Wish Pooh were here..

As Good­bye Christo­pher Robin is re­leased, HAN­NAH STEPHEN­SON joins AA Milne bi­og­ra­pher Ann Th­waite on the trail of the fa­mous lit­er­ary bear in Ash­down For­est, Sus­sex

Solihull News - - TRAVEL -

THERE’S no short­age of Bri­tish lo­ca­tions which have be­come well­trod­den tourist paths thanks to their cel­e­brated au­thors – Ha­worth for the Bronte sis­ters, Shake­speare’s Strat­ford- up­onAvon, Wordsworth’s Lake District.

But just 40 miles from Lon­don, Ash­down For­est in East Sus­sex – where scenes from the film Good­bye Christo­pher Robin were shot and where Win­nie- the- Pooh cre­ator AA Milne and his son Christo­pher Robin had their hap­pi­est times – has re­mained bliss­fully un­marred by tourism.

ON THE POOH TRAIL

TO­DAY, AA Milne’s bi­og­ra­pher Ann Th­waite, the film’s con­sul­tant, is help­ing me re­trace the steps that fa­ther and son took in the 1920s on their many walks along this 10- square- mile stretch of coun­try­side, the lit­tle boy car­ry­ing his epony­mous bear and his in­no­cent pals Piglet, Tig­ger, Rab­bit, Kanga, Roo, Owl and Eey­ore.

Yet there’s not a sign, a play­ground or any hint of a Dis­ney- es­que homage to the most fa­mous bear in the world in sight, as we ven­ture into this un­touched an­cient for­est, much of which is tran­quil, open heath­land.

Any­one who doesn’t know of Ash­down For­est’s con­nec­tion with Win­ni­ethe- Pooh or his cre­ator will be lit­tle the wiser once in the ‘ Hun­dred Aker Wood’ which is in re­al­ity called the Five Hun­dred Acre Wood.

A FOR­EST UN­TOUCHED

ANN, a sprightly 84- yearold and ex­pert on all things AA Milne, takes fans on the paths trod­den by one of the world’s most lu­cra­tive chil­dren’s au­thors.

“I al­ways get lost,” she con­fesses. “You see groups of scouts do­ing ori­en­teer­ing, but there’s no lit­tle model of Win­nie- the- Pooh in ev­ery cor­ner guid­ing them.

“The land­scape hasn’t changed in all those years,” she con­tin­ues. “You can’t even hear any traf­fic. It’s very sandy, too. There’s a scene in Win­nie- the- Pooh when Roo is play­ing in a sand­pit, and if you look at the books you can see where Shep­ard ( il­lus­tra-

tor EH Shep­ard) was draw­ing the ac­tual place.”

She leads us to a shady cir­cle of pine trees in Gills Lap ( re­named Galleons Lap in the books), in Milne’s words an ‘ en­chanted place’ which is ap­par­ently pop­u­lar with fans, but there’s no one here to­day.

Just out of the trees, there’s the most spec­tac­u­lar view from the High Weald of the Downs, a patch­work quilt of green fields, di­vided by for­est, with hardly a trace of vis­i­ble civil­i­sa­tion.

It’s where AA Milne took his son on walks for pre­cious time out and where he later took his il­lus­tra­tor, Ernest Shep­ard, who recre­ated Ash­down as the back­ground in the Pooh books. On the rock where they sat – and where the ac­tors who play them are fea­tured in the film – there’s a com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque to AA Milne and EH Shep­ard who ‘ cap­tured the magic of Ash­down For­est’.

THE FA­MOUS POOH BRIDGE

THE most vis­i­ble sign that we are in Pooh ter­ri­tory is a wooden sign­post to Pooh Bridge, which fea­tures in the film. Here we stand, twigs at the ready, chuck­ing the thin wooden sticks in the river – a trib­u­tary of the Med­way – be­fore dart­ing to the other side to see whose twig ap­pears first.

Christo­pher Milne, who died in 1996, did much for the restora­tion of the bridge, Ann re­calls.

“He also led the fight to save the for­est from de­vel­op­ment and oil ex­plo­ration. He said he took the play­ground of his Sus­sex child­hood with him wher­ever he went.”

To­day, the area is highly pro­tected, Ann ob­serves, which is why there is no hous­ing in the for­est. The only sign of any build­ing is the odd ver­sion of Eey­ore’s house in the woods, made from twigs and branches.

In the open heath­land, rugged sandy paths are bor­dered by swathes of pur­ple heather and zingy yel­low gorse and bracken, while in the wooded ar­eas, tall pine rub shoul­ders with chest­nut, birch and oak.

“The whole thing is a cel­e­bra­tion of out­door play and imag­i­na­tion,” Ann en­thuses. “Christo­pher Robin, the real boy, was very keen on climb­ing trees. Trees were a very im­por­tant part of his life and the great out­doors was a great ther­apy for Milne when the whole of Eng­land was try­ing to re­cover from the ef­fect of war.”

A FAM­ILY AF­FAIR

IN­DEED AA Milne, a suc­cess­ful play­wright, had been a ca­su­alty of the First World War, suf­fer­ing shell­shock at the Somme. He bought a ru­ral re­treat at Cotch­ford Farm, on the north­ern edge of the for­est, to aid his re­cov­ery and would spend week­ends and holidays there with his glam­orous wife Daphne and Christo­pher Robin, who they al­ways called Billy Moon.

The film shows that the most in­ti­mate mo­ments of Milne’s re­la­tion­ship with his son were spent in the for­est, where they would play cricket, fish and cre­ate adventures – and the game of Pooh­sticks – in this ex­cit­ing open space.

But their re­la­tion­ship strug­gled af­ter the Win­nie- the- Pooh books were pub­lished in the 1920s and be­came huge best­sellers. Christo­pher Robin had wanted his fa­ther to write a story for him, not about him. He un­wit­tingly – and un­will­ingly – be­came more fa­mous than his dad and hated the at­ten­tion he at­tracted.

He was bul­lied ter­ri­bly at school be­cause of the Christo­pher Robin link and re­sented ev­ery­thing con­nected with Win­ni­ethe- Pooh, in­clud­ing his fa­ther, who didn’t pro­tect him from the pub­lic­ity.

While ev­ery­thing around them changed, the for­est re­mained the same. And any tacky trace of the Win­nie- the- Pooh mul­ti­mil­lion- pound em­pire still re­mains pretty in­vis­i­ble in this neck of the woods.

Only when you come upon the quaint vil­lage of Hart­field do you en­ter Pooh tourism ter­ri­tory, a swing­ing sil­hou­ette of Pooh out­side its twee vil­lage shop sell­ing a mass of Pooh mem­o­ra­bilia.

Back at Gills Lap, sit­ting on that fa­mous rock over­look­ing miles of field and for­est, the last word must go to AA Milne.

“Sit­ting there, they could see the whole world spread out un­til it reached the sky.”

GOOD­BYE Christo­pher Robin is in cin­e­mas now.

For more in­for­ma­tion on Ash­down For­est, visit ash­down­for­est.org and ash­down­for­est.com

Ann Th­waite ad­mires the view over Ash­down For­est Right: Domh­nall Glee­son as Alan Milne and Will Til­ston as Christo­pher Robin in Good­bye Christoper Robin. The real- life fa­ther and son spent many happy hours among th­ese trees, be­low, when Christo­pher was a boy

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