Ashdown Forest: In Winnie-the-Pooh’s footsteps

ashdown forest
Scots pines and heather near Wren's Warren in Ashdown Forest. Credit: Oliver Pyle / Alamy

Magical Ashdown Forest was the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. A century on, it is as enchanting as ever…

Words by Natasha Foges

Who wrote Winnie-the-Pooh?

Illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh by E.H. Shepard. Credit: Cbw/Alamy

The stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, the bumbling “Bear of Very Little Brain” and his woodland friends have sparked childhood imaginations ever since they were written by A.A. Milne in 1926. Milne lived at Cotchford Farm in Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, and based his stories on the adventures of his own son, Christopher Robin, who spent his childhood exploring this dream-tinged land, always accompanied by his trusted teddy bear.

Illustration by Michael A Hill

Ashdown Forest Winnie-the-Pooh locations

A lifelong Pooh fan, I was keen to visit the locations that had inspired the stories, but with landmarks as whimsical as ‘The Enchanted Place’ and ‘Pooh’s Thoughtful Spot’, I was going to need some pointers. I took a morning tour of the forest with Gerry Manser, head guide of local company Pooh Trek. Gerry grew up with the Pooh stories and read them to his own children. He has explored every corner of Ashdown Forest’s 6,500 acres (somewhat larger than Pooh’s ‘100 Aker Wood’), taking small groups of ‘Poohthusiasts’ like myself to discover the real-life places that inspired Milne’s timeless tales.

Gill’s Lap

First stop on our Pooh pilgrimage is Gill’s Lap (Galleon’s Leap in the books), where most of the familiar locations from the books can be found. To reach it, we walk along a Roman road that slices through the forest across open heathland, surrounded by heather, bracken and gorse. This richly historic landscape is ancient indeed: a stone axe found close to the Roman road dates from prehistoric settlers 40,000 years ago.

The Romans settled in the area because of its plentiful iron ore – its reddish colour can be seen on the path underfoot. Easily extracted, it was shovelled out in copious amounts, then wheeled down on carts to the River Medway, ending up in a foundry in France to be made into tools, goblets and armour to be shipped throughout the Roman empire.

Later, Henry VIII used the iron ore here to make cannons to fortify his newly established Royal Navy, with the forest’s plentiful trees fuelling his blast furnaces. The forest was also a royal hunting ground, inhabited by wild boars and wolves. Although these may be long gone, the forest is still home to a protected herd of fallow deer.

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Close-up young whitetail deer standing in summer wood

But what of Milne’s woozles and heffalumps? The unspoilt landscapes – and the locations associated with Winnie-the-Pooh – are carefully protected by conservators, and there’s little signage to point visitors in the right direction. To the untrained eye, this stretch of heath dotted with clumps of pine trees and gorse doesn’t immediately conjure up Pooh’s world.

To help me get my bearings, Gerry produces a well-thumbed copy of The House at Pooh Corner and opens it at the familiar map drawn by A. A. Milne’s collaborator and friend, E. H. Shepard. As he points out landmarks, the familiar stories of Pooh and his friends – timorous Piglet, gloomy Eeyore, high-spirited Tigger, know-it-all Owl – come into colourful focus.

Ashdown Forest
Cotchford Farm was A.A. Milne’s childhood home. Credit: Andy Scott Photography

The Enchanted Place

We arrive at the Enchanted Place: a cluster of Scots pines that was the base camp for the friends’ adventures. (Christopher Robin knew that it was enchanted because nobody had been able to count if there were 63 or 64 trees.) A sign here – one of the few in the forest – bears a Winnie-the-Pooh quote: “I’m rumbly in my tumbly. Time for something sweet.” It’s easy to picture the friends spreading out a tablecloth beneath the pines and tucking into a picnic of sandwiches, cake and pots of honey.

The Heffalump Trap

Southwest from here, a large conifer with a wide canopy stands alone on the heath. This was the inspiration for the Heffalump Trap – where Pooh and Piglet attempted to capture the elephant-like creature. In the stories, the trap was set next to six pine trees; this lone pine is the only one left.

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Clumps of atmospheric Scots pine trees are dotted around Ashdown Forest. Credit: R.A.Chalmers Photography / Alamy

As Christopher Robin scampered about on his exploits, Milne and Shepard chatted for hours on a favourite bench overlooking the forest, from which “the whole world spread out until it reached the sky”. A plaque installed here in 1979 and dedicated by Christopher Robin commemorates the author and illustrator who brought Pooh and his friends to life “and so captured the magic of Ashdown Forest”. 

I sit on a bench and take in the view, which can hardly have changed in the 100 years since: a tangle of golden gorse, a swathe of heath merging into a forest of oak, beech and birch, with undulating hills in the distance spanning the counties of Kent, Surrey, and East and West Sussex. It is indeed magical.

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Gill’s Lap, where there is a commemoration stone is placed for AA Milne and EH Shepard. Credit: Jim Holden / Alamy

Roo’s Sandy Pit

A few steps away is the little sandstone quarry that in the stories became Roo’s Sandy Pit. It is here that Pooh, Piglet and Owl hatch a plan to kidnap Baby Roo, a newcomer to the forest. The story ends happily, except for poor Piglet who is forced to take a bath, and “he had never really been fond of taking those”.

The quarry also has a more recent history. In the Second World War (by which time Christopher Robin had joined the Army, his childhood adventures far behind him), the 4th Canadian Armoured Division set up camp on the heath, ploughing their tanks through the sandy quarry. The site is thought to have been chosen as topographically it resembled Juno Beach, their target for the Normandy Landings. From the ancient Romans to A.A. Milne’s stories to the wartime encampment, Gerry observes, “So many stories are intertwined. Every story tells another story.”

Eeyore’s Sad and Gloomy Place

From Roo’s Sandy Pit you can cross the B2026 and follow the meandering path that Christopher Robin took to discover the North Pole, while Eeyore’s Sad and Gloomy Place is nearby. Tepee-like dens like Eeyore’s can be found beneath clumps of trees all over the forest, left by children at play. The eagle-eyed might also spot the other animals’ houses, faithful wooden reproductions of Shepard’s drawings.

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Visitors playing Poohsticks. Credit: Andrew Hasson / Alamy

Poohsticks Bridge

Gerry points out Owl’s House and Piglet’s House, fixed high up on tree trunks as we walk down a broad sandy track towards Poohsticks Bridge, the forest’s most-visited sight. Arriving at the famous bridge, we are in luck: we have it all to ourselves.

Whether A.A. Milne first played Poohsticks with Christopher Robin, and then put the game in his stories, or the other way around, is unclear (as Christopher Robin later wrote in his memoir, “the stories became a part of our lives. We lived them, thought them, spoke them”). But one thing’s for sure: you can’t come to Ashdown Forest and not play the game.

Gerry has brought visitors here on numerous occasions and always comes prepared with a handful of twigs: the popularity of Poohsticks is such that sticks are rarely to be found on the ground. As tradition dictates, we hold our sticks over the upstream side of the bridge and drop them into the rushing stream, then follow their course to see which twig drifts past the finishing line first. Cheating is prevalent, according to Gerry, especially among families!

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Shepard’s Pooh Bear and Christopher Robin at Poohsticks Bridge. Credit: CBW/Alamy

Pooh’s House

Just over the bridge we seek out the sweetly recreated Pooh’s House, nestled in a tree stump, surrounded by pots of ‘Hunny’ and tokens from well-wishers; letters await Pooh’s attention in a little wooden mailbox. At the height of the books’ popularity the local post office in Hartfield Village received some 20,000 letters to Pooh in a single week.

the winnie-the-pooh cafe
Pooh Corner in Hartfield makes a perfect pit stop for some refreshment

The Winnie-the-Pooh Café: Pooh Corner

Pretty Hartfield, lined with half-timbered houses and a 15th-century church, is the closest village to Cotchford Farm, where Milne and his family lived. At the time the building housed a baker’s and sweetshop – Christopher Robin used to walk here to buy mint bullseyes – but today it’s a Pooh-themed tearoom. You can sit down to a tasty cream tea, or a round of teddy-shaped toast – just what’s needed after a walk round the forest. In Pooh’s words, “A Proper Tea is much nicer than a Very Nearly Tea, which is one you forget about afterwards.”

Behind the tearoom is the ‘Poohseum’: a lovingly curated display of memorabilia, ranging from original toys of Pooh, Piglet and friends made in the 1940s by Agnes Brush, a New York seamstress, to signed first editions of Milne’s books and a rare Alpha teddy similar to Christopher Robin’s bear, who became known as Winnie-the-Pooh.

Shepard’s illustration of best friends Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet. Credit: CBW/Alamy

After a morning spent following in Pooh’s pawprints, it’s time to leave this enchanting place. But in the words of A.A. Milne: “it isn’t really Good-bye, because the Forest will always be there…and anybody who is Friendly with Bears can find it.”

Read more in the July/August 2024 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 7 June. 

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