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Enchanted forest

She may not have made the perfect Maid Marian but, as Harvey McGavin discovers, Izi Banton has found the ideal job.

If you go down to the woods todayIyou might bump into Izi Banton. But only if you live near Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire, where Izi is a senior ranger at the Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre.

After studying ecology at Aberystwyth University, Izi got a job as a tree planter ("I planted trees all along the side of the M25") and then went for an interview at Sherwood Forest - to play Maid Marian. The next week they asked her to become a park ranger. Just as well, she reckons: "I couldn't act to save my life."

At this time of year, though, the forest is thick with thespians and jerkin- clad jesters as the forest hosts its 12th annual Robin Hood Festival. It's a jamboree for merry men, women and children and fans of the famous outlaw flock to see reconstructions, archery demonstrations, singing, story-telling and jousting.

The festival began in 1982 after vandals tried to burn down the Major Oak, the favourite hideout of Nottingham's pioneer of wealth redistribution. The tree smouldered for two days and nights and only survived because the fire brigade pumped the hollow trunk full of foam. Now its 800-year-old frame is propped up with huge beams.

Even though it has a 36ft girth, the Major Oak is named after its 18th century saviour, Major Rook, who prevented the forest being turned into farming land.

The festival goes on for 10 days, but there are activities for children throughout the year. Once a month, on a Saturday, Izi supervises the Junior Rangers, a group of about 30 seven to 12-year-olds, as they enjoy a variety of woodland-based activities, including mushroom picking and making sculptures out of strips of birch bark.

"They'd come every day if we let them," says Izi. "They love anything they can get their teeth into and that lets them get their hands dirty."

Other original entertainments include the "search for Friar Tuck", which involves following a trail of empty mead bottles, finding him in a heap and then jumping on him. Lessons on ''life as an outlaw'' teach the rangers how to build a shelter, rather than how not to pay your taxes, with the man himself, Robin Hood.

But behind all the fun and frivolity, there is a serious side to Izi's work. She and the other three full-time rangers have to protect this rare environment. Sherwood Forest's 450 acres is a "site of special scientific interest" and home to a plethora of creatures.

The forest has nearly 1,000 "ancient" oak trees, the name given to those over 400 years old. Their huge, gnarled and hollow trunks are spectacular and give the place a fittingly magical, fairy-tale air. But they also provide the perfect habitat for insects - more than 200 species of spider and 1,500 different kinds of beetles live in the forest. Perhaps the single greatest threat to the environment is fire.

"We had a lot of forest fires last year but luckily people are quite vigilant these days and will report them if they see something." The forest, which despite the name, would have been a heathland in days of old, has also become a stopping-off point for many species of birds on their flights south. Most years there's another migration too - American tourists. The festival is now twinned with one in Arizona where there is a mock-up medieval village in the middle of the desert.

"The thing that confuses them (the tourists) is that Nottingham Castle isn't in Sherwood Forest. And there's no waterfall like there is in the film - they all come looking for that."

The forest receives around a million visitors every year and has become a lot busier since Kevin Costner reinvented the legend as only Hollywood knows how.

"When Prince of Thieves came out, visitor numbers and expectations went up considerably. But most kids are happy to create their own imaginary world. They get a bow and arrow and go off into the woods. The girls definitely like to be Maid Marian but the boys don't mind so long as they can be bad - a lot of them want to be on the sheriff's side."

Izi has an enviable working environment. Even after 10 years in the job she is still enchanted by the forest.

"It's not a formal park, all manicured and landscaped - there's wilderness to go and explore too. It's a lovely, lovely forest. It's a perfect children's playground."

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