The summer before last, a rare short-toed eagle strayed off course from its Mediterranean home and found itself 1,000 miles away in southern England. There it took a liking to the snakes sunning themselves between the heather and gorse of Ashdown Forest, a 6,500-acre heathland and woodland 36 miles south of London in East Sussex.
The eagle’s six-foot wingspan soon caught the attention of Britain’s birders, and flocks of twitchers gathered to peer at the bird as it perched on solitary Scots pines or soared above Wrens Warren Valley. “I had no idea Ashdown Forest was even here,” a fully equipped birder from London told me one morning in the forest. “I’d always skirted it to get to Brighton from London.” He was not alone. Most people migrating south stick to an M23-and-A23 flight path, skirting this heathland and woodland altogether. Which is fine for people like me, who like crowd-free places; I am accustomed to walking half a day without seeing anyone.
Author AA Milne and his wife Daphne had settled here, on the northern edge of Ashdown Forest, in 1925. They loved gardening and walking and wanted their son to have the kind of outdoor childhood that Milne had enjoyed. Watching young Christopher Robin climb trees, drop sticks in water and create Expotitions, the author – already a successful playwright, humorist and novelist – was inspired to write the children’s stories that have become world classics. It was here he set the tales of a boy, his honey-loving bear Winnie-the-Pooh and their coterie of forest friends: Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Tigger, Owl, Kanga and Roo.
Winnie-the-Pooh’s world is a synthesis of Milne’s own childhood memories and his son’s adventures between four and eight years old. The sweeping setting on Milne’s doorstep – heathland and atmospheric woodlands, streams, sandy plateaus, vistas and valleys – are so familiar from the illustrations by EH Shepard that wandering in Ashdown Forest feels like walking through the pages of the Pooh books.
Today, the forest is a rare and protected area, providing habitat for endangered flora and fauna. In this gentle, ancient landscape, we can enjoy its literary, cultural and environmental history; we can be twitchers, walkers or pub-goers.
Despite the success of the books, there are no overt signs that you have arrived in Pooh Country. There are no bright lights or billboards, no £1 carnival rides, no inflatable Eeyores, Owls or Roos rising and falling with dramatic flair. No signs mark the dirt lane where Milne lived, nor pub grub with names like Milne Mash and Peas. A quiet authenticity – historical, environmental and literary – has settled over the landscape.
There are still no settlements within the boundary of forest’s former ancient ‘pale’, a 23-mile perimeter delineating former royal hunting grounds established by William the Conqueror. You can see remnants of what was once the boundary – a mix of rock and soil clutched by the gnarled roots of beech trees. Throughout the forest, place names such as Chuck Hatch and Chelwood Gate, recall medieval entrances into the enclosure.
Photo credit: iStock
As you cross the pale, a thick belt of woodland fringes the forest margins as you cross the pale. Beyond lies the forest’s interior: a more open landscape, it’s a tapestry of purple heather and yellow gorse, punctuated by occasional Scots pines. This is a rare ‘plagioclimax’ heathland – meaning entirely man-made and man-maintained. It was created by commoners over many centuries: grazing livestock, cutting wood, digging peat and turf, collecting heather and bracken for bedding their livestock, and creating the distinctive landscape of EH Shepard’s drawings: gorse, heather, solitary Scots pines and open sandy areas.
Described by roving writer William Cobbett as “villainously ugly” in his 1820s classic, Rural Rides, today this highly protected gem of rare heathland hosts some of Europe’s most threatened species, including the Dartford warbler and nightjar. Its 1,620 hectares also provide habitat for flora, such as gentians, sundews and spotted orchids, as well as rare insects, including the small red damselfly and purple emperor butterfly. Since 1800, 85% of UK heathland has been lost, so the forest is an important national conservation area.
People come to Ashdown Forest from around the world to go on Pooh Pilgrimages, each with their own favourite character and story. If you take a walk in the literary landscape here, there are ample places to experience, and a few are easy must-sees.
Many story ideas originated at the Milnes’ home, Cotchford Farm. The ancient walnut tree with the great gash, where Christopher Robin played, inspired all the tree houses in the books. The Floody Place was inspired by the swelling tributary to the Medway River skirting the farm. Eeyore’s Gloomy Place was the wetland where Jessica, the family donkey, was pastured.
Down a dirt lane from Cotchford Farm, Poohsticks Bridge has been rebuilt to look like Shepard’s original sketch, a quirky case of life imitating art. Heading south from the well-preserved village of Hartfield, be on the lookout for a black sign with white lettering: Path to Pooh Bridge. One of the most iconic yet humble of bridges in the world, it nestles over a stream in a spot remembered by the older Christopher Robin as “a gay and friendly wood, the sort of wood you could happily walk through at night, feeling yourself a skillful rather than a brave explorer”.
When you see handmade Eeyore Houses in the woods (those rustic, wooden A-frame structures), you know that people have been thinking of the story in which Pooh and Piglet build (or rather rebuild) a house for Eeyore, who is loudly complaining nobody loves him. Forest rangers tell me these Eeyore Houses are technically illegal, but they also whisper, “But we overlook them.”
And let’s not forget The Enchanted Place, one of the most memorable places in children’s literature, where Christopher Robin says goodbye to childhood and leaves his forest friends. The fact that it is still here is quite remarkable. This may not surprise you, as an English reader. But as an American, I half-expected this literary site to have been exploited or commercialised. Not so. Not in the slightest. That is perhaps part of its enchantment for me.
Photo credit: iStock
To get there, park at Gills Lap car park, the highest part of the forest, and walk across the sandy plateau that covers your boots with white sand so fine it looks like pixie dust. Walk right into this cluster of trees. When low light peeks through the Scots pines, it’s easy to recall Shepard’s glowing illustration of the Enchanted Place: a sanctuary of golden light and long, thoughtful shadows – a metaphor for the refuge that is childhood.
In tribute to Christopher Robin bidding goodbye to the short time of life when Doing Nothing is a very Important Something, I like to sit with my back against a pine, not so much reliving, as much as remembering, what made my own childhood so special.
Not far from the Enchanted Place, on a narrow path through bracken and gorse, is the Milne and Shepard Memorial. It’s deliberately unmarked; the fun is discovering it on your own. You can also follow the main path toward Roo’s Sandy Pit. Today, it’s more wetland as an abandoned quarry.
Into the Ghyll
One of the most atmospheric places I like to walk in the forest, where nature and culture intersect, is Tabell Ghyll. Along this beautiful and archaeologically rich 2.5 mile walk, you will encounter coppiced chestnut trees formerly used in growing hops. The trees here were planted on top of medieval rabbit warrens, or pillow mounds. They may be hard to recognise at first, but look for soft crinkles or natural undulations in the landscapes. Today they provide homes for the dormouse and butchers broom, a low evergreen shrub with medicinal red berries.
You will also see rectangular saw pits and remnants of disused routeways, or holloways. Undulating through the oaks, birches, alders, hazels and holly is a pretty ghyll, a deep wooded ravine where a stream flows. These were dammed to provide water to power furnaces and forges during the two phases of iron manufacturing in the forest: the first 200 years of the Roman period and in Tudor times. If you look down into the ghyll, you will see evidence of the red channel geology. And if you look up into the trees, you may find yourself face-to-face with tawny owls perching on oak branches.
After a few weeks in Ashdown Forest, the wayward eagle flew away. I hope it found its way back home. As an expat, I find it amusing and reassuring to know that this visitor, so far from its home, adopted the forest. I feel I’ve done the same. It’s both comforting and wild here, a place where, in the words of AA Milne, “When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.”
Kathryn Aalto is author of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (Timber Press, £15).