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A journey to Ashdown Forest



Kathryn Aalto is an American landscape designer, historian and writer living in Exeter, England.

She is the author of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, and here she talks about her inspiration...

Where it began...

Almost ten years ago, I moved 4740 miles from Washington State to Devon, England.  I have three kids and they were 3, 7 and 9 years old then.  We were excited about living a chapter of our lives in Europe, but also sad about leaving the 20-acre wild home we loved, a natural wonderland of meadows, woods and a salmon-spawning stream where bald eagles nested in the tops of black cottonwoods and beavers built dens.


Nestled in our little river valley, we lived a life close to nature: raising wild turkeys, feeding horses hay, and collecting chicken eggs. The kids grew pumpkins. They built forts. They listened for coyotes howling at night.


I vividly remembering flying over Devon then, and looking down onto the quilted green landscape of hedgerows below me. It was as foreign to me as Mandarin.  My American West of volcanoes, the vast Pacific Ocean and enormous redwood trees was now eight time zones away.  I wondered: How would I raise my children here?

Re-reading the classics

Within a couple of days of arriving, I stumbled across a book on walking English footpaths. What a novelty! We don't have these in the United States. People fence off their private property, and it's illegal to trespass.

To ground and comfort my children in traditions, I was also re-reading classic children's stories aloud including A. A. Milne's classic Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). This reading, walking and thinking in this new country put questions in my head: Was there a real Christopher Robin? Is there a real Hundred Acre Wood? Could we walk there?

That's how I was inspired to write my bestselling book, The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood. It's part natural history and part biographical history.  It is nature writing, literary analysis and a field guide all rolled into one. 

Who was Christopher Robin?

I discovered that there was indeed a boy named Christopher Robin. His father, A. A. Milne, wanted him to have the kind of freedom he enjoyed in the natural world as a child.  As an eight year-old, A. A. Milne once walked 18 miles!  Could you do that today?  He collected butterflies, rocks, eggs and had many wild adventures.  And when Christopher was five years old, he bought a country home near Ashdown Forest, a 6000 acre wildlife haven 40 miles south of London in East Sussex, to give his child space to explore.

And that is the landscape that inspired the Hundred Acre Woods, one of the most famous settings in children's literature. It's where characters beloved around the world -- Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet , Owl, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, Tigger and Eeyore -- have adventures in places such as The Enchanted Place, Poohsticks Bridge and Heffalump Traps.

Flip through the pages of the original stories. I can tell you that the real Ashdown Forest feels like walking through the original illustrations by E. H. Shepard. In my book, I explore how Milne's connection with nature and his role as a father influenced his famous stories. I take you deep into the pine trees to find the North Pole and to the top of the forest and Galleon's Lap where Christopher Robin says goodbye to his friends.

Discovering Ashdown Forest...

I end my book with a Visitor's Guide to the forest.  It was fascinating researching rare plants and animals that call Ashdown Forest home, including some of Europe's most threatened species: the Dartford warbler, the noctural nightjar and the red damselfly, amongst other. In fact, it is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area for birds and a Special Area of Conservation for its habitat.

If you haven't read the original Winnie-the-Pooh books in a while, scour your bookcases or go to your local library. A. A. Milne wrote very funny and cleverly written stories and the illustrations by E. H. Shepard are sensitive and beautiful.  The stories have been translated into more than 50 languages and have sold millions of copies.

This is also a very special year for Winnie-the-Pooh as the book celebrates its 90th anniversary this year!

To celebrate, plan a trip to Ashdown Forest to play Poohsticks on the original bridge, build an Eeyore House and count the number of trees in The Enchanted Place. You might find a Heffalump or a Woozle!

Kathryn Aalto
Twitter: @kathrynaalto

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