Travel review: Ashdown Forest - on the trail of the celebrated Winnie the Pooh author

Pooh sign at Pooh Corner shop, Hartfield. PIC: PA
Pooh sign at Pooh Corner shop, Hartfield. PIC: PA
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There’s no shortage of British locations which have become well-trodden tourist paths thanks to their celebrated authors – Haworth for the Brontë sisters, Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, Wordsworth’s Lake District.

There’s no shortage of British locations which have become well-trodden tourist paths thanks to their celebrated authors – Haworth for the Brontë sisters, Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, Wordsworth’s Lake District.

Ashdown Forest is gloriously untouched. PIC: PA

Ashdown Forest is gloriously untouched. PIC: PA

But just 40 miles from London, Ashdown Forest in East Sussex – where scenes from the film Goodbye Christopher Robin were shot and where Winnie-the-Pooh creator AA Milne and his son Christopher Robin had their happiest times – has remained blissfully unmarred by tourism.

Today, AA Milne’s biographer Ann Thwaite, the film’s consultant, is helping me retrace the steps that father and son took in the 1920s on their many walks around this 10 square mile stretch of countryside, the little boy carrying his eponymous bear and his innocent pals Piglet, Tigger, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, Owl and Eeyore. Yet there’s not a sign, a playground, or any hint of a Disneyesque homage to the most famous bear in the world, as we venture into this gloriously untouched ancient forest, much of which is tranquil, open heathland.

Anyone who doesn’t know of Ashdown Forest’s connection with Pooh or his creator will be little the wiser once in the “Hundred Aker Wood”, which is in reality called the Five Hundred Acre Wood.

Ann, a sprightly 84-year-old and expert on all things AA Milne, takes fans on the paths trodden by the most lucrative children’s author in the world.

“I always get lost,” she confesses. “You see groups of Scouts doing orienteering, but there’s no little model of Winnie-the-Pooh in every corner guiding them. The landscape hasn’t changed in all those years. You can’t even hear any traffic. It’s very sandy, too. There’s a scene in Winnie-the-Pooh when Roo is playing in a sandpit, and if you look at the books you can see where Shepard (illustrator EH Shepard) was drawing the actual place.”

She leads us to a shady circle of pine trees in Gills Lap (renamed Galleons Lap in the books), in Milne’s words an “enchanted place” which is apparently popular with fans, but there’s no one here today. Just out of the trees, there’s the most spectacular view from the High Weald of the Downs, a patchwork quilt of green fields, divided by forest.

It’s where Milne took his son on walks for precious time out and where he later took Shepard, who recreated Ashdown as the background in the Pooh books.

On the rock where they sat – and where the actors who play them are featured in the film – there’s a commemorative plaque to AA Milne and EH Shepard who “captured the magic of Ashdown Forest”.

The most visible sign indication we are in Pooh territory is a signpost to Pooh Bridge, which features in the film. Here we stand, twigs at the ready, chucking thin sticks in the river – a tributary of the Medway – before darting to the other side to see whose twig appears first.

Christopher Milne, who died in 1996, did much for the restoration of the bridge, Ann recalls.

“He also led the fight to save the forest from development and oil exploration. He said he took the playground of his Sussex childhood with him wherever he went.”

Today, the area is highly protected, Thwaite observes, which is why there is no housing in the forest. The only sign of any building is the odd version of Eeyore’s house in the woods, made from twigs and branches by those obviously on a family day out.

In the open heathland, rugged sandy paths are bordered by swathes of purple heather and zingy yellow gorse and bracken, while in the wooded areas, tall pine rub shoulders with chestnut, birch and oak.

“The whole thing is a celebration of outdoor play and imagination,” Ann enthuses. “Christopher Robin, the real boy, was very keen on climbing trees. Trees were a very important part of his life and the great outdoors was a great therapy for Milne when the whole of England was trying to recover from the effect of war.”

Indeed AA Milne, a successful playwright, had been a casualty of the First World War, suffering shellshock at the Somme. He bought a rural retreat at Cotchford Farm, on the northern edge of the forest, to aid his recovery and would spend weekends and holidays there with his glamorous wife Daphne and Christopher Robin, who they always called Billy Moon.

The film shows that the most intimate moments of Milne’s relationship with his son were spent in the forest, where they would play cricket, fish and create adventures – and the game of Poohsticks – in this exciting open space.

But their relationship struggled after the Winnie-the-Pooh books were published in the 1920s and became huge bestsellers. Christopher Robin had wanted his father to write a story for him, not about him. He unwittingly – and unwillingly – became more famous than his father and hated the attention.

He was bullied terribly at school because of the Christopher Robin link and resented everything connected with Pooh, including his father.

While everything around them changed, the forest remained the same. And any tacky trace of the Winnie-the-Pooh multi-million-pound empire still remains pretty invisible in this neck of the woods.

Only when you come upon the quaint village of Hartfield do you enter Pooh tourism territory, a swinging silhouette of Pooh outside its twee village shop selling a mass of memorabilia.

Back at Gills Lap, sitting on that famous rock overlooking field and forest, the last word must go to AA Milne. “Sitting there, they could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky.”

For more information on Ashdown Forest, visit ashdownforest.org and ashdownforest.com

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