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We sat with Robin Hood in the ageless interior of Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, a pub at the foot of Nottingham Castle in Nottingham, England — once a stop for crusaders off to the Holy Land.
Well, he wasn’t really Robin Hood; he was Ezekial Bone and leads tours as Robin Hood through Nottingham. Another plot twist: He told us that he was not really Ezekial Bone, either — that was his alter-ego historian character.
The man never completely revealed his 21st century self.
Between gulps of abbey ale, Bone talked about the legendary archer whose story appears in multiple centuries.
“Robin Hood was reinvented, willed into being at different times by the oppressed who needed a hero,” he said.
Robin didn’t originally carry a longbow, wear green or rob from the rich to give to the poor.
“Those were later additions to the tale,” he added. “But all stories have truth in them, so they’re all important, aren’t they?”
Bone finished most declarations with a question.
His walking tour covers Robin Hood sites and Nottingham’s architecture and history — its castle, Lace Market and the steps of the jail-turned-National Justice Museum where hapless scoundrels were publicly executed. He recited verses of an ancient ballad in front of medieval St. Mary’s Church before leading us through Old Market Square and down into one of Nottingham’s hundreds of caves.
This and similar tours are part of a network of England’s literary explorations, with destinations dependent on which characters or authors clients wish to follow.
Andy Gaunt of Cultural Heritage Tours took us to Nottingham’s Sherwood Forest, now a National Nature Reserve with some 1,000 ancient English oaks including the Major Oak, a romanticized hideout of Robin and his band. As I stood there, it was easy to imagine the outlaws hidden in the leafy shade as the king’s men galloped in pursuit of deer or the downtrodden peasants who might steal them.
Gaunt sprinted up a narrow trail away from the main tourist track.
“Tolkien lived near here,” he said. “Some say these oaks were his inspiration for Ents.”
I looked around, and gnarled Ent faces suddenly seemed so obvious.
More Nottinghamshire locations figure in Robin Hood legends, including Rufford Abbey, where one of several historic figures who might have been Robin Hood were arrested; the church in Edwinstowe where (maybe) Robin and Marion married; and the ruins of the castle of Robin Hood’s infamous enemy, King John.
Nottinghamshire is also for lovers of Romantic poets. Gaunt took us to Newstead Abbey, ancestral home of the Byron family, though flamboyant poet Lord Byron lived there only briefly.
I wished for more time to explore Newstead’s opulent gardens and waterfalls. Of note is the monument to Byron’s beloved Newfoundland, on which his poignant “Epitaph to a Dog” is inscribed.
In the southwest, Hampshire is Jane Austen territory — but she’s not the only literary star. For one, Winchester’s cavernous Great Hall celebrates King Arthur. And in 1819, after strolling through riverside meadows near Winchester, John Keats composed “To Autumn,” considered by scholars a “perfect” poem.
Jane Austen is buried at Winchester Cathedral, but to learn more of the building’s thousand-year history, I joined a compelling docent-led tour. Most intriguing? Someone once swam beneath the cathedral to fill its trenches with concrete.
I also toured Bombay Sapphire Distillery at historic Laverstoke Mill. It’s worth a visit on its own merits but was long owned by the Portals, who were Austen’s family friends.
For all things Austen, look no further than Phil Howe of Hidden Britain Tours. Howe is a human encyclopedia on the author; traveling Hampshire’s rural roads, he delivers a wealth of insights into her life and times. Stops included churches with links to Jane (ask about medieval graffiti), a quirky phone booth tribute and a visit to Chawton House, inherited by Jane’s brother Edward. At Chawton House, we strolled through gardens while reading markers featuring Jane Austen quotes.
Having seen 2007 film “Becoming Jane,” I asked Howe about its accuracy. The answer: more Hollywood romance than truth.
“But,” he added, “the scene where passengers push their coach out of wheel-deep mud is entirely accurate.”
A revealing look at Austen’s life came at the home — now Jane Austen’s House Museum — where Jane lived her last eight years and where she worked on “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Persuasion.” Like much in the house, her writing table was shockingly small.
Adding time in London post-tours was added bounty. At the British Museum, I read Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” beneath the colossal partial statue of Ramses II that may have inspired it. And I walked around Tavistock Square where Virginia Woolf once lived —and where a bust of the writer commemorates this fact. Then I headed to Radisson Blu Edwardian, Bloomsbury Street to check out its Woolf tribute — a wall displaying every handwritten page of her novel “Mrs. Dalloway” in artful splendor.
After all that, my literary desires were satisfied (for now).