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A Tale of Two Forests

At first glance, the idea of creating a medieval style Sherwood Forest in Texas, USA may seem to be a somewhat bizarre and far-fetched proposal but, 4 years ago, two former graduates of Texas A and M University did exactly that and on February 27th 2010, the "Sherwood Forest Faire" opened on Saturdays and Sundays for six consecutive weekends, offering a mixture of medieval entertainment and fun for the whole family! The concept was the brainchild of Eric Todd, a medieval and renaissance history graduate at the University who had visited Nottingham when he was a student 20 years earlier and had since tirelessly pursued his dream to build a piece of medieval Nottingham in the heart of Texas!

To achieve his goal, Eric and his business partner George Appling had to work really hard to secure the investment of 2.5 million dollars needed to acquire land in a suitable location and to turn the idea into a reality. They purchased a 106 acre forest site in an area known as "Lost Pines", (a stretch of land situated some 35 -45 miles east of Austin, the state capital, which has a huge stand of loblolly pine trees that offer good year-round shade) and set about creating the right ambience and entertainment facilities to establish the new attraction as a "must-see" Medieval Renaissance Park with a wide popular appeal.

Just two years later, in 2012, the Faire had grown significantly featuring over 100 live performances per day ; great food and various fun rides etc. and this year's 2014 event has over 130 merchant stalls and "shoppes", plus 40 stage acts scheduled , all helping to keep Austin "the Live Music Capital of the Nation"! To help ensure the venue's future viability, the owners also introduced an extended range of new initiatives that used the facilities at other times of the year, beyond the Annual Faire schedule. These included running Summer Camps, holding a Celtic Music Festival, offering wedding and banqueting facilities and staging Full Contact Jousting tournaments. Quite an achievement from a "standing start"!

Now, in comparison, let's take a look at the development record of the Visitor Centre at Nottinghamshire's "real" Sherwood Forest, that officially opened to the public in 1976 and consists of a number of octagonal buildings called "pods" which currently house a Robin Hood /Sherwood Forest display and exhibition; a small lecture theatre; a souvenir and gift shop and the Rangers offices. In addition there is a cafeteria/restaurant and a small tourist information centre. The events, walks and attractions on offer generally focus on the Forest's flora and fauna and the conservation and protection of the environment as a natural habitat. Thirty years ago this summer, the Visitor Centre staged the very first Robin Hood Festival that successfully grew to become an annual feature steadily building on its visitor numbers with 50,000 attending the free 7 day event in 2013.

However, in order to allow the Forest to recover its natural ecological balance, the Visitor Centre has to be re-located to an adjacent site but the plans recently reached a crisis point when Nottinghamshire County Council, having expressed concerns about the project's slow progress, issued an ultimatum to Discovery Attractions, (the private sector company selected to develop the new facility) to finalise their funding package. That ultimatum deadline is now just a few weeks away, so what are the lessons that the County authorities can learn from their Texan counterparts?

Clearly there are many distinct differences and complex issues between the nature and approach to the two forest projects that make direct comparison difficult but there are also some common factors that might raise a few eyebrows when you consider the widely contrasting timescales! Securing private sector investment and sponsorship is obviously a key issue but the most notable difference would seem to be the fact that the developers of the Texas Sherwood Forest simply just "got on with it" and, from a standing start, achieved their goal in just 2-3 years - whereas the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Forest project seems to have been plagued by delays and issues that stretch back well over a decade! However, the County Council have stated publicly they "remain committed to replacing the existing visitor centre" so, as the clock ticks down towards the ultimatum deadline, let's hope that Discovery Attractions have some of the Texas-style entrepreneurial flair and financial muscle to rescue the proposals for the "real" Sherwood Forest from the brink of embarrassing failure!