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A Walk to Hathersage

(December 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 8, December 1978/January 1979, p. 40.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

That winter’s night the snow was falling softly in the darkness, as it had been for days, on the climbing, twisting roads, on the clusters of stone houses, on the encircling hills and wide moors of Derbyshire, until nothing could move on the highways and the great slopes were wide expanses of white and cloaked silence.

As in most winters, the snow closed the place in, liberating all there from the bustle, traffic, tumult of the acquisitive world. People were their true selves again.

In homes and farms fires were banked high, and, in the bright, glowing inns, men supped mulled ale, talked sport and farming. Jests and tales – it could have been any century, any year, yet nowhere else but England.

In the village hall, the local Silver Band was playing heavily and faithfully music for old-time dancing. The cause was a good one – the raising of money for the bandsmens’ uniforms. The need was obvious – the band members wore fine tunics of red and gold, but their trousers were ordinary and everyday.

The attendance was smaller than usual, for the most numerous and enthusiastic supporters of ‘old time’, the farmers of hill and dale, were shut away in their farmhouses behind the climbing snowdrifts blocking all roads to the village.

* * *

Past the hall and the strains of Bradford Barn Dance, past another merry inn, slowly up winding road we walked, the snow crunching under our feet, the wind stirring flurries of white from festooned tree branches.

A path in the churchyard among the slanting gravestones took us to a long grave fenced by low iron railings. Two ancient yew trees, one at foot, one at head, threw a close protective covering of dark green over the surface of chipped stones, on which a few patches of white snow glowed in the darkness.

By torchlight we read the inscription on the headstone – ‘Here lies buried Little John, the friend and lieutenant of Robin Hood, who died in a cottage (now destroyed) to the east of the churchyard’.

* * *

Little John

Tales told and songs sung at winter firesides kept green through the centuries the memory of Robin Hood, Little John and the rest of the merry men. In this Derbyshire village of Hathersage people remembered from generation to generation the cottage where Little John died, and the spot in the churchyard where he was buried.

His long bow, inscribed with his surname, Naylor, hung on a wall in the church for centuries, until, in 1792 it was taken away by the squire, to vanish from sight until, a couple of hundred years later, it was put on show at Wakefield Museum. It is of spiced yew, 79 inches long, weighs two pounds and requires a pull of 160 pounds as against the 50 pounds usual today.

Robin Hood, reports one old narrative, ‘joyned unto himself many stout fellows of like dispocicioun, amongst whom one called Little John was principal ...’ An old ballad tells us that ‘by hym stode Little John, a good yeman was he’ and it is striking that of all the things remembered and recorded about Robin Hood above all else is the fact that Little John was a friend of Robin Hood; that Robin recruited his band from men who bested him in combat; that though chosen captain he was but one among friends and equals and betters, not master but comrade, not head but friend and fellow.

Robin was a proud outlaw,
Whyles he walked on ground,
So curteyse an outlaw as he was one,
Was never none yfounde.

So the oldest and most beautiful ballad tells us, using proud in its older sense of free and masterless, and using courtesy to describe Robin’s gracefulness and humility to his comrades and to the poor, the defenceless and the oppressed.

* * *

Lenin is only a legend

Historians, particularly those dedicated to so-called scientific methods, dismissed the tales of Robin Hood as they did much else that has been since proven beyond argument. In place of the clear, simple, intelligible ballads and stories they advanced wildly incredible theories to account for the centuries-old belief in the outlaw and his fellows.

Robin Hood never existed, they said. He was myth created by superstitious people, a hero sprung from a misty Teutonic paganism, or an Aryan sun god, or a relic of tree worship, or a forest elf, or, said some marxists, an expression of popular rebellion against authority. He was everything highly improbable and impossible; anything but the real man honoured and remembered by the foolish English poor.

Amid the spreading of such doubts, Little John’s grave was opened. The size of the grave and a 29½ inch thighbone in it suggested a man of some seven feet tall. The old ballads spoke of him as ‘seven feet high’. Good enough for the academic historians? Not a bit of it. Unlettered men must be wrong.

What evidence was there, demanded the authorities, that there was ever a cottage on the site pointed out? Stung by endless repetitions of these doubts, a retired market gardener of Hathersage reached for his spade, went to what the guide books still call ‘the reputed site of Little John’s cottage’ and dug.

He went deep and his spade unearthed the remains and foundations of a medieval cottage! If anyone else has any doubts let him or her go to Hathersage and argue it out there.

* * *

We walked from the graveside, and down to the village. Across the silent hills an occasional light flickered in the windows of. a lonely farmhouse; footsteps crunched along the street; ‘good nights’ hung on the cold air. From the village hall came whoops and shouts and the strains of the Gay Gordons, played by the indefatigable Silver Band.

In the warm, friendly bar parlour of the inn – The Little John – a man was blowing blasts on a forester’s horn, amid a hubbub of friendly comment, derision and laughter. Where else but in high Hathersage should sleep the friend and lieutenant of Robin Hood – Little John?

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