This article was published in the Washington Post on May 19 2016. Photos by Siobhan Starrs
One day, a “blustery” kind of day . . . the kind of day that couldn’t decide if it was sunny or gray, or if it might rain or might not, Kitty pulled on her Wellington boots, which meant that, just like Christopher Robin, she was ready for anything.
Kitty was visiting Hartfield, in East Sussex, to spend the day with her great-uncle Vincent, an uncle so “great” that he could make coins disappear and then magically reappear behind her ear. Magic uncles are, in the eyes of 5-year-old Kitty, the best kind of uncle ever.
Kitty, Vincent and I (Kitty’s mummy) were off on an “expotition,” which is Pooh-bear speak for expedition. It was to be an afternoon walk around Ashdown Forest, following a special map drawn a long time ago (90 years, more or less), by a little boy named Christopher Robin Milne. (“Mr. Shepard helped” with the map, Christopher Robin allowed, and you will hear more about him in a minute.)
Christopher Robin lived near Hartfield in a house called Cotchford Farm. Just like my uncle, the boy’s father, A.A. Milne, had moved his family from London to Sussex in search of fresh air and adventures.
A.A. Milne’s first collection of stories about Christopher Robin and his teddy bear was published in the book called “Winnie-the-Pooh” on Oct. 14, 1926, followed by “The House at Pooh Corner” in 1928.
Milne, inspired by his son’s imaginative play with his menagerie of stuffed toys, created a world beyond the nursery where Pooh Bear and his friends had a series of adventures.
Artist E.H. Shepard was recruited to illustrate the stories, sparking a lifelong friendship between the two men.
Ashdown Forest is an area of mostly open heathland about 30 miles south of London. Originally a hunting forest dating to Norman times, it was a favored haunt of King Henry VIII, who courted his second wife, Anne Boleyn, at her home at nearby Hever Castle. Today it is managed by a group called the Conservators of Ashdown Forest, an independent body appointed by local authorities.
We began at Pooh car park and ambled down through the woods, which, because of the weather being indecisive and still not yet fully spring, was both “floody” and muddy.
Pale yellow primroses peeped out from among the moss and fallen trees. Masses of bluebell clumps, yet to bloom, hinted at the promise of warmer days to come.
It was school holidays in England, and half a dozen families were on a similar quest to locate “woozles” and “heffalumps.” Wellington-clad kids clambered over tree stumps, iPads momentarily cast aside as the forest offered a new portal to the imagination.
“I bet Pooh bear didn’t come out on a day like this,” grumped a passing walker, who had clearly forgotten the story “in which Piglet is entirely surrounded by water” and has to be rescued by Pooh and Christopher Robin. Water soaks the world of the “100 Aker Wood,” as it’s labeled on Christopher Robin’s map, reflecting England’s damp climate. The map describes “Eeyore’s gloomy place” as “rather boggy and sad.” But every good adventurer knows that “floody places” can be conquered with “big boots” and a Sou’wester hat, in which Shepard often depicted our boy-hero.
It must be noted that Christopher Robin’s map is not to scale and is best admired on a wall, rather than used as a guide.
And so . . . Pooh’s house proved as elusive as a “woozle,” but there was one good contender for Piglet’s: a tree with a little fissure at the base, just the right size for “a very small animal.” And scattered in the woods were numerous homes for Eeyore fashioned from sticks by visitors old and young.
We added a few branches to one construction, but Kitty and her uncle were soon distracted by a twig duel, transforming into buccaneers. Soon a log was moved by the pirate pair across a “floody” ditch to become a galleon’s plank.
It took a very loud call of “who wants to play Poohsticks?” to break the spell, and off she sped toward the famous bridge. Poohsticks is Kitty’s favorite game, and no river or stream can be crossed without at least half an hour being spent throwing twigs or leaves into the water.
However, not a twig was to be found near the bridge, although a small dam, perfect for a beaver, clogged with poohsticks, had formed at a meander in the stream.
“Get your Poohsticks here!” Vincent called out to our fellow pilgrims in the manner of a sidewalk hawker . “Next time you come, I will have set up a stall!” he jested.
The game, which Pooh invented, involves the players throwing a stick into the water at the same time, then rushing to the other side to see whose stick appears from under the bridge first. (Tip — it is best to make sure you can identify your stick.) Kitty is not the only fan. The “World Pooh Sticks Championships” takes place each year in Oxfordshire, with this year’s event on June 5.
We drove on to our next location, parking at the very top of Ashdown Forest “Galleons Leap,” also known as “Gills Lap.” We walked to a clump of tall pine trees that Christopher Robin called “The Enchanted Place,” because “nobody had ever been able to count whether it was sixty-three or sixty-four, not even when he tied a piece of string round each tree after he had counted it,” explains Milne in “The House at Pooh Corner.”
The landscape had changed dramatically, the slight gain in height affecting the topography. Deciduous woods are replaced by moor and clumps of tall Scots pine, which were so beautifully represented by E.H. Shepard in his illustrations.
Vincent took us to a place he called “stinky pond,” an abandoned quarry often thought to be the location of “Roo’s sandy pit.” Another game between my imaginative pair began, as an exposed root became a shop counter, pine cones currency, stones and twigs groceries.
We followed the path a little further, pausing to admire the view over the valley at the memorial plaque honoring Milne and Shepard, whose partnership created some of the best-loved characters in children’s literature.
“The enchanted place” is where Christopher Robin led Pooh and his friends on their expotition to find the North Pole. More hardy explorers can follow a longer trail across Wrens Warren Valley (a.k.a. “Eeyore’s sad and gloomy place”) toward the Five Hundred Acre Wood (a.k.a. the Hundred Acre Wood). But now our enchanting adventure had come to an end, so Kitty took her uncle’s hand and went home for tea.