England: Fine home for a bear of little brain

Ashdown Forest is one of Britain's many literary haunts, writes Robert McCrum.

Parents still take their children to Ashdown Forest, the setting of 'Winnie-the-Pooh', where author AA Milne once walked with his son Christopher. Photo / Martin Brent
Parents still take their children to Ashdown Forest, the setting of 'Winnie-the-Pooh', where author AA Milne once walked with his son Christopher. Photo / Martin Brent

Literary Britain has many sacred groves. There's Wordsworth's Lake District and the Bronte sisters' Yorkshire. You cannot visit Bath without reminders of Jane Austen and Warwickshire is signposted on the motorway as "Shakespeare Country".

And there's the little world of AA Milne, whose estate derives millions of dollars from the antics of Winnie-the-Pooh. The adventures of this infuriating teddy bear and his juvenile partner, Christopher Robin, took place in the domestic acres of Ashdown Forest, a symbolic haunt in the landscape of the English mind.

This forest, scarcely 60km from London, is more of a heath than a wood. Dating almost to the Norman Conquest, perhaps it has never fully recovered from the devastation wrought by the hurricane of 1987.

Still, it has its own magic. Ash trees and hazel crowd the roadside; spring bluebells glow within the green cave of the bosky canopy. In the days of Chaucer, these parts would have been thickly wooded, a perfect medieval hunting ground.

Today, Ashdown Forest has been reduced to about 2590ha of open-access countryside, a European Union Special Area for Conservation.

The main forest lies below the highest ridge of the High Weald. Geographically, the heart of Ashdown is Gills Lap. Look east from this vantage point and you can locate a "Five Hundred Acre Wood" on the far side of the valley. To one little English bear this was "the Hundred Aker Wood".

At Gills Lap, you have arrived at the world centre of the Winnie-the-Pooh racket. But, mercifully, the forest's guardians have prevented the landscape from becoming blighted by Milne memorabilia.

There are no pubs, though the delightful Hatch Inn comes close. If you want to stay on the edge of the forest, there's the Ashdown Park Hotel. Really the first evidence of 21st-century concerns comes with the directions to the "llama park", before a sign recording 238 "deer collisions" in 2010. Otherwise you can indulge a forest fantasy and regress to the England of the 1920s.

Between Gills Lap and the little village of Hartfield on the northern edge of the forest lies Cotchford Farm, whose other former owners include the Rolling Stone Brian Jones. Milne bought the property in 1925 as a suitable place to bring up his 6-year-old son, Christopher, known to the family as "Billy Moon".

Milne used to walk up from the house to Gills Lap with Billy Moon trotting beside him.

When, on Christmas Eve 1925, the London Evening News announced a new story by Milne, the acclaimed author of When We Were Very Young, it was advertised as "a new story for children about Christopher Robin and his teddy bear".

At this date, only two of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories had been completed but Milne was a quick worker. The toys in Billy Moon's nursery included Eeyore, Piglet and the bear named Pooh. Kanga and Roo were added swiftly. By March 1926, Winnie-the-Pooh was complete.

All the book needed now was some illustrations. Enter EH Shepard, known as "Kipper".

Shepard made a point of drawing from life and was keen to see the setting for the stories. Milne and Shepard tramped over to Gills Lap and saw, as Christopher Robin had, "the whole world spread out until it reached the sky". The site is marked now by a discreet bronze plaque, a memorial to their collaboration.

Walking back to the Gills Lap, the visiting Pooh-natic can pass "The Enchanted Place" and the site of the celebrated "Heffalump Trap" next to six pines. These have become reduced to a solitary lone pine.

From "Roo's Sandy Pit", you can follow the winding route pioneered by Christopher Robin in his quest for "the North Pole". Somewhere to the right of this landmark is "Eeyore's Sad and Gloomy Place", described on conventional maps as Wrens Warren Valley.

Ashdown Forest has been here for hundreds of years and will no doubt endure for aeons to come.

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Further information: See ashdownforest.org.

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