The accidental cyclist
Richard Griffiths bikes into Winnie the Pooh country in southeast England
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: www.seas.org.uk. The White Horse Inn at Holtye Common in Kent is an an authentic old-world coaching inn. More: www.greatpubs.net/whitehorse. www.ashdownforest.com www.visitbritain.com.au