On a silly old bear's trail
We're "deep in the 100 Aker Wood, where Christopher Robin played" and, yes, this really is an "enchanted neighbourhood".
For devotees of A.A. Milne's "silly old bear", 2006 marks two important anniversaries. It's now 50 years since Milne's death and 10 years since his son, Christopher Robin Milne, died. What's more, it was 80 years ago that the first edition of Winnie the Pooh was published (followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928).
So I've come to Winnie the Pooh country, with a childhood friend, to see Ashdown Forest, the beautiful heath-cum-woodland where Milne lived and set his stories.
The Pooh stories began as bedtime fables for Milne's preschool-age son, incorporating his favourite nursery toys and some of the animals they saw on their walks. There's Eeyore the donkey, Kanga and her baby, Roo, Tigger the bouncy tiger (whom Milne apparently based on a pet dog), bossy Rabbit, loquacious Owl, timid Piglet - and, of course, the honey-loving teddy bear who was Christopher Robin's constant companion.
Milne, a successful playwright, humorist and editor, was persuaded to publish the stories by his wife, Daphne, who sensed perhaps that, like Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie before him, Milne had found a child to be his best muse.
Where Milne differed from Carroll and Barrie is that he set his stories in a real and recognisable geography. The Milnes lived at Cotchford Farm, on the edge of Ashdown Forest, about 40 kilometres south of London at the heart of the High Weald area of East Sussex. Many years later, Cotchford Farm became part of rock'n'roll history as the home of Rolling Stone Brian Jones, whose death in the swimming pool in 1969 has fuelled countless conspiracy theories.
Today the farm is a private residence, most definitely not part of the tourist trail. Yet the surrounding woods and glades that figure so evocatively in the Milne stories have been incorporated into two self-guided Pooh walks.
As my friend and I set off from Gills Lap car park, the start of the first walk, the heath was looking at its best. It was a gorgeous autumnal day, with the landscape a palette of rustic yellows, greens and browns. A commemorative plinth outlines the five-kilometre circular trail.
Having picked up a free map of the Pooh walks at the visitors' centre, we were pretty confident that our expedition would go much more smoothly than Christopher Robin's attempt to find the North Pole. Yet pretty soon we were hopelessly lost, too.
We retraced our footsteps and soon realised that each of the spots we were supposed to be visiting are only a few childhood steps away from one another. After all, Christopher Robin was only four or five when the stories were written. Once we adjusted to the scales of childhood, we soon found what we were looking for. There was "the Enchanted Place", so called because Christopher Robin could never count whether there were 63 or 64 trees in a circle; the Lone Pine, beneath which Pooh and his friends set their "Heffalump trap"; the Sandpit (actually more of a gravel pit) where Roo played, watched over by the only female in the stories, his mother, Kanga; Eeyore's "Sad and Gloomy Place"; the stream where Kanga learned to swim and where Pooh realised the stick he was holding was the very "North Pole" they were looking for.
The whole walk took us barely an hour, so we pressed on to what remains the most famous of all the Pooh sites, Pooh Bridge, where Christopher Robin learned to play "Pooh sticks", that quaint, idle pastime forever associated with an English summer.
After an excellent pub lunch at the picturesque Hatch Inn - a ploughman washed down by a pint of bitter - we headed back to the visitors' centre, which was hosting an exhibition of original illustrators by E. H. Shephard, the artist who immortalised not only Pooh but the Wind in the Willows characters of Kenneth Grahame (based on letters he originally wrote to his son, Alistair).
Our image of what the pre-Walt Disney Pooh looked like came from Shephard, not Milne. As the exhibition revealed, Shephard based his drawings not on the "real" teddy owned by Christopher Robin, but on another one the artist had made for his own son. Sadly, that bear no longer exists - it was destroyed many years later in Canada.
The Canadian connection was poetic. Christopher Robin apparently called his bear Winnie after a real-life Canadian black bear that was a popular attraction at London Zoo after World War I. That bear, called Winnipeg, or Winnie for short, had originally come to Britain as the regimental mascot of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade.
In his later years, Christopher Milne dedicated himself to preserving the magical landscapes of his childhood. And today Ashdown Forest makes a delightful day out from London, by train to either East Grinstead or Crowborough. Despite its proximity to the capital, the forest has the feel of another century about it. You can still see the fallow deer introduced by the Normans: indeed Ashdown "began" as one of the prestigious royal hunting forests which were dotted around southern England.
This is beautiful walking country, including the long-distance Sussex Border Path, which snakes through the High Weald. The villages are picturesque, the churches ancient and handsome, and the pubs warm and inviting.
What more could a bear of very little brain want?
The Ashdown Forest Centre, Wych Cross, Forest Row, East Sussex, England RH18 5JP. Phone (0011 44 1342) 823 583.