We first visited Pooh Country when the boys were toddlers and I've been keen to go back while they were still young enough to care about Winnie-the-Pooh, yet old enough to remember visiting. My boys have never been Pooh fanatics, but they do love the stories and the classic 1977 film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has always been a favourite in our house. Last year, when it seemed my eldest was getting too old for such things, his Year 1 teacher introduced the books in class and Pooh experienced something of a revival in our family. It's really a shame that Winnie-the-Pooh has become so babyfied over the years when the books are actually better suited to older children.
The House at Pooh Corner seems particularly poignant for this stage in our lives (our youngest has just started school) and I can’t help but tear up at the ending when Christopher Robin bids farewell to his friends. So I have to confess that this trip may have been partly for me, a sort of last hurrah of our days of doing Nothing together. But they were also excited to see the real Hundred Acre Woods again. So early one Saturday morning, we packed a picnic of peanut butter and honey (I do love a theme) sandwiches and set off. To keep the boys entertained on the hour-long journey, we played Winnie-The-Pooh on Audible Stories, one of the many children's audio books currently streaming for free to help with homeschooling during the Coronavirus.
The House at pooh Corner
Our first stop was Hartfield, East Sussex, where A.A. Milne lived in the 1920's when he created his beloved stories based on the adventures of his son, Christopher Robin, and his 'silly old bear'. Cotchford Farm is located to the southeast of the village and at the edge of Ashdown Forest. Unfortunately it's a private estate, but you can have a virtual snoop around here. If it were open to visitors, the site would certainly attract an interesting mix of tourists; in addition to it's WTP links, it was also once owned by Rolling Stone Brian Jones and it was here that he drowned in the swimming pool in 1969. It's a tragic connection to what ought to be a happy place. Although after seeing the 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin, I can't help but think it wasn't always the happiest of homes for C.R. Milne. The real house doesn't feature in the film, but a lot of local sites were used as filming locations, including the nearby Poohsticks Bridge.
We made our way to the Pooh Carpark (TN7 4EX*) about 2 miles south of the village. Parking is free in this small car park, so it was understandably busy on a Saturday morning and we just managed to nab the last space. There are a few subtle signs leading to the bridge, but otherwise there's nothing overtly touristy here (apart from all the tourists!). The half-mile track to the bridge is well-trodden and we passed a steady stream of families on our way down. I pulled out a few twigs that I'd packed from our garden (visitors are encouraged to bring their own to spare the surrounding trees). We waited our for our turn on the bridge and then boys climbed up to watch their sticks float past.
Originally called Posingford Bridge, the simply wooden structure spans a tributary of the River Medway. In the 1970's the original bridge had rotted and was close to collapsing, but was saved following a global campaign by Pooh fans. The rebuilt bridge was unveiled in a ribbon cutting ceremony with none other than Christopher Milne, then aged 59, there to do honours. He told reporters that “I first found the bridge 20 years after it had been built when I came upon it with my nanny. How could we not fall in love with it? Then my parents came and how could they not fall in love with it?” In 1999, the bridge had to be closed due to the constant wear and tear of tourist footfall. It was finally replaced with the help of a donation from Disney.
*Our GPS seemed to have trouble finding the exact spot, so you may need to keep driving if you've reached your destination and don't see it.
Our next stop was Hartfield high street. Nestled against a hill dotted with grazing sheep, Hartfield is a charming little village, packed with half-timbered houses and Georgian storefronts. There’s a fair bit of traffic, but we managed to park on the street near our destination: a gift shop and tearoom called Pooh Corner. The shop and tearoom were first opened in the 1970's and it's become a popular tourist attraction over the years. The current owners have recently installed a ‘Pooh-seum’ dedicated to the lives and work of A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard.
We let the boys pick out a small toy, while we perused the photos and memorabilia. It was all tastefully done and even the merchandise seemed to be careful curated. I've never really cared for the modern, Disneyfied Pooh, so I was pleased to see a more vintage collection based on Shepard's timeless illustrations. There seems to be a lot more of the original Pooh around in recent years thanks to Disney's 2018 film Christopher Robin, which featured old-fashioned versions of Pooh and friends.
The 500 Acre Wood
With the boys happily clutching their souvenirs, we piled back into the car and headed down the road to the 500 Acre Woods, a scenic section of Ashdown Forest that featured in the stories as the 100 Acre Wood. We parked at Gills Lap Car Park (Post Code: TN22 3JD*) and set off on a circular Pooh walk. The trail leads to the real places that inspired Milne and featured in the stories as The Enchanted Place, the Heffalump Trap, Roo's Sandy Pit, Eeyore's Gloomy Place and the 'North Pole'.
*Again our GPS didn't quite get us there.
Along the trail we came to a memorial dedicated to Milne and Shepard, where we stopped off to take in the views one last time before heading home. In spite of the name, the forest landscape was more heathland than woods. With its lush carpet of fern and heather, it's a place of breathtaking beauty and it's easy to see how Milne found his inspiration in this place. It was here that the author came to walk with his son and where he imagined Christopher Robin and Pooh walking together at the end of the story...
So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.
Plan your visit
If you’re planning your own trip to Pooh Country and coming from further afield, you might want to check out The Anchor Inn. This charming old pub boasts four B&B rooms named for Winnie-the-Pooh characters. The menu also looks very good, in case you happen to be a little rumbly in your tumbly.
If you can't make it in person, have a look at the Victoria and Albert Museum's website. The V&A hosted a fantastic Winnie the Pooh exhibition a couple of years ago and there's still a lot of great info and images online, as well as some very cute Pooh gear in their online gift shop.
The novel begins at Norland Park, a fictional estate in Sussex. Austen doesn't describe Norland in great detail, only that it was a "fine old house in the county of Sussex". Having spent most of her life neighbouring Hampshire, Austen would have been fairly familiar with Sussex and we know that she spent some time in Brighton and Worthing.