If you go down to the woods today…you could delight in the haunts of an ursine legend, says Dea Birkett
I was raised on AA Milne. Before I was old enough to read, I knew all about the adventures of Piglet, Heffalump and Pooh. My imagination often wandered from my suburban home into the Hundred Acre Wood and my paws were often dripping with honey.
As the V&A Museum in London opens the biggest exhibition ever seen on the bear of very little brain – Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic – and Disney is bringing out a film with Ewan McGregor playing Christopher Robin, I had the perfect excuse to discover the settings from my imaginary childhood haunts.
I booked a weekend with my far-too-cool-for-furry-animals teenager at Ashdown Park hotel, East Sussex, probably the closest place to Pooh’s fictional home. Only 10 minutes’ drive away is Ashdown Forest, the English oak and pine woods from which AA Milne drew the inspiration for Christopher Robin and his friends.
It’s not difficult to tread in Tigger’s footsteps. Ashdown Forest has car parks with names like ‘Piglet’s’. Even the signposts made me sigh – Heffalump Trap, Galleon’s Lap, the North Pole. We headed for Pooh Sticks Bridge car park.
I was determined to play my favourite childhood game with my teenager Savanna, even though she let me know quite clearly that she’d prefer to be splashing in the hotel pool. She may have heard of Pooh, but she’d never heard of pooh sticks.
Was it was something to do with dogs in the park? I explained, ‘You throw a little twig in the river from the bridge, then rush to the other side of the bridge to watch it go by. The person whose stick comes out from under the bridge first wins.’
Savanna looked at me, saying nothing. She wished she’d brought her iPhone and earphones. We trudged along the well-trodden forest trail, stamped flat by toddlers’ feet. We were on a pilgrimage through the twisted beech and oak trees, alongside other families who still pushed buggies.
I made Savanna collect short straight sticks along the path. She was more interested in pointing out that there’s plenty of real poo, left by the horses that shared the bridleway.
The bridge itself was just like the one in the EH Shepard pencil drawing – underwhelming small and made entirely of wood. I was ridiculously excited. I’d imagined this bridge so many times and HERE IT WAS. I could tell Savanna was curious how her mother, usually such a sensible woman, could get so emotional about such a minor site.
She’d taken her to awe-inspiring places all over the world, and this certainly wasn’t one of them. Savanna, a stickler for rules, read out the Playing Pooh Sticks instructions we’d been given by the hotel.
Ready, Steady, Go! And we threw our sticks into the mud-brown stream. I looked around at the other mums, standing a little too quietly on the bridge. It was a place to remember when we were very young, and tell our children about it. ‘My favourite bit of Pooh was…’ begin most conversations in this sacred spot.
Some of the better-prepared families had come with carrier bags full of pre-cut pooh sticks. Not far downstream, hundreds of small sticks thrown by small hands from the small bridge had created a dam.
Savanna and I, completely enraptured by the simple game, ran out of sticks and had to scramble for some more in the mud. ‘Look! There’s my one! I’m winning!’ We were rather happy. So happy, that Savanna decided to make a den. She hadn’t done that for years.
Back at Ashdown Park, an old convent converted into classic countryside English hotel, we had Winnie-the-Pooh tea with cake forks, tea strainers, Rabbit’s carrot sticks, Hunny sandwiches and Kanga’s cupcake.
Savanna sniffed, far too old to eat a cake with a picture of a little bear on it. Then she surreptitiously popped it into her mouth and crunched on a rabbit stick. That’s what Pooh can do. Make everyone enjoy being a child.
You need a car to reach Ashdown Forest and throw a pooh stick – and a good map. Despite being a place of pilgrimage, Ashdown Forest is poorly signposted and not easy to find. There is also a ban on any interpretation panels in the forest, so bring your own copies of the classic if you want to reminisce.
Where to stay
Ashdown Park Hotel offers family bedrooms from £257.
Where to eat
Pubs and restaurants are scarce, owing to planning restrictions in the park. Outside the hotel, one of the nearest places to eat is Pooh Corner Tea Shop in nearby Hartfield.
Other Winnie-the-Pooh things
The Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic exhibition is at the V&A Museum, London, from 9 December 2017 to 8 April 2018. Christopher Robin, Disney’s live-action film, is released on 3 August 2018. Goodbye Christopher Robin, starring Domhnall Gleeson as AA Milne, is currently in cinemas nationwide.