By Cathy Eden
Among the great children’s writers who introduced me to fiction and made me fall in love with reading are Edith Nesbit, Mary Norton, CS Lewis, Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne. Each of them created a world that I fully inhabited. I believed that carpets could fly; I visualised every corner of the Borrowers’ under-floor home; I felt the icy air of Narnia at the back of the wardrobe; I walked with the mole and the rat along the river bank and I romped through the 100-acre wood with Christopher Robin and his friends.
How extraordinary to finally step inside one of those favourite bedtime stories and feel the years dropping away; to travel all the way from South Africa and actually be in the 100-acre wood, casting my sticks over the side of Pooh Bridge and running to the other side to watch them emerge and swirl away downstream.
My friend Jill, knowing that I’d love the experience, invited me to spend a night at her home in East Grinstead. In the morning we drove to the hamlet of Hartfield, to the white, bay-windowed building that was once the village shop where the real and, as we now know, rather burdened son of AA Milne got his sweets – or, more probably, where Nanny got them for him. Propped on the pavement is a sandwich board painted with the words Open for Teas above a colourful picture of the eternally young, smocked and bobbed Christopher Robin and his faithful bear, Winnie-the-Pooh.
The building is enchanting. The owner’s private apartment is upstairs; the ground floor is mainly a coffee shop, with smaller rooms devoted to memorabilia and toys. The interior is stooped, bolstered by thick walls and deep sills. Tucked away at the back, a glass display cupboard holds an assortment of faded Pooh-related articles and books, including the trilogy by the adult Christopher Milne, which is well worth reading.
Then there is the Winnie-the-Pooh merchandise. It is inevitably of the brash, Disney cartoon variety. I was raised on the gentle, Ernest Shepard illustrations of a scuffed Pooh bear and a Piglet that could well have been knitted, so these bright, mass-produced characters seem all wrong to me. I can only imagine what the grown-up Christopher Robin must have thought of them. But I have to remind myself that Winnie-the-Pooh was written in 1926. Children now live in a radically different world and the fact that Pooh, Piglet and the others are still part of it at all is remarkable. AA Milne’s storytelling has a timeless genius, but I have to grudgingly acknowledge that Disney has helped to keep it fresh.
From Hartfield we drove to Ashdown forest, the mighty and unchanged inspiration for the 100-acre wood. It is light and dappled and not at all like the sombre woods of my imagination. I walked down the path under towering oaks, collecting a few twigs on the way. Jill warned me that there are none to be found near the bridge, where every visitor re-enacts Milne and Christopher’s immortalised game of Pooh sticks, so we arrived prepared.
And there it was, strangely familiar. Did one of the books have a sketch of the bridge, which could be embedded in my subconscious? Or was it merely the happy association of years of playing Pooh sticks, first with my parents and then with my children, at other bridges over different streams on the other side of the planet? Whatever the explanation, for a few minutes I was six again and immersed in a storybook world.
The original Posingford bridge was constructed in 1907 over a tributary of the river Medway, to link two estates. By the 1970s it was beginning to crumble. Fortunately, the decision to replace it with a utilitarian span was vetoed. Local people loved the old bridge and campaigned to have it recreated. They succeeded, and the new structure was officially opened by Christopher Robin himself, and named Pooh Bridge. Two decades later, when the bridge was again in need of repair, Disney was approached to fund its third incarnation. The latest replica has all the charm of the original while meeting East Sussex County’s stringent health and safety requirements. And Jill and I had it to ourselves.
It was fresh and tranquil in the forest, with only the sound of rushing water and the occasional bird call. We raced our sticks then tramped back up the hill to the car park. On the way we passed a little party of American tourists. One of them clutched an over-stuffed orange Pooh bear, no doubt bought at the Hartfield shop. She looked so pleased with it, so happy to be making a pilgrimage to the bridge, as we had done.
And then I understood that her fluorescent bear held as much magic for her as my battered version had for me. It doesn’t matter that both the bridge and the bear have been revised. What matters is that it is still possible in this topsy-turvy world to stroll in the 100-acre wood; to play a simple game of dropping sticks into water, and to find the space and silence to reflect on the childhood stories that are so powerful and enduring.