A Day at Ashdown Forest with Dr. Ann Thwaite
Though admitting that this year may be her last to serve as tour guide, Dr. Ann Thwaite, A. A. Milne’s biographer, delighted eleven American students of children’s literature by joining us for the day and leading our hike through Ashdown Forest, the five-hundred-acre wood that inspired Milne’s children’s classics, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). During the ride to the Sussex village of Hartfield on this twelfth day of June, I listened to the conversation between my professor, Dr. Jameela Lares, and Dr. Thwaite discussing the popularity of visiting sites associated with fantasy fiction. Dr. Thwaite, who admits that she is not fond of reading fantasy, emphatically rejected current tendencies to lump Milne's texts with the likes of J. K. Rowling’s more contemporary Harry Potter (1997) epic. As their exchange shows, scholars of children's literature are still debating how to categorize Milne's children's stories. Regardless of the genre, the allure of remembered childhood in Winnie-the-Pooh still enchants readers today and attracts literary tourists from all over the world to “that enchanted place on the top of the Forest” (Milne 344).
Not so different from literary tourists, I found myself at Pooh Corner, a store in Hartfield dedicated to all things Winnie-the-Pooh, where I decided to prepare for the experience of hiking Ashdown by purchasing a stuffed Pooh toy to accompany me on my journey to what Edward Soja calls "both a real and imagined place." Though seemingly just a simple excursion, a visit to this enchanted place of my childhood imagination was potentially more laden with risk than I thought at the time. Insightfully, Nicola J. Watson in The Literary Tourist (2006) warns:
The landscape sought by literary tourists, too, is a text, and a ‘dangerously supplementary’ one at that: to go to a place by the light of a book is at once to declare the place inadequately meaningful without the literary signification provided by the book, and to declare the book inadequate without this specific, anxiously located referent or paratext. (7)
Watson recognizes the drive for literary tourists to enrich their literary
experiences with visits to the settings of favorite stories, but she also recognizes the danger inherent in seeking to anchor the imaginary within the real world. Always the intrepid adventurer, though, my choice to bring a stuffed toy demonstrated a desire to create yet another level of signification. After all, the mass-marketed bear becomes special because of his visit to the location that inspired Milne’s classic characters. I was not alone in this decision, too, as apparent in the group photo, including both a diminutive Pooh in the crook of one student’s arm and the tiny piglet peering over another student’s head.
After a short walk through the village proper, made idyllic by cascades of roses along the sidewalk, we assembled in the churchyard at Hartfield Parish Church, a thirteenth-century construction dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin to listen to Dr. Ann Thwaite’s talk. Flanked by gravestones, Dr. Thwaite shared with us details about Milne, his character, his relationship with his wife, Daphne, and his disappointment that his popular children’s stories eclipsed his more serious work.
Continuing our conversations about Milne over lunch at the Anchor Inn, Dr. Thwaite graciously signed our copies of her biography, Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), a shortened version of her award-winning biography on A. A. Milne (1990) that informed the recent movie directed by Simon Curtis (2017). When we finally reached the much-anticipated destination of Ashdown Forest, I was most struck by the open heathland, marked by gorse, heather, bracken, and thistle, with great expansive views that seemed to go on forever. Dr. Thwaite led us up a narrow trail through the gorse into a grove of pine trees. A vast natural area that dates back to the period just after the Normal Conquest of 1066, the heath and woods of Ashdown are preserved from disruptive markers and signs; however, Dr. Thwaite expertly directed us to the areas that corresponded with Milne’s stories.
At many points along the way, I was reminded of Ernest H. Shepard’s illustrations in Winnie-the-Pooh, and the attention that he gave to the vegetation of the “100 Aker Wood.” With the stories and illustrations so fresh in my mind, I kept flashing back and forth between the real experience and the imagined escapades of a stuffed bear and his friends. At one moment, I looked around for Pooh “brush[ing] the prickles from his nose” (Milne 7).
Though I never found that Pooh, I did find a way to consecrate my bought one at the place where I imagined to be “that enchanted place on the top of the Forest called Galleons Lap” (Milne 344). With an air of solemnity, I explored the grove while Dr. Thwaite explained that many trees had been lost in the hurricane of 1987. I tried to count the remaining trees, but finally acquiesced to Christopher Robin’s expert knowledge that “nobody had ever been able to count whether it was sixty-three or sixty-four” (Milne 337). Before departing the space, I captured my Pooh in a photograph, “his back against one of the sixty-something trees,” and imagined he, too, was “looking out over the world, and wishing it wouldn’t stop” (Milne 339-340).
Like Pooh and his friends Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, Roo, Eeyore, and of course, Christopher Robin, the best part of the day was belonging to a community of readers of Milne’s children’s stories. By journeying together to Ashdown Forest, hiking through the landscape, seeing the Eeyore and Owl houses, and playing Pooh sticks, I found a sense of connection to the characters through our interactions with one another. But most of all, there was an unspoken sense of understanding, and even in that we resembled the relationship between Pooh and Christopher Robin, a connection that transcends time and space and perhaps even allows for a brief time the imaginary to enter reality.
Goodbye Christopher Robin. Directed by Simon Curtis, written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan, performances by Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, and Alex Lawther, 2017.
Lares, Jameela. Ann Thwaite Speaking at St. Mary the Virgin Church, June 12, 2018, Hartfield, U. K.
Milne, A. A. The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. 1926, 1928. Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Dutton Children’s Books, 2016.
Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Blackwell, 2014.
Thwaite, Ann. A. A. Milne: His Life. Pan MacMillan, 1990.
--. Goodbye Christopher Robin: A. A. Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh. Pan Books, London; St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 2017.
Watson, Nicola J. The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Crystal Veronie is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her research focuses on the intersections between nineteenth-century Transatlantic literature, gender, and science and medicine. Additional interests include children’s literature and literary tourism.
For more information about the British Studies program and Children's Literature at the University of Southern Mississippi, click here.