Then a growly voice from the past said, rather dolefully, “I suppose you mean me? The best bear in all the world. Anyway, it’s not just Pooh; it’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Don’t you know?”
“I do now,” I said, remembering quickly. “You’re a bear of little brain and you live in the forest with Piglet, Owl, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and…”
“Rabbit; don’t forget Rabbit; or his friends and relations.”
“I promise I won’t.”
“Of course not!”
“And Christopher Robin. Especially not Christopher Robin; I wouldn’t have been Pooh without Christopher Robin.”
“You just said Pooh. What happened to Winnie-the and not just Pooh?”
“He gets out of breath saying long names, so we can say ‘Pooh’ for short – as long as we know what we’re talking about. Are you going to tell this story, or not?”
“I’ll try,” I said.
* * * * *
Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, three explorers went into a forest to see if they could find a bear, his friends and a little boy. The bear’s name was Edward Bear, or Winnie-the-Pooh for literary purposes…
“What are literally porpoises?”
“It means so that it looks good in a book.”
“Oh. Some people might think you were talking about a clever sea creature; I just wanted to be sure.”
… the bear’s name was Winnie-the-Pooh, or Pooh for short (but never Winnie) and his friends were Piglet, Owl, Eeyore, Kanga and baby Roo, Tigger, Rabbit and all Rabbit’s friends and relations. And the little boy was called Christopher Robin, whose job was to be In Charge and make sure Everything Turned Out Alright In The End. All of them lived in the forest even longer ago than last Friday, before you were born. It was very soon after the world had gone mad and everyone promised never, ever, to do that again. The forest was an awfully special place where even the rain was kind, as long as you had an umbrella, and where Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends had lots of exciting adventures.
“It was rather fun. We all went on an expotition once and I found the North Pole. And another time Piglet thought we’d trapped a Heffalump, except it was me wearing a Hunny jar. And Owl, spelt Wol, used Eeyore’s tail as a bell-pull. The forest was very big; we called it 100 Aker Wood.”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s much bigger than that, really; it’s called 500 Acre Wood now.”
“We probably only gave it that name for the literally porpoises. Or maybe it was to confuse the Woozles. You never can tell with Woozles.”
“I thought it was bees you could never tell with?” I asked.
“It was. But I’m very old now and everything’s a bit muddled. If everything hadn’t been written down, no one would have remembered any of it, or us, at all. Besides, you know I’m A Bear Of Very Little Brain.”
“I do,” I confirmed gently. “Shall I carry on?”
It was a fine day in the forest, though the sun was a little dim and misty and, in the distance, someone was trying very hard to spoil it with a noisy chainsaw. The explorers might (or might not) have pretended to call themselves Cook, Livingstone and Ericson, after (that means someone had used the names before) other famous explorers. Cook, who was very fond of maps, had very sweetly agreed to take the other two to where he had played with Ericson (who was quite old) when Cook had been as young as Christopher Robin. And, because they thought Pooh would like it, they had a little hum in his honour and composed a Searching For Pooh Song. It went like this:
Oh! Three went into the wood!
Yes! Three went into the wood!
To see if they really could,
Find Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore & Co;
If only they knew the Right Way to go!
It might be raining or snowing, they didn’t care,
As long as they found that Silly Old Bear!
Oh! Three set off to find Pooh!
Yes! Three set off to find Pooh!
Well, honestly, wouldn’t you?
Go into the wood and explore and explore;
They might even spot a Heffalump, or more!
With Big Boots and sticks, they didn’t care,
As long as they found that Silly Old Bear!
After singing this through a few times, just to be sure, they stumped along the path into Five Hundred Acre Wood, not talking much, looking for Signs and Footprints. And then Ericson stopped suddenly and said, in a very solemn voice, the sort people use when they have something Very Important to announce:
“Look! I think that’s Eeyore’s Gloomy Place.” He pointed at a sort of wigwam of sticks by a tree.
“I don’t think so,” said Livingstone morosely. “No. It looks far too grand. Far too nice. Someone’s been playing tricks. Pathetic, really. Somebody’s idea of fun; gaiety; very funny. Besides, it’s not thistly enough – and I should know.”
So they went on. Ericson thought, “If we can find Pooh Bridge, perhaps we’ll see him and Christopher Robin and we can all play Pooh Sticks.” This cheered him up no end and he began looking for suitable sticks, because he knew there wouldn’t be any to be found near the bridge.
By-and-by, the path widened out and then, round a corner, was the Bridge. It was exactly the kind of place where you’d expect to find Pooh. But there was no one about; not even a Piglet. And the reason for this soon became clear, for when they clattered over the planks they saw that there was hardly any water in the stream below. No Pooh – and no Pooh Sticks.
Now, for those that don’t know, we had better explain that Pooh Sticks is a game of tension for at least two players. You will need several sticks of comparable size, a convenient bridge and, under the bridge, a gently flowing river or stream, without anything awkward like large rocks or donkeys in it to impede progress. Without flowing water, the game simply will not work. Each player takes a stick and holds it over the parapet on the upstream side of the bridge. On the command, the players simultaneously drop their sticks into the water and quickly proceed across to peer over the downstream parapet. The person whose stick emerges first is the winner. It is a game suitable for all ages but most often played when we were very young.
“Ah well,” said Livingstone, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“We could always go to the Enchanted Place,” suggested Cook. So that is what they did.
“They walked on, thinking of This and That, and by-and-by they came to an enchanted place on the very top of the Forest called Galleons Lap, which is sixty-something trees in a circle: and Christopher Robin knew that it was enchanted because nobody had ever been able to count whether it was sixty-three or sixty-four, not even when he tied a piece of string round each tree after he had counted it.”
AA Milne – The House at Pooh Corner
The hill heading up to the Enchanted Place was quite steep, so that
They reached the Top and, unlike Pooh, had no breath for even a little hum.
It was a pity the weather wasn’t as sunny as sunny can be. There was no visible sign of Pooh, or Christopher Robin, or anyone else, but they did find a splendidly simple memorial, which said:
HERE AT GILLS LAP ARE COMMEMORATED
AA MILNE 1882-1956
EH SHEPARD 1879-1976
WHO COLLABORATED IN THE CREATION OF
AND SO CAPTURED THE MAGIC OF ASHDOWN FOREST
AND GAVE IT TO THE WORLD
“What now?” asked Cook.
“Time for a little something?” suggested Ericson. “Not honey or condensed milk, but perhaps a coffeeandabun? Come on.”
“Don’t ask me,” said Livingstone. “I suppose I’ll get the stale bits. Very Kind.”
“Let’s go to Pooh Corner,” said Cook. And they did.
* * * * *
“No, but we saw some of where you’d been. And we’ll come back on a better day and play again.”
“I’ll always be here, you know. Me and the others. Even when we’ve been forgotten.”
“I know. Thank you.”
* * * * *
If you haven’t been properly introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh, none of the above will mean much to you. Sorry.
Alan Alexander Milne was an accomplished London-based playwright and novelist, who purchased Cotchford Farm on the edge of Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, in 1925. It was initially a weekend retreat for himself, his wife, Daphne de Sélincourt (1890-1971) and their young son Christopher Robin (1920-1996) and it was there that Winnie-the-Pooh was conceived and born. AA Milne published the first book of Pooh stories, Winnie-The-Pooh, in 1926, followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. Pooh and Christopher Robin initially appeared in a children’s book of verse, When We Were Very Young, in 1924 and there was a further book of verse, Now We Are Six, in 1927. All books were captivatingly illustrated by EH Shepard and the drawings are as much a part of the legend as the stories. Pooh and friends were well-constructed characters who had charmingly simple, imaginative and amusing adventures, partly inspired by Christopher Robin himself, his collection of cuddly toys and the 6,500 acre Ashdown Forest, about 30-or-so miles south of London, near East Grinstead.
Ashdown Forest was a hunting forest in medieval times but is now largely accessible to the public, with a myriad of walks, open spaces and wonderful views. Situated in an official area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, most of it is actually heathland, a rare and protected habitat. The pictures here do not do it justice – it really was a fairly dull, winter’s, day when they were taken; and we really will return. But it is a place of happy memories, somehow ideally suited to playing and feeling young. Many of the places associated with Winnie-the-Pooh are real and can be visited – some of them are mentioned above.
Cotchford Farm is still there, privately owned; it was on the market for just under £1.9 million in early 2017. AA Milne lived there until he died. Its other claim to fame is that it was also home to Rolling Stone Brian Jones, who drowned in the pool there in 1969.
The obvious place to go for a little something (Pooh’s euphemism for a snack) while you’re visiting is Pooh Corner, a café and small emporium in the nearby village of Hartfield that specialises in all things Pooh-related. There you will find more cuddly Pooh-type toys and other paraphernalia than you can shake a Pooh stick at. Pooh Corner is everything it should be though, when we popped in, it seemed a little tatty round the edges; it deserves to be busy – go there. And this, I am delighted to say, is as commercial as Pooh’s home territory gets. Horror of horrors, we could have had a Pooh Park and I, for one, am immensely grateful that the urge has been resisted.
‘Winnie’ was named for a bear brought from Winnipeg by a Canadian soldier, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, during the First World War. When Colebourn went overseas, he left the bear in London Zoo, where the Milnes met her. ‘Pooh’ was a swan, apparently; and that’s all the explanation you’re going to get. Christopher Robin’s original toys somehow ended up in the New York Public Library, where they can be seen every day, except for Kanga’s baby Roo, who has sadly disappeared.
There is darkness and possible tragedy behind all the innocence. Milne apparently had a problem with the success of Pooh, which engulfed him and his other work; Pooh became more famous than his creator, a kind of cuddly Frankenstein. Christopher Robin seems to have had an even bigger problem with Christopher Robin, whose twee persona is said to have encouraged bullying at school. He told Gyles Brandreth, a friend in later life, that he came to believe that his father “had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders.” As Frank Cottrell Boyce, who penned the screenplay for the 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin, wrote, “The tragedy of Milne’s success is that it trapped a real child in that moment like a fly in amber.” It is a graphic simile. Unlike his friend JM Barrie’s eternal boy Peter Pan, AA Milne’s Christopher Robin was real and had to grow up.
The film Goodbye Christopher Robin suggests that AA Milne, who served in the army during the Great War, including a spell in a branch of military intelligence called MI7b, was deeply traumatised by the experience – as many were – and suffered from shell-shock, which often manifested itself in flash-backs. Living with the horror of trench warfare, coupled with a privileged, composed, upper middle-class English upbringing, might have been a toxic cocktail. Writing children’s books, it is hinted, was a therapy that he, and indeed the Nation, needed. The Milnes moved in a rarefied stratum of society and, due to AA’s previous success, were obviously not short of a bob or two. Whilst having some sympathy for Christopher Robin’s position, when watching the movie I couldn’t help thinking how so much more fortunate than most other children the lad was; poor little rich kid, was the unkind thought that sprang to mind. The film nevertheless portrays his parents as dysfunctional in that role – Daphne seems herself to have not quite grown up and AA appears as brilliant, but emotionally retarded; if Pooh made their son public property, and they exploited it, maybe they didn’t know any better. Tiddely pom.
Enough of this tedious, amateur, analysis! The books are unashamedly products of their time and environment and, though possibly perplexing to those who can’t imagine a childhood like Christopher Robin’s, are enchanting pieces of escapism. They are clever and witty and funny and I used to love them; I find I still do. From 1966, Walt Disney introduced Winnie the Pooh (without the hyphens) to a whole new audience. Though a huge admirer of Disney, I never really got on with his version of Pooh; the accents seem all wrong, I’m afraid, and it comes across as gauche without being charming. But what do I know? Disney’s Pooh has been even more successful than its ancestor and is now a high-value international franchise, some say second only to Micky Mouse; praise indeed. There have been other adaptations, parodies and satires, of the Pooh stories too. But, of course, the main point so far as A Bit About Britain is concerned is that Ashdown Forest is a lovely place to go.
However, when you do, just remember:
“In that enchanted place on the top of the forest a little boy and his bear will always be playing.”