Francis Frith and the Writer

One of the most useful tools for the writer who sets the scenes for his or her work in Britain’s recent past are the photographs of the Victorian photographer Francis Frith (1822-1898). Frith was one of those Victorian entrepreneurs who made a fortune in one field – a grocery empire – and then sold up to pursue and turn a hobby into a new business.

An avid taker of pictures, Frith photographed most of the great sights of Europe, and even ventured into relatively unexplored parts of Africa.

In 1859 he established the Francis Frith Company with the considerable ambition of photographing everywhere in the British Isles, partly to cater for the Victorian passion for picture postcards.

His legacy is vastly important for historians and writers. If you want to know what some English village looked like in, say 1887, how the people were dressed, what modes of transport they were using, then the pictures of Francis Frith and his firm of photographers are a vital primary source.

The archive of tens of thousands of pictures are of national importance and are now preserved by the Francis Frith Collection Photographs are available in a variety of ways, as illustrations for books, pictures for your wall at home or business, and as books based on various parts of the British Isles.

Around the turn of this century, I became involved with the work of Francis Frith when I was commissioned to write the accompanying text to the pictures in a series of popular books, giving some history of the places concerned; volumes on towns and villages, counties, tourist attractions, and stretches of coastline etc. I also wrote a couple of more detailed histories for the Devon towns of Torquay and Newton Abbot.

It was one of the most pleasant tasks I’ve had in a long writing career, journeying to some fascinating places with the Frith pictures to hand, to try and identify where the photographer had stood and what had changed since. Seeing how places had changed over a period of time from the 1860s until the 1950s (which the broad range of pictures cover) and indeed up to date.

Despite some hideous modern developments, quite a lot of places would still be recognisable to the Frith photographers. Type my name (John Bainbridge) into the “Search” on the Frith website and you can see some of the titles I did.

Here is a Britain of horse-drawn cabs and farmers’ carts, bathing machines on a hundred beaches, old trains and battleships, the grand hotels of British resorts, the workplaces, the homes of the rich and the poor, ancient churches, cathedrals and abbeys, hilltop views and a countryside often still being worked as it had been for generations.

Here you see real-life Victorians, caught in a moment of time, doing much of the things we do today; busy at work, seeing the sights, just standing around holding conversations. All of these people long dead and gone, but still there for us, just as we see people on today’s streets.

Well worth a look if you are writing a novel set in the British past, not just so you get the settings right, but also so you can discover the way people dressed and the transport that was in use at the time. A good browse of the Frith photographs of your setting will really get you in the mood for writing that historical novel or crime mystery set in the past.

The Frith Collection is a very precious archive indeed.

The Literary Legacy of Robin Hood

When it comes to writing about crime you can’t go much further back than Robin Hood.
But on a detective story level you could argue that Robin is the master criminal of Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham is the representative of the law dedicated to hunting him down.

Only that isn’t how we usually think of Robin Hood, because traditionally he’s a rebel engaged in fighting against an unjust society, with all the odds against him.
Robin is an outlaw.

Literally, in English historical and legal terms, someone outside the law. A man denied the law’s protection, who can be hunted and slain like a wolf by anyone at all for a reward, hence the description “wolfshead” attached to medieval outlaws.

In the terms of crime and mystery stories, he’s much more on a par with characters like Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar, the Saint, who sees off very nasty villains, despite being on the wrong side of the law himself. All the time being hunted by the long-suffering Inspector Claude Eustace Teal.

In fact, there is quite a tradition of such characters, such as Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond (though Drummond’s a bit politically dubious), Bruce Graeme’s Blackshirt, John Creasey’s Baron and some of the characters in the novels of John Buchan, whose Richard Hannay in The Thirty-nine Steps is hunted across the wilds of the countryside by villains and the law together as he tries to do the right thing. In Buchan’s Midwinter we have an outlaw network operating on the side of right, not very different from Robin and his merry (or these days usually not so merry) men.

And going back to the comics of my childhood, wasn’t this the position of many of the superheroes? I recall that the early Batman worked somewhere between the forces of Right and certain legal niceties in American comic books. And my British boy’s comics were full of heroes who fought villainy from questionable sides of the law.

A great deal of crime literature, high, middle and low brow, depicts people determining their own view on what is right and then carrying through acts of justice regardless of the irritating letters of the law. Even Sherlock Holmes makes the occasional decision to let some offender go.

In real life vigilantes are unacceptable, but between the safe covers of a book, they make for some great reading.

These influences must have soaked into my psyche because they inspired me to create the Victorian vigilante William Quest in my thriller The Shadow of William Quest, Quest operates outside the law for what he perceives to be the cause of justice. Whether he is right or wrong is up to the reader. Like Robin Hood he has a gang of fellow participants, all members of a rather sinister society dedicated to promoting their own interpretation of what is right. Even if it means breaking the real law to do it.

I suspect many of us have been tempted in such ways when we’ve come across some present day cruelty or injustice. The fleeting thought sweeping through our minds, then just as readily dismissed when we consider the consequences.

Having been brought up on the stories of England’s original outlaw, I couldn’t resist writing my own version of his deeds. From childhood I’ve loved the many retellings, adored the films and television programmes, even roamed around the remnants of Sherwood Forest. From my first memories I’ve loved the adventures of that outlaw.

So The Chronicles of Robin Hood was a sequence I always had to write. In fact, in my mind, I’ve been writing the books for more years than I care to remember. But, having re-read the original ballads, I actually found a few months to sit down and write this first book which, while complete in itself, will be the first of a four-part series. I’ve gone back to the original roots of the legend, but not in some slavish retelling, but more my thoughts on a Robin Hood living in a real medieval landscape, where the men and women are not so merry and where there is some understanding of just what motivates the baddies.

In a world where the weak seem to be back-footed, their opinions ignored, the tales of Robin Hood seem peculiarly relevant and the idea that Right should always defeat unjust Might more important than ever.

All of my novels so far have been historical, though I haven’t before gone back so far in time.

All of my Robin Hood books are now out in paperback and on Kindle.

You can find further details of almost all my books at

Blogs, the Virus Etc.

I intend to start blogging again in the next day or two, featuring walks undertaken before the Lockdown, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile here’s the latest advice from the Ramblers. 

Coronavirus – the latest Ramblers advice for supporters, members and volunteers

This guidance is being reviewed daily

24 March 2020

We are reviewing our guidance daily in response to the latest government advice. Our priority is to protect the health of our members, volunteers and staff and help to suppress the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

On Monday 23 March, the Government announced that people will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes:

  • shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • one form of exercise a day – for example a walk, run or cycle – alone or with members of your household;
  • any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and
  • travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary.

In line with previous advice, if you choose to walk for exercise you are advised to only walk locally to where you live. You should walk alone or with people from your household. You should not walk with friends or in groups. Keep 2m (6ft) distance from anyone you pass on your walk.

If you’re are in a household with COVID-19 symptoms, you should self-isolate at home. Those aged 70 or older and those with pre-existing health conditions that put them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 are particularly advised to practice social distancing.

Please see Public Health England’s guidelines on social distancing.

If you choose to walk locally for exercise, please:

  • Do not walk anywhere that you could get in to trouble and require the emergency services.
  • Avoid touching gates, fences etc. If you do, clean your hands with anti-bac and wash your hands as soon as possible.
  • Upon returning home, wash your hands.

All Ramblers walks and social activities have been cancelled until at least 31 May.


We are working to keep our members, volunteers and partners updated with the latest information on our response to COVID-19 virus via our usual communications channels. This webpage will be updated with the latest information, and will support members and volunteers in communicating how Ramblers GB is responding to the COVID-19 virus.

The best way to contact us is to first check the website link for information. If you still have questions, please get in touch via and we will aim to get back to you as soon as possible. Please note that our offices will only have essential staff, with most Ramblers staff working from home.

Thank you for your continued support

The Ramblers has been around for a long time, through the tough days and the bright days. We will continue to fight for the rights of walkers, for the protection of our important green spaces and for the joys of walking. Together we’re stronger. Thank you for standing with us at this difficult time.

You can follow us on TwitterFacebook and Instagram for all the latest updates from the Ramblers and to continue connecting with each other as Britain’s biggest walking community.

The Big Six by Arthur Ransome

When boats are being mysteriously cast adrift on the Norfolk Broads, suspicious eyes are turned on Bill, Joe and Pete, the three young sons of boat-builders. The three boys have to call on the help of their friend, doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon, and visiting fellow birdwatchers Dick and Dorothea Callum to nail the culprit.

On the Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

“The Big Six” is a 1930s set detective story for children, which means that adults can enjoy it as well. It is, of course, one of the famous “Swallows and Amazons” novels by Arthur Ransome. It is a thrilling tale of suspicion, chases, subterfuge and social comment.

It is the direct sequel to Ransome’s “Coot Club”, which has the same Norfolk setting and characters. In that book, Tom Dudgeon has to set loose a boat to save a bird’s nest – hence the local people’s belief that members of the Coot Club are responsible when lots of boats go adrift a few months later.

Are they guilty, or is someone trying to blacken their good name? This is a wonderful page-turner, and quite an amusing homage to 1930s detective stories.

Ransome was a fascinating character; after years of apprentice work as a hack writer in pre-Great War London, he went to Russia to study its folklore and story-telling traditions. He became a first-hand witness to the Russian Revolution, played chess with Lenin, and came away married to Evgenia, a jolly young lady who just happened to be Leon Trotsky’s secretary. He was probably a spy as well.

Settling, at various times, in the Lake District, East Anglia and London, he became an acclaimed feature writer and the author of the children’s novels about the adventuring Swallows and Amazons. Those children don’t actually appear in “The Big Six”, though there are links through their friends Dick and Dorothea Callum.

The novel, though set at the beginning of the ‘thirties, was first published in 1940 – a time when the very survival of the United Kingdom was questionable. The first readers must have perused its pages against the background of air-raid sirens, perhaps huddling in shelters against the falling bombs, or as young evacuees sent to safety in remote areas of the countryside. By that time Norfolk itself was part of an armed camp, soldiers on the march, airfields being constructed, fighters overhead and members of the Home Guard preparing to repel Nazi parachutists. Looking back a decade to a quieter England, must have been quite a relief to the book’s early fans.

A Heron at Horning (c) John Bainbridge 2015

The book, like its predecessor “Coot Club” is Ransome’s love letter to the Norfolk Broads. He writes quite beautifully about the countryside there. Years later, when I was an undergraduate at the nearby University of East Anglia, I used to journey up to Wroxham or Horning and hire a little boat and explore these same waters. The Broads are one of the delights of England. I was inspired very much by my childhood reading of Arthur Ransome.

Ransome writes with wonderful veracity about the Broads at a most interesting time. We see the early effects of tourism and boat hire, but there is a beautiful portrait of an eel-sett at night, the activities of an old-style village policeman, pre-war boatyards, doctors, solicitors and fishermen. More than a vanished world in so many ways. But the echoes are there if you go to the Norfolk Broads and look for yourself.

Norfolk Broads (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Ransome is particularly good at defining the class system, that silly institution that still bedevils so much of British existence. It’s interesting that the doctor’s son Tom Dudgeon is only very briefly suspected of being the culprit, even though he has form for casting off boats in the previous novel. But Bill, Pete and Joe, working class sons of boat-builders, are immediately under suspicion and persecuted in ways they wouldn’t be if they were perceived to be higher up the social scale. You can sense Ransome’s impatience with the class nonsense all the way through the book.

Like all good detective novels, there are lots of clues, red herrings, a race against time and a thrilling denouement. And characters that leap off the page.

If you haven’t encountered Ransome before this is a good one to start with, though you might like to try “Coot Club” first, or better still read all of the Swallows and Amazons novels in the order they were written.


The Long Kill by Reginald Hill

Yesterday, we walked on High Rigg in the Lake District. The country around is the setting for this excellent thriller by Reginald Hill. This is the first in a series here on favourite books, so please follow and spread the word.

Before he established his reputati41Q9tVGsm2L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_on with the “Dalziel and Pascoe” series of detective novels, Reginald Hill wrote several standalone thrillers under the pen-name Patrick Ruell. Many of these have been re-published over the years under his own name.

“The Long Kill”, mostly set in the Lake District, is the story of Jaysmith, a hired assassin working for a shady department of the British government.  Jaysmith’s technique is the long kill, taking out his target with a rifle from a considerable distance. He has a reputation as a hit-man that is second to none.

But when he is sent to the Lake District to shoot a victim sitting in his cottage garden, he misses – for the first time ever. Jaysmith has already been told that his eyesight isn’t quite what it used to be. Missing the shot persuades him to retire, seemingly to spend the rest of his days peacefully fellwalking in Lakeland.

But, of course, retiring from shady government departments isn’t quite as easy as all that. Jaysmith has a sinister boss, Jacob, who is none too keen on the prospect of losing his favoured killer.

It gets even more complicated when Jaysmith finds himself getting romantically involved with Anya, the daughter of the man he was sent to kill.

And that relationship provides much of the mystery of the novel. His target, Bryant, seems to be just a country solicitor. Jaysmith is baffled as to just why his paymaster would want the man dead?

Jaysmith finds himself in the position of defending the man he was sent to kill, threatened by other hit-men from Jacob’s department. The book comes to a particularly tense and dramatic conclusion, which leaves you on the edge of your seat. The ending will live in your mind long after you’ve closed the book.

“The Long Kill”, which is full of moral ambiguities, has a wonderful Lake District setting, mostly based around Grasmere and St John’s in the Vale. Hills and valleys where killers might be so easily concealed. The author makes even Keswick seem a threatening place to be.

Reginald Hill is very good at summoning up the atmosphere of the Lakes. He never just parachutes in local colour. You get the Lakeland fells and villages as they really are in a way few other others can match. The scenes where Jaysmith goes fellwalking are superbly written, as a fellwalker myself I can attest to their accuracy.

“The Long Kill” is thriller writing in the classic tradition – the tale of a man who lives outside the law, but is sanctioned by sinister forces within it. Not quite the tale of an innocent in peril, given Jaysmith’s  background as a hired killer, but the story of a hero who tries to bring order to a chaotic world that is beyond his control.

Interestingly, Reginald Hill revisited some of the same themes in his masterpiece final novel “The Woodcutter”, also drawing in elements from his other early novel “Fell of Dark”.

“The Long Kill” is a particularly visual novel, its scenes leaping out from its pages. It would make a terrific film.

My Least Popular Novel

My least popular novel?

There are some books which sell well and some that don’t.

Balmoral Kill Cover

I’m fortunate with my sales, but my thriller Balmoral Kill never does as well as the others – even though it’s had generally good reviews and readers have said some very nice things about the book.

Interestingly, Balmoral Kill has gone down better in the USA than in Britain. The American reviews were much more appreciative than many of the British ones. Not sure what that means, but there you go…

Which is a pity for me for Balmoral Kill is my favourite of all the books I’ve written.

Not that I don’t like the William Quest and Robin Hood stories. I’m proud of them.

But Balmoral Kill is my tribute to the thrillers I used to read when I was young, my homage to writers like John Buchan and Geoffrey Household. Moreover, the book is my love-letter to the Scottish Highlands, which provides much of its setting.

So why doesn’t it work for a wider readership in the way William Quest etc. does?

Well, I suppose it is a tad old-fashioned. The trend for thrillers is for up to date stories with modern threats like ISIS, where the heroes live on their cellphones and computers and technology are all. Or psychological tales where the (usually) heroine is both in physical and mental peril.

Balmoral Kill is set in the 1930s, when the world was tumbling towards World War Two. My hero, Sean Miller, has no modern technology, just a gun and his own coolness and ingenuity.

Miller is an assassin who works on the basic concept that there is good and there is evil.

For all his flaws – and they are legion – Sean Miller’s on the side of the good, fighting against individuals and countries who seek to add to the sum total of the nastiness in the world.

And in the late 1930s, the decision as to which side you were on was pretty clear-cut.

These are old-fashioned virtues and, despite what I’ve said, Miller does have a dark side. But at the end of the day you’d want him (I hope) on your team.

Sean Miller is quite an old-fashioned hero.

But perhaps the day of the good and old-fashioned hero is over?

I like to think that the period of Balmoral Kill‘s setting is only unfashionable at the moment and that its time will come again. In a way, the themes of the book have a relevance to what is happening in the world today…

So what do you think? Do you believe there’s a place for the simplistic old-fashioned thriller?

And it’s no longer a standalone book – there’s a sequel, Dangerous Game with its Dartmoor setting.

Do let me know…

Meanwhile, if you have read and enjoyed Balmoral Kill then please do leave a review on the sales pages. And if you fancy trying it, here’s the link…

Robin Hood and Will Scarlet

Anyone who got into the whole Robin Hood scene after the broadcasting of the television series “Robin of Sherwood” in the 1980s has an immediate image of Will Scarlet as someone who is bolshie, questioning, rebellious – even against Robin Hood when he has a disagreement over tactics – and one hell of a fighter. Often not a very merry man at all. Such is the impression made by Ray Winstone in the part in that series and the scriptwriting of Richard Carpenter. More on Mr Winstone anon.Loxley New Cover

But Will Scarlet wasn’t always represented in that way. In earlier versions, notably many of the films and the Richard Greene television version in the 1950s, Will is a much milder character. Usually portrayed as a kind of third in command, after Robin himself and Little John. And in some of the earlier versions, our Will is a bit of a dandy, a trifle flash, a gentleman amongst the outlaws. In one portrayal, I forget quite which, he even wears red tights to match his name! Enough said!

Now let’s go back a long way in the history of the legend. Unlike some of the later arrivals, such as Marian, Will Scarlet was right there at the beginning. In the earliest ballad “The Gest of Robin Hood”, Will is there, helping Robin capture Sir Richard at the Lea. In various versions of the tradition, Will has quite a variety of names. Will Scarlock, Scatlock, Scathelock, Scadlock, and several others. To complicate matters Anthony Munday in the 1590s, wrote a play in which there were two brothers, a Scarlet and a Scathelocke. It can all get very confusing!


And to add to the confusion, Robin Hood has another Will in his band, one Stutely. In some versions they get mixed up. When I was writing my Robin Hood novel “Loxley”, I made the two Wills relations by marriage. Having two characters with the same moniker is a pain for all writers. Normally you would never do it. I felt though that Stutely deserved his place in the saga.

There is also the ballad tradition that Will is somehow related to Robin Hood. In the ballad “Robin Hood and Will Scarlet”, Robin encounters young Will hunting deer in the forest. They have an archery contest and a fight (which Will wins really) before Robin invites him to join the band. His name is given as Will Gamwell, though he is wearing scarlet stockings which gives him the nickname. It is revealed in this ballad that Will is Robin’s nephew, the son of the outlaw chief’s sister. This idea of Scarlet as a relative continued in the Kevin Costner film “Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves” where a very rebellious young Will (played by Christian Slater) is revealed as Robin’s half-brother.Wolfshead Cover_edited-5

In the Richard Greene TV series, Will Scarlet was played by Ronald Howard and, subsequently, Paul Eddington. Useful sidekicks, but not much rebellion about them as far as I recall.

In the 1938 film “Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn, Scarlet was played by the English actor Patric Knowles, as very much an obedient follower (David Niven was originally cast in the role but was away and couldn’t do it – it would be fascinating to know how he would have played it). A word too about Owen Teale who was Scarlet to Patrick Bergin’s Robin Hood in the film of the same name of 1991. Teale’s Scarlet is played as Robin’s aide and best friend in all the world. The two have a fine old time seeing off the Normans and, in some ways, the outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Terrific stuff and vastly entertaining. A shame, I feel, that this version was overshadowed by the Costner version.


And so back to Mr Winstone.

Tough, uncompromising, Winstone’s London accent, making him seem even more the outsider from the rest of the merries. The character’s wife murdered by the Normans. Scathlock, but Scarlet inside. Out for vengeance, seeking the blood of his enemies with little compromise. Red (Scarlet) with anger. We subsequently find out that he is a former soldier who has fought in the wars in Normandy. He’s a bruiser too, handy with his fists. You can believe that this Scarlet would really have survived in those troublous times. This Will Scarlet is a barely restrained killer.

He is shown in the first episode to be a better swordsman than Robin. Always seemingly on the edge of boiling over with his overwhelming hatred of his enemies. But though he may frequently be critical of Robin’s leadership, though he may have thoughts of replacing the leader, he shows – often at critical and emotional moments, a very moving loyalty, with a reined-in sense of humour. Winstone gives quite a performance.

And so I come to my own Will Scarlet in my novel “Loxley”. I adopted the tradition that he comes from Derby, which is suggested somewhere in one of the ballads. And, yes, I have given him the rebellious edge of the later Scarlets of film and television. He is the nominal leader of my outlaws until Robin arrives on the scene. He is destined to play a much greater part in the second novel which, will, hopefully be out at Christmas. My Scarlet is a brawler, someone with a cutting tongue too. I’ve made him with someone with an eye for the ladies. More of that in the next books. There are whole sides to his character yet to be revealed.

Do visit my author page at:

Was Robin Hood Real?

The Origins of Robin Hood…

So did Robin Hood actually exist? And if so where and when?
In a way it doesn’t matter if there was an historical Robin or not. He exists in the minds of billions of people around the world.

He is, to employ an over-used phrase, a cultural icon. The outlaw in the forest. A fugitive from injustice. The rebel who fights the wealthy and powerful. Robs from the rich and gives to the poor. In Britain today we even have a “Robin Hood Tax Campaign” which seeks to even up the balance between the haves and the have-nots.

Just say the words “Robin Hood” to virtually anyone in the world and they’ll know who you mean. An image of the outlaw will have appeared in their mind. Not bad for someone who – if he lived at all – probably started out as an English (and very localised English) rural bandit!

And go to many parts of Britain and you’ll find quite a supply of Robin Hood’s graves, wells, caves, larders, and so forth. Yorkshire has a village named after him, Robin Hood’s Bay. There’s even a Robin Hood International Airport near to Doncaster! And it’s not just the outlaw chief. The last resting place of Little John may be seen near to his old home town of Hathersage. Friar Tuck and several of the other merry (or, often, not so merry) men can boast local connections.

Much of the tourism industry in Nottinghamshire depends on Robin Hood. He has a statue outside Nottingham Castle. He’s well featured in the Sherwood Forest Visitors’ Centre. You can even glimpse men dressed up as him in Sherwood Forest.

Robin Hood is an attractive figure even in our own troublous times, when the wealthy and powerful seem to have scant regard for the struggles of the less fortunate. He is the most potent symbol in our culture of the idea of Right fighting Might. If that sounds very political it is. Can there be any grander political ideal than upsetting the status quo and battling for equality?

Alongside the legend of King Arthur, Robin Hood is one of the two essential English myths. Someone we’ve all grown up with, in novels, television series and numerous films. If there was an actual individual who inspired these yarns he’d probably be amazed at his legacy.

So what do we know about the beginnings of the Robin Hood legend? The answer is precious little. There are a small number of old ballads relating the deeds of the outlaw. Just five of them of reasonable vintage, and a tiny portion of an old play. The oldest extant ballad probably appeared only in the fourteenth-century.

There is a mention of the wolfshead in Langland’s Piers Plowman, probably from around 1377 – the earliest mention of Robin in literature. Troubling for those of us who love the outlaw, the Robin Hood in these ballads is not quite the freedom-fighter of our imagination. He and his men are portrayed as rather less generous and rather more as bloodthirsty villains. Killing and mutilation are their stock-in-trade.

Furthermore, the setting is not usually Sherwood Forest, and the king of the time is named Edward rather than the Richard the Lionheart of so many books and films. The suggestion is that the Edward in question is perhaps Edward II.

Some of the popular characters of the Robin Hood story only get a mention in the later ballads. Maid Marian doesn’t make an appearance in the story until the late fifteenth century. She was almost certainly put in for romantic purposes by some wily author or printer who knew his market. He pinched her from French literature in a thieving gesture of which Robin himself would have been proud. I have put Marian in my story because I think she’s an essential part of the mythology of Sherwood.

For some years there has been an historical fight over the body of Robin Hood. Should he be in Sherwood Forest during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, sometime in the 1190s? Or elsewhere, perhaps in Barnsdale near to Doncaster, during Edward II’s reign in the early 1300s?

Anyone who writes stories of Robin Hood has to make a personal choice. If you’ve read this far you will see that I have chosen Sherwood in the days of Richard the Lionheart. I have two motivations for picking this period and location. The first is purely sentimental. I grew up with the idea of Robin in Sherwood, fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne in what was then the wild forest around Edwinstowe. The dominant culture of all those films and television programmes has sunk into my mind so deeply that I can’t imagine the outlaws being anywhere else.

And I do believe that there is an argument for Robin existing long before the reign of Edward II, even if a Robert Hood gets a mention in the records of his time. J.C. Holt, in his definitive and quite excellent book Robin Hood (read the revised edition of 2011 if you are seeking it out) presents us with a number of outlaws bearing the names or rather nicknames Robinhood, or Robehod, in the 1200s, well before Edward came to the throne.  Even a Robert Hod, fugitive, tried at York assizes in 1225. I’ll not delve deeper into Professor Holt’s quite superb account here. Everyone who loves the legend should read it for themselves. Holt, provably, puts the figure and legend of Robin Hood back through written sources to at least 1261-2.

The argument may be made that people were so familiar with the legend or concept of Robin Hood by that time, that outlaws and highway robbers generally were being branded with his name in the court records. And such myths take a time to grow in the public imagination, decades at least, perhaps a century. Therefore, someone, somewhere, must have been the first Robin Hood. The individual whose name was then adopted by the outlaws that followed, becoming almost a title passed on down the line.

As these ballads began life as oral tales, long before they were written down or the advent of printing, who is to say how they might have been altered? It is quite likely that local versions existed, promoted by a population with a good ear and memory for such ballads. And they were probably updated as they went.

The King’s name of Edward in the printed versions might well have originally been Richard or John or Henry in the oral ballads. We will never know. And the versions that promote Barnsdale over Sherwood are just the survivors. People living in a very insular fashion in remote parts of England, where very few people strayed far from home, would insert their own local forest. The original ballads could as well have referred to Sherwood as much as anywhere else.

And if the terminus ante quem of the Robin Hood who is mentioned in historical documents is as early as 1261-2, then it is good common sense to suggest that that individual and the other Robinhoods, Robehods, Hods, and so on, are taking these tribute names from an earlier and factual individual, who might well have been a contemporary of King John.

And talking of John, Prince John is usually portrayed as an outright villain. One of the trio of baddies, with Gisborne and the Sheriff of Nottingham, who are the arch-enemies of Robin Hood. There is no doubt that John (count, in reality, not prince) could be petty, ruthless, autocratic and occasionally vicious. But he has suffered a bad press, particularly given that the histories of his time were written by churchmen who couldn’t stand him.

Historically, he was no worse and often much better than many other medieval kings. I’ve tried to do him some justice. He certainly was, as I have suggested, much fonder of England than his brother Richard the Lionheart, who plundered the country to pay for his foreign ventures. John deserves an historical revision.

And do I think there was an original Robin Hood, one character who lived and created a legend?

The answer is yes!

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A Place Called Robin Hood

We all associate Robin Hood with Sherwood Forest, but as far as place-names go the outlaw appears all over England. I was minded of this the other day as we were strolling around Richmond Castle in Yorkshire. Or Richmondshire of you prefer. There’s a ruined tower in the castle named after the old wolfshead.

Robin Hood's Grave 017
Robin Hood’s Grave, Westmorland. (c) J Bainbridge

As it happens, there’s little historical basis for the name. Popular thought decrees that romantic Victorians called it Robin Hood’s Tower.

I suspect the same happened with lots of other Robin Hood links, the names are either there through the efforts of recent romanticism and…

Then there were lots of Robin Hoods. As some of you might know I’ve spent the last couple of years writing a series of novels in which I’ve tried to root Robin in medieval reality. I’ve set my books in Sherwood Forest, though my Robin makes excursions into Westmorland, where there are lots of Robin sites, briefly Barnsdale, Fountains Abbey, Hathersage in Derbyshire.

My own belief is there was once an original Robin Hood. Who he was and where and when he lived, we shall never know. But rest assured he wasn’t the romantic outlaw of legend. But he obviously made a name for himself, for I believe that that Robin Hood became a generic name for lots of other, possibly bold, outlaws.

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Robin Hood’s Tower (c) A Bainbridge 2018

And that’s why you find the place name in so many places across the land. They were named after their local Robin – lots of successors to the original.

Walking on the Westmorland fells, we often visit Robin Hood’s Grave – its obviously a cairn of questionable age. At Fountains Abbey, there’s a Robin Hood’s Well and Wood. (I used it as a setting for my Robin Hood novel Villain). Tradition alleges – with little evidence – that the monk called Friar Tuck trained at Fountains Abbey, though as far as the old ballads go, Tuck was a late arrival. Much later in the Middle Ages, a robber-monk called Tuck appeared in reality at Lindfield in Sussex. Nothing to do with Robin Hood, though you wonder if the Sussex monk was named after an earlier legend.

You get little help from the Robin Hood ballads. Only a few are very early, the first claiming Barnsdale as Robin’s hideout, though interestingly it also has the Sheriff of Nottingham as a character. I must say that had I been a medieval outlaw I wouldn’t have chosen Barnsdale as a refuge. It was a place then of open heaths and small woods – not a very good place to hide if you are literally outside the law and anyone can bring you down.

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Fountains Abbey (c) John Bainbridge 2018

The problem is, the ballads that we have were probably written down from original oral sources, and the person writing them down localised them so that they referred to places his audience might know. So the original Robin could have come from anywhere. Just fill in the blanks as you rewrite the old verses.

But other place names – there’s a strong tradition that Little John hailed from Hathersage in Derbyshire – you can still see his purported and very massive grave. There are several other Robin Hood graves, including the famous and currently threatened one at Kirklees.

We also have Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, where the outlaw saw off some pirates. There are also several Robin Hood pubs, including one in Penrith in Cumbria – though – as you are getting nearer to Carlisle you are really entering the territory of the outlaw Adam Bell, whose adventures and crew are very similar to Mr Hood’s. There’s Robin Hood’s Stride in the Peak and a lot of other Robin features across the north and Midlands. Geographically, he got about as much as King Arthur.

And, of course, there is Robin Hood International Airport – a sight that would probably have overwhelmed the original ballad writers.

So if you have another Robin Hood location do leave a comment, especially if it’s not one of the famous one.

Robin Hood – The People’s Hero

Tradition labels Robin Hood not only as an outlaw but a rebel as well. In most of the tales, whether they be novels, films or television, Robin takes to the greenwood to fight for the poor and oppressed. And comes into immediate conflict with figures of authority, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy of Gisborne, Prince (actually Count) John of Mortain, various corrupt abbots and nobles etc.

We can all picture the scenes where Robin takes from the rich and gives to the poor and….

Wait a moment, let’s wind back to the original ballads.

In most of them Robin is certainly a hedge thief of extraordinary talent, supported by just a few of the crew we now think of as the Merry Men. He certainly combats people in power, but the ballads are less clear about what he does with the loot.

But he’s an exciting lad and you can quite understand why Robin has always been so popular with the poor and oppressed. The other essential British myth – King Arthur – gives us a noble figure too. A king who, with his knights of the round table, fights injustice in much the same way. But do you notice that the underclass scarcely gets a look in?

That’s why Robin Hood has survived as an anti-authority character. The poor and oppressed can identify with the idea of someone so anti-establishment triumphing over the medieval status quo.

And people who favour social justice still do today. Note the Robin Hood Tax Campaign that in its own way wants to take from the rich and give to the poor.

If the Robin of the ballads wasn’t quite that noble, it doesn’t matter. The British people – and I suspect a lot of folk in countries undiscovered in Robin’s time – love someone who cocks a snook at authority.

Robin Hood, if you accept the myth that has grown up, rather than the original ballads, is probably the most dangerous character in literature and popular culture.

The ballads undoubtedly began as oral accounts in a largely illiterate age. What was eventually written down is probably just one version of many, hence the various kings and locations mentioned within.

But what is clear is that the ballads were regarded as both popular and subversive from the very beginning. The written down surviving versions are only part of the story. The myth of Robin Hood, what most people know, expands and alters to cater to popular tastes.

Think of Robin Hood and we generally have two versions: a lower-born Robin of Loxley, and a Robin Hood (usually the Earl of Huntingdon or his son) who comes from the aristocracy but develops a social conscience. The television series “Robin of Sherwood” actually gave us both versions.

Now in the early ballads there is no hint of Robin of Huntingdon. He is a much later invention. And I wonder why?

Robin of Huntingdon, the noble who rides to the aid of the poor?

Could it be that his creator loved the stories but rather frowned on the idea of such a rebellious figure coming from the lower orders? Or maybe thought that the said lower orders weren’t capable of running a rebellious campaign? Or thought the tales might encourage people to rise up against their masters and start a bit of wealth redistribution?

Well, perhaps, though we will never know.

What I always find interesting in many of the later versions is that Robin Hood often sells out.

We all know the scene: having seen off numerous villains Robin Hood meets Richard the Lionheart and gets a pardon and the girl. In the Erroll Flynn film version he also gets a knighthood, a peerage and is given control over the peasants of Sherwood.

No one explains just how all of this helps the poor and oppressed of the forest…

In the TV “Robin of Sherwood”, the writer Richard Carpenter was cannier. His Robin of Loxley is dazzled by Lionheart and almost submits to his control, but eventually sees that the king can’t be trusted and that he won’t deliver the social justice that has been so bitterly fought for.

That’s better.

Medieval peasants would have cheered at Robin’s enlightenment. They may have had to obey and, in reality, had little chance of rising up in rebellion, but they were undoubtedly subversive in the few ways available – such as listening to oral ballads about Robin Hood. It was one of the few ways they could strike back.

When writing my own Robin Hood novels, I had to make a conscious choice about the background of my Robin. A man of the people or an aristocrat with a social conscience.

I decided on a fighter who has come from a poorer background. If he’s not quite a villein he’s not from the nobility either. My Robin might thieve but he’s essentially a rebel, seeking long-term solutions to social injustice. Robin finds that he has to make uneasy alliances in order to further his cause.

In the books I’ve been trying to get back to the spirit of the original ballads but, like all Robin Hood authors since, rejigging the tales to my own tastes without sacrificing the tradition.

The worst of it all is we now know – if Robin Hood ever existed as a rebellious historical figure – that he failed.   We still live with poverty and injustice.

Time for Robin Hood to come back out of the greenwood…

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