The ac­ci­den­tal cy­clist

Richard Grif­fiths bikes into Win­nie the Pooh coun­try in south­east Eng­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Bein­gen­chanted,its­floor­was­not­likethe­floor of the For­est, gorse and bracken and heather, but­close-set­grass,qui­etandsmoothand­green. It was the only place in the For­est where you could sit down care­lessly, without get­ting up again al­most at once and looking for some­where else. Sit­ting there they could see the whole­world­spread­outun­til­itreachedthesky, and what­ever there was all around the world over was with them in Galleons Lap. — TheHouse­atPoohCorner by A. A. Milne ROM the van­tage point of a Lon­don high street, one of the most densely pop­u­lated and heav­ily worked-over land­scapes on earth, it’s hard to imag­ine a real jour­ney of dis­cov­ery in the south­east of Eng­land. My part­ner Kathryn and I have de­cided to pack our bikes on the train and head off to the wilds of the Sus­sex Weald for a week­end of ped­alling ad­ven­ture. The cross-Lon­don rail link de­posits us neatly and ef­fort­lessly in the vil­lage of Bal­combe, and from there it’s an ex­plo­ration into the un­known. I mean it. Hav­ing grown up on the north Welsh bor­der and em­i­grated to Syd­ney, I hold a prej­u­dice against the south­east of Eng­land that bor­ders on the ridicu­lous.

The ex­is­tence of a piece of Eng­land even fur­ther south than Lon­don is dis­taste­ful in it­self, let alone that it could even be (dare I say it) beau­ti­ful.

The coun­try­side of west Sus­sex turns out to be beau­ti­ful in­deed: the kind of gen­tle, un­du­lat­ing patch­work of an­cient vil­lage, quiet meadow and gnarly wood­land that the tourist board would surely be ly­ing about ex­cept that it re­ally ex­ists. That’s the first sur­prise. We wind our way along beech-lined lanes, past bu­colic Ard­ingly Reser­voir to­wards Ard­ingly vil­lage and straight into the sec­ond sur­prise of the trip.

De­spite be­ing tiny, Ard­ingly hosts each June a rather large and well-ap­pointed agri­cul­tural show. Imag­ine Bathurst, Mudgee and To­cal field days rolled into one, take away the child-en­dan­ger­ing show bags, add Mor­ris dancers, shire horses and yeomen small­hold­ers, and you’ve just about got it.

It’s an al­ter­na­tive Eng­land gath­ered to­gether to cel­e­brate how the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion never hap­pened and, if the bas­ket-weavers and rare-breed groupies have any­thing to do with it, never will. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. Push­ing my bike through the folk-laden at­mos­phere, I’m in ru­ral fan­tasy heaven. Blessed are the cheese­mak­ers, in­deed.

Back in the sad­dle, we make quick time to­wards the Ash­down For­est, a strip of open heath and wood­land that used to be a royal hunt­ing re­serve and is now an of­fi­cial area of out­stand­ing nat­u­ral beauty. The mix of gorse and bracken and ponies among the an­cient oak trees is per­fect — and un­ex­pected so close, as we keep telling our­selves, to Lon­don.

Hav­ing stopped off at the For­est’s vis­i­tor cen­tre to learn about the ways of pig herd­ing and iron smelt­ing, we zoom down to­wards the vil­lage of For­est Row.

Not quite sure where to go next, Kathryn spots a sign with a bi­cy­cle on it, which we take as our cue for fur­ther dis­cov­ery. The For­est Way, as it hap­pens, is a su­perb cy­cle track that me­an­ders the 15km be­tween East Grin­stead and Groom­bridge be­side the River Med­way. It seems to be go­ing nowhere in par­tic­u­lar, which is prob­a­bly why the for­mer rail­way line was axed in the 1960s. And all to the ad­van­tage of us cy­clists.

We head the way the route non­cha­lantly leads us, through mid­sum­mer water­mead­ows, to­wards Hart­field and the Hun­dred Acre Wood.

Pooh’s Hun­dred Acre Wood? Yes in­deed, and that’s our next sur­prise. It turns out the writer A. A. Milne moved from Lon­don to the Ash­down For­est in the 1920s, where he cre­ated the Win­nie the Pooh sto­ries for his son Christo­pher Robin.

At Hart­field post of­fice they tell us how to find the En­chanted Places of Christo­pher Robin’s child­hood. We stop at the orig­i­nal Pooh­sticks Bridge and even make it to the top of the For­est at Gill’s Lap.

I know an adult shouldn’t ad­mit this, but I find it ex­cit­ing to think we’re cycling through the real home of the most fa­mous imag­i­nary an­i­mals in the world. I had al­ways as­sumed those mem­o­rable draw­ings by E. H. Shep­ard were of made-up places. But gaz­ing over this heath­land with its lonely, blasted-looking pine trees, I re­alise he cap­tured its essence to per­fec­tion.

I had also won­dered how on earth Kanga and Roo, those con­spic­u­ously Aus­tralian in­ter­lop­ers, could have made it to the Hun­dred Acre Wood, to this heart of child­hood English­ness. Ap­par­ently, there was an ac­ci­den­tal release from a stately home of red-necked

FBu­colic de­lights: West Sus­sex

For­est fig­ure: A. A. Milne’s Pooh


wal­la­bies here at the start of the 20th cen­tury. Their off­spring were still be­ing spot­ted in the 1940s. So the toys may also have had their real-life coun­ter­parts.

We imag­ine them there, Kanga and Roo and all their friends and rel­a­tives, mak­ing a home from home in the free­dom of the heather and the sand­hills.

Our ride back down to Hart­field, in­tent on a wel­learned rest, earns us in­stead our only un­wel­come sur­prise of the trip. A wed­ding in the vil­lage means that ev­ery bed for kilo­me­tres around is taken. So the only so­lu­tion is to hop back into the sad­dle for a lateafter­noon pedal to some­where — any­where — else.

The un­known bride and groom have done us a favour. As we cross into Kent there stands wait­ing for us at Holtye Com­mon the White Horse Inn, in all its black and white half-tim­bered splen­dour. Ac­cord­ing to leg­end this is the place where Henry VIII courted Anne Bo­leyn. Yes of course they have a room with a four­poster bed. Yes of course din­ner is be­ing served. Yes of course there’s a blaz­ing log fire to re­cline in front of. And yes of course the place has his­tory ooz­ing out of ev­ery in­glenook.

We feel not just kilo­me­tres, but cen­turies, away from Lon­don. Richard Grif­fiths man­ages the NSW Coast­line Cy­cle­way. The next South of Eng­land Show is June 11-13. More: The White Horse Inn at Holtye Com­mon in Kent is an an au­then­tic old-world coach­ing inn. More: www.great­­horse. www.ash­down­for­ www.visitbri­

Pic­ture: Photolibrary

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