For several years, Izi Banton has served as a forest warden at the Sherwood Forest Country Park, a section of the legendary forest that still receives hundreds of visitors. At the time of this interview she held the position of the Park Manager. Ms. Banton has appeared on the television documentary Robin Hood: The First Outlaw Hero.
I have used the title "Interviews in Sherwood" for all my interviews, but this was the first interview actually conducted in Sherwood Forest itself. I interviewed Ms. Banton in her office at the Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre on July 12, 2003
AWW: How many visitors do you get through here [Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre] in a year?
IB: Roughly, 650,000. At one time it was in excess of a million, which was when we had the Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves film [1991, with Kevin Costner]. But since that's all died down to a degree, we've tailed off to a bit. There are a lot of other attractions open in the area, lots of other things to do. So, about 650,000.
AWW: So, what do they come for? What do you think is the main reason?
IB: It's difficult to know whether it's purely Robin Hood or whether or not because it's quite a magical forest. I think there's certainly a Robin Hood element in there which does draw people. I think that's probably the strongest draw. Additionally, there are local visitors who come just to use the forest and facility. A lot of people still come for the Robin Hood legend, to walk in his footsteps. There are special events during certain times of the years which concentrate on Robin Hood.
AWW: I understand that the festival which is on in a couple of weeks [held yearly around August] gets a huge amount of visitors.
IB: It does get a lot of people. About 60,000 come through that week.
AWW: So, what's involved in keeping the forest safe from 650,000 visitors a year?
IB: Well, it's a question of education and interpretation. It's also a question of channeling people. So, the primary route that most people follow is the circular route to the Major Oak and back. That's where most people tend to walk. They don't tend to stray much further. So, we're quite lucky in that sense - that the rest of the forest is relatively unscathed from that amount of people. There are obviously people who do walk around the park, but not en masse. There are surface paths, there are clear ... ish waymarked walks to follow. There's fencing around the Major Oak path just to guide people, to stop them straying. Some of the veteran trees we've actually fenced off or put little poles against them saying "do not climb". Education is another way of doing it. You can put signs up at exhibitions and such.
There are obviously problems. Litter is one of them. Barbecues is another one. You can imagine that barbecues in this sort of area isn't a good idea. Mountain biking can be a problem. Mountain biking can be a problem. A lot of people just come for a little pedal around, but when they go messing tracks up, it's a problem. And we get quite a lot of problems with scramble bikes through there as well. On the whole, we're quite lucky though.
The biggest problem we've got now is the Centre and the surrounding infrastructure, which has been in place for over 25 years now. So, it's starting to need some heavy remedial work. A lot of paths are getting pot holed and eroding. We need money to look after it properly. So it's not great, in terms of maintaining it to a certain level, but we do the best we can.
AWW: Where do you think you'll be able to get the funds from?
IB: There are certain possibilities. But we're a bit restricted because we're a local authority. We're hopeful of some money from the Heritage lottery. We're hopeful for some European funding. But it's not guaranteed.
AWW: I understand that there's an attempt to reforest Sherwood.
IB: Sherwood Forest Country Park is just a small part of the original Sherwood Forest, as I am sure you're aware. Now, this is largely unchanged, although it has grown recently in a way that it wouldn't have been in Robin Hood's time. So, there is a restoration programme going on within this area of the forest. The primary aim of a charity called the Sherwood Forest Trust is to reforest as much as possible the original Sherwood Forest area. But they're not just talking about planting trees. They are talking about recreating the original habitats which would have been heathland, grassland, all enclosures of trees. So, it's not going to be one massive wood, because it never was. It was a different habitat with trees here and there. So that's their programme.
They are involving other local landowners. They are involving farmers. They're trying to bring us all together under one banner of Sherwood Forest. Similar concept to what they do with the New Forest down in Hampshire. There's this huge area that's known as the New Forest that's got different attractions and areas within it. So this would be known as Sherwood Forest and the Country Park would just be a part of it. Rather than "this is Sherwood Forest and nowhere else is." It's broadening the horizon.
AWW: What do you think the magical things about the forest are?
IB: This forest?
AWW: Yes. Figuratively ... and if you have an answer, literally.
IB: The trees, certainly. The ancient oaks, they are quite remarkable to look at. There is a quality to the forest - a real sort of spiritual quality. It's perhaps not so evident around the Visitor Centre and the Major Oak path. But if you're feeling brave and you want to get back in touch with a more wild sort of experience, all you have to do is sort of walk ten minutes away from the Major Oak path and you're out there. And if it's the right time of day and the right time of year, you can feel it. It does have quite a spiritual feeling to it. I don't know what it is, but it is a very peaceful, tranquil place. It calms you right down, brings your level right back. There are some very special trees that have got faces in them and things. I wouldn't want to make it for you. It's really the sort of thing that you've got to come and experience for yourself. And make of it what you will. We've got names for some of the trees. Stumpy and Twister, things like that. They are quite unique. You don't see many trees like this - certainly in this country and certainly not in Europe. I don't know about the States, I've never been. I know you have big trees. Three hundred feet sort of thing.
AWW: But they don't have Robin Hood.
IB: No, they don't have Robin Hood. But it has changed from what it would have looked like. There's far more bracken here now, then there would have been. That's the big fern-like plants.
AWW: I always liked the bracken. I imagined that the Merry Men would be hiding under it.
IB: I think certainly it would have been here to a degree, but it wouldn't have completely swamped the whole of the forest floor. If it had, it wouldn't have been able to survive, there would be nothing to eat. There are obviously paths through it, but too much at the moment.
AWW: Do you have any stories about the trees?
IB: I could tell a special story about the Major Oak. A magical story which is a bit freaky. We had very, very heavy snow near Christmas one year. And all the trees were sort of bendable. We didn't know if the Major Oak would be down when we got there. There wasn't a flake one it. It was just a complete circle of green grass with this tree with not on it.
AWW: Wow. I'm glad the oak survived. I've been there before, it was on wooden beams.
IB: Well, it's got steel now. We've taken the wooden ones down and replaced it with steel -- which we've painted green. So it's a bit more camouflaged, but it still looks like it has scaffolding underneath.
AWW: How did it get that damaged? Was it just age, because someone told me that somebody set a fire in the tree.
IB: Yeah, that's right. 1983 that was. It's main problem is its size, because it's growing outwards rather that upwards. So it's got very heavy branches which needs supporting from underneath. You can't expect it to maintain itself. If we took the supports off, they'd probably just crack and you'd be left with the shell of a tree. It's never had any competition around it, that's why it has grown outwards.
AWW: How long can trees live?
IB Well, there's a saying in the forest. It takes an oak tree 300 years to grow, 300 years to live, 300 years to die.
AWW: So the Major Oak has to be in its twilight years now.
IB: Yeah, it is. I think it will probably outlive us, but who knows. Who knows how long it will go on for. But it's very healthy at the moment.
AWW: That's good. Do you meet with the visitors much?
IB: Well not much, but I still meet with them.
AWW: What sense do you get from them?
IB: It's mixed. Some people are wow'ed by it. Some people want to meet Robin Hood. "Where's Robin Hood?" Some people - "it's all that's here?" That tends to be when it's a miserable day, when they've come a long way and are expecting something other than what they get. But if it's a day like today, they come and just have a walk round. You can't fail to enjoy yourself really. Such a lovely, lovely forest to walk through.
AWW: So how long have you worked as the Park Manager?
IB: Not very long as a manager, but I've been here 16 years.
AWW: Did you grow up in the area?
IB: I grew up in Nottinghamshire but never went to Sherwood Forest. I always went to Derbyshire. I went away, and never thought I'd come back, but I did. And stayed.
AWW: I know that Sherwood Forest was declared a site of special scientific interest. That it has a lot of species of spiders, beetles and birds.
IB: Yeah, that's really why it's so important. It's not the cute, furry animals that everybody likes. It's more the creepy, crawly things that you can't see. It makes it difficult to sell that as a strong point. But in terms of its bio-diversity, Sherwood Forest is on a par with a tropical rainforest. Which is hard for people to grasp in this country. They don't realize how special their woodlands are. We've got 1,500 species of beetles, which is quite staggering really. There are 200 kinds of spider. Say that to most people, they'll run a mile. They'll go "House spiders are enough for us. We don't want to see all the rest." But you hardly ever see them, you have to go looking. You see the bees and the butterflies, but other than that... not much.
AWW: What role do they play in the forest's ecology?
IB: Well, as you've seen, we've got very, very old trees. But there's an awful lot of deadwood out there, which you don't see in most places. Mostly parklands are neat and tidy. But a lot of the beetles we've got are here because of the dead wood. So, they need the deadwood to survive. So, that creates a cyclical process, and the deadwood gets created back into the soil. It goes on and on. Trees grow up around the soil. There are other species that go through the food chain. They provide food for the birds. The birds provide food for the foxes and their prey. It goes around in a big circle.
AWW: Have you seen any foxes?
IB: Not many, but there are foxes. Same as deer. You have to be very lucky to see a deer.
AWW: Do you have any unhinged visitors, that want to relive Robin Hood?
IB: We do, yes. We get quite a lot of people who just come and wild camp, which is a problem. Because we obviously don't allow camping in here, because the site is so sensitive. It just takes one fire to get out of control. We do get people wandering around dressed as Robin Hood. If they're quiet and living peacefully, it's no problem. If they cause disruptions to other people, it's a problem. All sorts of different people use the forest. There are druid meetings four times a year, just because of the spiritual quality of trees. They appreciate the ability to come here and do that.
AWW: Do the druids worship around the Major Oak?
IB: It's close to the Major Oak, but they don't go into the public view.
AWW: Do you get people lost in the forest?
IB: It can be a problem, especially this time of year when the bracken is so high. We've got waymarking posts, but they are not easy to see when the bracken's up. The Major Oak path is very difficult to get lost on. It's such a big, wide path. If you keep on the path, you're going to get somewhere. But it's when you go a bit farther out that it gets difficult.
AWW: What goes into being a park ranger? What kinds of education do you need? What kinds of skills and experience?
IB: Well, these days, you need a good site management degree. Not just the practical aspects of managing the land, but also the recreational aspects. How to manage visitors and educate them. Coupled with that, experience is good to have. So, if you've done some voluntary work on a country park or done some conservation projects, that always helps. And above all, a sense of humour and an ability to get on with people. You really need to be an extrovert. You meet so many different people. People get very cross as well, because we open at 10 o'clock in the morning and shut at 5 o'clock at night. Because that's the way the British do things. But people get really cross about that. I don't know how you get round it, other than having twice as many staff, and staff coming in earlier and stopping later.
AWW: Have you ever met any of the Robin Hood actors? Do they ever come by here?
IB: Somebody who has been here longer than me has. He met the Michael Praed crew. They came. Some of the ones from the Prince of Thieves film. Lower-key actors rather than the big stars. There's been all sorts of film crews that have come and done bits and pieces, but we can't host a Hollywood blockbuster. We don't have the size or space really. You can take pictures of people here.
AWW: Do you have a favourite Robin Hood?
IB: Do I have a favourite Robin Hood? Do I? Yeah, I do actually. Sean Connery in Robin and Marian. Have you seen that one?
AWW: Yes, I have. Very good choice.
IB: Yeah, I liked that one. And I quite liked the Patrick Bergin one as well. I thought that was a good film, even though it didn't get much notice, because the other one [Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner] was out at the same time. But in terms of what it was probably like, I think the Bergin film was a bit nearer the truth than the Kevin Costner film. But that was good fun. I'm not knocking that one. It made me laugh, a lot. I enjoyed that film.
AWW: Well, that about covers it. Do you have anything else to add?
IB: Just that it's a wonderful forest and that it probably owes a lot to Robin Hood.
AWW: Thank you very much.