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.

Slime Fungus

IN THE conifer plantation at Langsett slime fungus is on the move. About two inches long and as bright as a plastic lemon, it is making its way imperceptably up onto a stone at the edge of the track. They’re normally found amongst decaying plant material, rather the creeping along the footpath beside you.

You can see the trail of slime it has left behind, as it moves along cosuming algae, bacteria and fungi. This free-roaming blob of protoplasm, known as the plasmodium, has multiple nucleuses.

Plant or animal? A bit of both perhaps. The Slime Fungi are grouped in the phylum of Myxomycetes, in the kingdom of Protists, which also includes the algae and protozoa. The Protists are considered to be intermediate between animals and plants but possibly not related to either.

Like a fungus, the plasmodium produces spores.

The Journey Home

OUR JOURNEY home, first by rail; from Wengen via Lauterbrunnen, Interlaken Ost and Spiez to Zurich Airport.

I see a Dipper fly up river where we’d seen them, nesting in a stone embankment wall, on our walk from Zweilütschinen to Lauterbrunnen on Saturday. The morning sun gives Lake Thun and its surroundings  the heightened colour and crispness of a travel brochure as our journey takes us parallel to its shore. We see Red Kites circling and the occasional Buzzard between each tunnel we dip into.

Zurich Airport

Our last Swiss Francs, (our very last, they let us off the small change!) are spent on two mugs of tea at the Marché self-service restaurant at Gate 43, Zurich Airport. You select your fresh vegetables (and they really do look fresh), and meat or fish if you wish, and they’re prepared for you as you wait. There’s stir-fry on one side and oriental soup, also prepared as you wait, on the other.

We’re going to have to come back with a larger supply of Swiss francs if we want to sample the results . . . unless Marché can be persuaded to open one or two of their restaurants in England.

I’m sketching as we go over Switzerland (adding the colour later) and over the fields of France but I’m disappointed to look down on featureless cloud as we approach the Channel.

At 2.30 pm this breaks up into a flock of fleecy clouds and as we reach the coast, then there’s a break, probably because there are no thermals of rising air over the sea.

Over the White Cliffs of Dover

I sketch quickly because I guess that my brief glimpse of the French shoreline might be recognisable from a map; to the east of the plane I see two coastal towns on a promontary then soon, after passing over open water with lanes of shipping, we come to a coast with white cliffs. Not being able to see the view to the west, I’m unable to tell whether this narrow strip of water is an inlet, such as the bay of Mount Saint Michel in Normandy, or the Channel itself.

Looking at the atlas when we get home, I can see that the two French seaside towns must be Wissant and the nearby towns of Audresselles and Ambleteuse so the chalk cliffs are, obviously, the white cliffs of Dover.

We pass over an inlet with salt-marshes, which must be the Thames estuary, then the fields of the Midlands which have a less regular pattern than those of  central France.

As we descend into the grey cloud and rain of Manchester, I realise that we’re crossing the Peak District. There’s no chance of spotting Langsett Reservoir, our regular Peak Park escape, but a small gap in the cloud reveals the three ‘Dambusters’ reservoirs of Howden, Derwent and Ladybower.

If this kind of weather continues, there shouldn’t be the slightest problem in keeping these three mighty reservoirs topped up!

Spring Gentian

 DREW THE bluest of the gentians on Männlichen, the Spring Gentian, Gentiana verna, then set out again on the Panoramaweg in what we thought would be a brief shower but which turned into rain. We dried out by stopping at a mountain restaurant for soup and a roll.

1.30 pm, Kleine Scheidegg station.

The Alpine Choughs have very dark eyes, which don’t show up at any distance like those of our Jackdaw. Perhaps the dark pigment in the eye acts as a U.V. Filter.

2 then 3 or 4 choughs descend on plates of noodles and spaghetti as soon as they are left, casting plastic forks and paper serviettes aside before throwing the paper plate itself onto the ground.

We take the train down to Grindelwald Grund then return back up via the gondola to Männlichen. We can’t resist fitting in our marmot-spotting journey just one more time.

A buzzard circles in a clearing amongst the tall conifers, giving us a view from below, then on level with (we can see the details of its eye and cere) and finally from above. As we glide past in our gondola it’s like being in a wildlife documentary where they film at treetop level from a microlight.

Some of the conifers are the height of our electricity pylons and in proportion as long and thin as slender pencils. Very long slender pencils. Some have bunches of long purple cones, similar to the weights on traditional cuckoo-clocks.

We spot only one marmot, sitting like a sphinx, looking uphill but as a final bonus a red kite gives us a fly-past just as we near the upper station. Like the buzzard it gives us a perfect, unhurried diagnostic view, enabling us to see the shallow ‘V’ of its wings as it glides towards us, then the markings as it dips below us.

No Chamois today but flock of Alpine Choughs dip down to the cable car, as if in a farewell salute, then fly off over the crags.

6.30 pm, After all the travelling around, looking at wonderful scenery during this wonderful two week holiday, I realise that I would have been equally happy to have been fixed in one spot, taking a close look at the birds, butterflies, flowers and fossils. Perhaps next time I should go to a small island!

I draw these wild flowers in the meadow by the children’s play area in Wengen. It’s on an embankment with a retaining wall, so I don’t even need to bend down to draw them. My varifocal spectacles are perfect for this kind of work with flowers and my sketchbook both comfortably in their focus zones. I find myself using a fine no.1 tipped Pilot Drawing Pen and adding small-print notes to my drawing, as I did 30 years ago when compiling my Richard Bell’s Britain sketchbook.

The flower on the left is a bellflower, Campanula rhomboidalis, which is found in the Alps and the Jura up to 2200m in meadows and on grassy banks.

On the right is a species of scabious, either small or shining, S. columbaria or  S. lucida.

The Spiked Rampion, in the middle, is a member of the bellflower family but it lacks the showy bells of its relative. Instead it has this plume-like flowerhead.

Lake Brienz


CLOUDY THIS morning and from the gondola down from Männlichen we spotted only one marmot by its burrow.

When we arrived at Grindelwald we found that the Tour Suisse had arrived and the small town had taken on a festival atmosphere. We decided to leave the bustle behind us and we took the next train to Interlaken Ost, then decided to get off at Wilderswil to walk alongside the river to Bönigen on Lake Brienz.

12.55 pm, Lake Brienz, or Brienzersee, from the ferry landing stage at Bönigen. Compared with Lake Windermere, England’s largest lake, the water is turquoise with the surrounding hills rising to about three times the height.

Drawing this view reminded me of the song Bali Hai sung by Jaunita Hall in her role as Bloody Mary in the musical South Pacific – a film that I saw only once, one torrentially wet day in Ayr in 1959, when the windscreen wipers of our Standard Vanguard estate broke, being unable to cope with the force of the deluge on our Scottish summer holiday. I’m surprised to see on Google-Street that the cinema – a rather forbidding-looking grey blockhouse of an Odeon on its ‘own special island’ – still stands in the middle of town and the garage where I remember us stopping half a century ago is still there, now a filling station.

The craggy island in the film is shown in glorious Technicolor ‘floating in the sunshine, [its]head sticking out from a low-flying cloud’.

I also remember a large hotel in Ayr where we sat drying out with a tray of tea by a fireplace decorated with tiles depicting the Greek myths. I kept pestering my mum to tell us the story behind them, such as the one of Hippomenes who threw down three golden apples to distract the huntress Atalanta in a race.

Wonder if the hotel too has survived and if so whether the wonderful fireplace survived the era of ‘modernisation’ in the 1960s and 1970s.

I’d be about 8 years old at the time and I’d already taken drawing books on previous holidays but that Scottish holiday was the first on which I remember trying to write and illustrate a holiday journal. I went for a magazine format, folding up some reject offset paper my dad had brought back from work (disadvantage; it had the yellow separation of a colour photograph of a woman in fur coat printed on it at regular intervals). My cover drawing was of a Scotsman in a kilt, carrying his bagpipes through a glen and stopping to smile at a sheep. The back cover featured the Edinburgh Castle Tatoo but I think that was about as far as I got with it and unfortunately I lost it long ago.

2.45 pm, Japanese Garden, Interlaken


4.30 pm, on the return journey we see four marmots in what I’ve come to think of as the lower colony near the stream but none in the upper colony near the gondola station.

We get good views of a couple of Snow Finches, looking down on them as our gondola approaches the upper station. Appropriately one of the finches lands on a patch of snow and starts pecking about. The book says ‘often seen foraging at ski-resort restaurants’.

Until I looked up this bird in the book when I got home, I’d assumed that these were Snow Buntings, which I’ve seen in the Cairngorms and Iceland but in the Alps they’re replaced by this similar but not very closely related species.


Eiger, Mönch and Tschuggen from Männlichen

I SPENT the morning recovering from a 24 hour tummy bug. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone for the sausage and rosti on Friday! But also a feeling of exhaustion, as I guess we’ve been trying to do too much.

We sat and watched the world go by from a bench on the small grassy triangle by Wengen station. The coming and going of trains and of the tourists and the sublime view up the Lauterbrunnen Valley provided the right combination of distraction and restfulness for me.

In the afternoon we took the cable car up to Männlichen. I wasn’t up to drawing today so as we took the Panoramaweg – a footpath that runs more or less on the 2200 m contour around the summit of Tschuggen – Barbara took over the camera and photographed the Alpine flowers along the trail, for example this saxifrage. The name comes from the Latin, saxum frango, meaning ‘stone breaker’.

The battery in our camera ran out after a week but we’ve got it fully recharged now, thanks to the photo-shop in Wengen. And, thanks to our gentle walk along the Panoramaweg, I’m feeling recharged too.