Following in the footsteps of Pooh

Oct 20 2012 - 11:15pm

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PAIGE McCLANAHAN/The Washington Post
Pooh Corner, a shop and Winnie-the-Pooh information center, lies on the main street in the village of Hartfield in Southern England.
PAIGE McCLANAHAN/The Washington Post
Pooh Corner, a shop and Winnie-the-Pooh information center, lies on the main street in the village of Hartfield in Southern England.

It was an unassuming spot, and we probably would have walked right past it if we hadn't known what we were looking for: a clump of about five dozen trees perched on the top of a blustery hill.

But when we walked up, there was no mistaking it: There before us lay the Enchanted Place, also known as Galleons Lap, a resting ground for childhoods the world over.

It's the spot where Christopher Robin, no longer a little boy, and his beloved companion Winnie-the-Pooh came to say their fumbling goodbyes.

Being enchanted, its floor wasn't like the floor of the Forest, gorse and bracken and heather, but close-set grass, quiet and smooth and green. ... Sitting there they could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky, and whatever there was all the world over was with them in Galleons Lap.

This story, which appears in the final chapter of A.A. Milne's "The House at Pooh Corner," will always bring tears to my eyes. Walking into that small, sun-dappled glade as a grown woman, holding my husband's hand, almost felt like coming home.

We were on a pilgrimage of sorts on that cool, sunny September morning. We'd driven down to East Sussex, about 35 miles south of London, to follow in the footsteps of Winnie-the-Pooh, perhaps the world's most famous teddy bear.

It was here in the quiet, forested hills of southern England that Milne wrote and set the adventures of Pooh, Christopher Robin, Piglet, Owl, Eeyore, Rabbit and, of course, all of Rabbit's Friends and Relations. Having grown up with the stories -- like so many millions of others -- we wanted to see the place for ourselves.

We started our morning in Hartfield, a cozy little hamlet with two pubs, one church and one village shop. Milne, who was born in London in 1882, bought a second home in Hartfield in 1925 and came to the area regularly until his death three decades later. His former home isn't open to the public -- it isn't even marked -- but his influence in the village is palpable.

Our first stop was the Pooh Corner Shop, where you can pick up everything from Winnie-the-Pooh lunchboxes to stuffed-animal versions of Eeyore to little pots of local honey, Pooh's favorite snack. We sat down for a coffee in Piglet's Tea Shop, a sunlit room in the back of the store, and asked the friendly staff for some Pooh-tracking advice.

We'd come to the right place. The Pooh Corner Shop is owned by Mike Ridley, a Pooh fanatic who has devised a guided tour of local Pooh-related sights, complete with step-by-step directions and relevant excerpts from the Milne stories. We bought a copy of his pamphlet, titled "Two Expotitions to the Enchanted Places" (an "expotition" being Pooh-speak for an adventure), and set off on our way.

Poohsticks

Destination No. 1: The Poohsticks Bridge. For those who may need a refresher, Poohsticks is a game -- invented by Pooh -- in which the participants drop twigs off the upstream side of a bridge, then race to the downstream side to see whose stick floats through first. The original bridge is at the bottom of a wooded hill a couple of miles outside Hartfield, not far from Milne's old farm. Visitors are encouraged to visit the bridge and try their hand at the sport.

After a quick drive, we found the right trail and set off into the woods, keeping our eyes peeled for promising-looking twigs as we went. (The area around the bridge itself is usually picked clean, or so we'd been warned.) A mile or so down the trail, we came to the bridge, a simple wooden structure that, like many objects of celebrity, was somewhat smaller than how I'd imagined it. But still, it gave me a little thrill to see it for myself.

Twigs in hand, we took our spots on the upstream side and commenced our Poohsticks competition. The game was remarkably engrossing, even for a couple of 30-somethings; we ended up playing at least four rounds, plus tiebreakers. (A tip for potential competitors: The secret to winning is "letting your stick drop in a twitchy sort of way," as Eeyore once explained to Tigger.)

Enchanted Place

We wandered back to the car and set off for the next stop: Ashdown Forest, a 6,000-acre protected area that lies just outside Hartfield. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin, spent many hours wandering through the forest in the 1920s, and it was here that the beloved Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard came for inspiration.

Today, the forest is home to many spots of interest to Pooh fanatics -- assuming, that is, that you know where to look. We pulled into a little gravel parking lot at the designated spot and set off on our walk, guide in hand.

We were out of the trees at that point, high up on a windy plateau that offered wide views of the surrounding hills and villages. I squinted against the sun and zipped up my jacket to keep out the autumnal chill.

We set off walking at a good pace, keeping our eyes peeled for our first point of interest, the Enchanted Place, which we encountered at the top of the highest hill. We paused for a good half-hour in that magical little circle of forest but then continued with the walk, as there were plenty of other spots to find.

And find them we did: We saw the Cunning Trap to catch a Heffalump (but that ended up catching Pooh), as well as the Sandy Pit Where Roo Plays, which really is quite sandy. In the bottom of a little valley, we discovered the North Pole (including the spot where Roo fell in), as well as Eeyore's Gloomy Place, which Milne rightly describes as "Rather Boggy and Sad." And looking across to the next hill, we could see the Hundred Acre Wood, which is where Owl lived, in a house with both a bell pull and a doorknocker.

We carried Milne's two most famous books -- "Winnie-the-Pooh" and "The House at Pooh Corner" -- with us as we walked, and we enjoyed rereading the stories as we encountered their settings. But even apart from all things Pooh, the area was beautiful in its own right, with its shady streams, quiet forest corners and fields of wind-swept purple heather.

 

At one point, a sudden clearing in the trees revealed a lovely view to the north and west. And there in the middle of the clearing we saw the memorial stone that honors both Milne and Shepard. The stone is placed at the precise spot where, according to Christopher Robin, who died in 1996, his father liked to pause for a rest and admire the view.

IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Hartfield, England, is about 50 miles from London's Heathrow airport, or about 18 miles from London Gatwick.
WHERE TO STAY:
* The Griffin Inn, Fletching, East Sussex; 011-44-1825-722-890, www.thegriffininn.co.uk. About 10 miles from Hartfield, this 16th-century inn has a highly rated restaurant and sits on beautifully landscaped grounds. Rooms from $137, or $97 for single occupancy, including breakfast.
* Ashdown Park Hotel & Country Club, Wych Cross, near Forest Row, East Sussex; 011-44-1342-824-988, www.ashdownpark.com. The place to stay if you want to feel like royalty for a couple of days. The hotel offers an 18-hole golf course and an indoor pool and spa services. Rooms from $320 per night, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
* The Anchor Inn, Church Street, Hartfield; 011-44-1892-770-424, www.anchorhartfield.com. Friendly pub housed in a 15th-century building in the middle of Hartfield. Excellent food in cozy surroundings. Entrees start at $15.
* The Hatch Inn, Colemans Hatch, East Sussex; 011-44-1342-822-363, www.hatchinn.co.uk. Another historic pub that takes its food very seriously, the Hatch Inn sits just on the edge of Ashdown Forest. Entrees start at $15.
WHAT TO DO:
* The Pooh Corner Shop, Hartfield; 011-44-1892-770-456, www.pooh-country.co.uk.
Pick up Mike Ridley's handy "Expotitions" guide for about $7.20.
* Ashdown Forest Center, Wych Cross, Forest Row; 011-44-1342-823-583, www.ashdownforest.org.
It's worth spending a day or two exploring Ashdown Forest. Stop in at the center to pick up hiking maps or get information about horseback riding in the forest.

 

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