way these appealing characters have been depicted on the page and on stage brings them to life. I feel that they’re part of a storytelling tradition that extends from medieval folktales back to Aesop’s fables and on to Disney and Tom and Jerry.

Professor Wackers suggests that the ‘Pilgrim Hare’ might represent Cuwaert the hare, one of the characters in the Reynaert the Fox stories.


THIS YOUNG greenfinch had hit the glass panel in our back door. We’ve heard bangs on the patio windows on two or three occasions during the last week or so but this is the first fatality. It’s whole shape, but particularly that tail, is fishlike.

Ways to reduce casualties might include moving the bird feeders further from the house and sticking birds of prey silhouettes on the windows but the latter would have little effect if, as probably happens several times each day, the bird is being chased by a real sparrowhawk at the time.

Another young greenfinch, presumably a nest-mate of this bird, continues to come to feast at the sunflower heart feeders.

One evening Barbara saw a sparrowhawk swoop at a goldfinch on the feeder. The goldfinch swerved from side to side as it was chased at high speed down the garden and managed to escape across the meadow into the comparative safety of the wood. By this time the sparrowhawk gave up and flew up to perch on a branch.


Another casualty, but this mole may be a casualty of natural causes rather than of predation. I noticed a number of molehills in our small patch of meadow when I was mowing back the weeds and grasses on our return from holiday. It’s been very dry, so the mole might have been under some stress as its earthworm prey became inactive, but this individual appeared to be a well-fed. This week the meadow between us and the wood has been mown, so I expect that it’s possible that this mole suffered some kind of internal injury as the tractor moved across the field and fled to our garden.

But moles may be like their relatives the shrews; you find them lying dead by paths, apparently having simply expired there. Shrews are said to be distasteful to predators, so perhaps, like them, moles don’t make attractive prey items.

Horse Chestnut

Taking my mum to a hospital appointment when we got back from holiday, I found time to draw this horse chestnut from the shelter of the entrance porch, as it was raining at the time.

Growing from a narrow grass verge between building and tarmac road, it’s not surprising that the tree is showing signs of stress, putting out all those shoots from the trunk.

Parts of the Pea Flower

My mum had put some sweet peas from her garden in a vase with sprigs of lady’s mantle.

The magenta petals of the flowers are backed by the green, star-shaped sepals. The flowers grow in a raceme, a type of inflorescence in which the flowers are arranged along a central axis along the stem.

Each flower is supported by a pedicel – a small stalk.

School Drawing Workshop

I SPENT MOST of my day at Horbury Primary School book week encouraging the children to draw but had time to do some drawing myself during the morning assembly and when the teacher was taking the register.

I like the way that with a quick sketch of the details and pose of a figure you can start building up a character. Adding a quick wash of colour helps to bring the drawing to life. I’d like to do more little sketches of a variety of characters.

Although I’m only here for the day, I felt quite emotional when they sang ‘The Leavers’ Song’ in assembly. The older children are going to have to make the break from this school where everyone knows each other to the High School next door, which specialises in teaching languages and is the size of a small university. It must be difficult to get to know all the teachers, let alone the pupils in an institution of that size.

‘When you look under the rocks and plants . . .’

In the assembly the children sang The Bare Necessities from Disney’s version of The Jungle Book in which Balou the Bear advises Mowgli:

‘If you act like that bee acts, uh uh. You’re working too hard. And don’t spend your time lookin’ around. For something you want that can’t be found ..’

I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Balou’s point of view but I don’t think that would serve as a motto for life at the High School! You’re really getting onto the treadmill when you commence your studies there. I think this is why I find the older primary years, aged around 8, 9 or 10, the right age for my workshops. They can enjoy the world for what it is, and the drawing and writing as activities in their own right, without looking over their shoulders wondering how it’s going to relate to their curriculum and their future job prospects.

Horbury Primary is 1950s redbrick but, in addition to the asphalt playground that normally accompanies schools of this period, there are leafy grounds to the rear with picnic tables under the trees where I could start my drawing sessions with the children. The trees gave a certain amount of shelter from the odd bit of drizzle and we managed a good 45 minutes drawing before heavier rain brought both the morning and the afternoon sessions to a close.

I gave them five minutes to draw a tree to get them started but also to get them to focus on a particular tree, rather than the standard tree symbol that younger children sometimes draw. Some of the children particularly enjoyed the next drawing which was a close-up of a piece of branch or bark from the chippings around the tables. They were fascinated by the detail and texture, as if they were drawing a whole landscape in miniature.

Vegetable Plot

Next we moved on to the school vegetable plot. The onions were looking good and are well ahead of ours. The children who chose to draw them were able to capture that sense of life and growth that comes from the swelling bulb and lush spikes of foliage. Some subjects have such a strong visual identity that they seem to help you get their image onto paper.

We settled in a corner of the playing field at the edge of a narrow strip of woodland and I got them to listen for 5 minutes and to write down what they heard. I thought that possibly we could work this up into some kind of poem but when we asked several of the children to read their notes, I realised that they had effectively written poems already with specific observations, cadence and rhytmn in the way they’d listed what they’d heard and a real sense of atmosphere; the breeze, bird song, distant traffic noise.

There was time for a short ‘nature notebook’ session where we drew and made quick notes about the bees, hoverflies and birds visiting the brambles and bushes on the woodland edge. Balou would consider that the bee was working too hard.

During the afternoon session we ran to a wooden shelter and drew what we could, including my usual standby, a hand. They soon got into the intricacies such as the folds of skin on the fingers and the true shape of a finger nail.

Picture Map

I was impressed with their writing and drawing skills. Back out of the rain, I got them working on another of my favourite ways of a recording a location; a picture map. Being in a 21st century classroom, we were able to conjure up a Google-map satellite image of the school grounds on the computer-linked projector.

Each child, while producing a perfectly accurate sketch map, was able to bring out a different character in the patch of landscape they’d just walked through, from architectural precision (one boy used a ruler to produce an immaculate plan) to expressionist wildness in the tangle of the woodland edge.

With the sausage shape of the running track, topped by two zany ‘eyes’ formed by two areas marked out for rounders the aerial view of the playing fields resembled a cartoon frog . . . wearing a fuzzy toupee (the strip of woodland).


AS WE WALKED up to the moor at the top end of Langsett Reservoir I spotted this fossil of Calamites in the sandstone slab of the footpath.

Calamites was a the giant horsetail of the Carboniferous Period, 300 million years ago. Whorls of narrow leaves grew from each joint in the stem. In the close up you can see what appears to be a joint at the top of the picture.

Along with giant club-mosses, the horsetails of the lush tropical forests of the Carboniferous were fossilised to form coal seams. In West Yorkshire we still derive most of our electricity from coal-fired power stations so this entry in my online nature diary has, most likely, been powered in part by solar energy stored by these giant horsetails 300 million years ago.