Adventure 4: Ashdown Forest, East Sussex

Monday, March 18, 2002

A Saturday and Sunday in March 2002

Dave and Mark’s first trip of the 2002 season. The worst of winter was barely over and they were on the roadout of London. Where they’re headed is actually quite close but seemed much further because of the Saturday congestion made just leaving London a trial. The van crossed the M25 London ring motorway and passed high over the North Downs into East Sussex.

The Ashdown Forest is an area of woodland, heath and fields – oh and the home of Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s like a much smaller version of the New Forest in Hampshire. Both are old royal hunting parks and have similar ‘managed’ vegetation. These areas are called forests but aren’t exactly amazonian in scale or density. The Ashdown Forest is what remains of Lancaster Great Park deer hunting forest. In 1296 when the area was enclosed it was twice the 6,400 acres of present day and heavily vegetated with native trees. The discovery of iron ore in the local clay soon saw to that. The trees were felled to smelt the ore and reforestation was prevented by the Right of Common.

The rampant gorse was bright yellow, and dark cloud raced across the sky. The Devon 21 eased into the car-park at Gills Lap with chalk dust kicking up in plumes. A couple of other cars were already there. A lonely ice-cream van suggested they were expecting more visitors soon. Gills lap is the highest point in the forest and a short walk from the car-park one can look out across much of the forest. Dave and Mark had been brought here by a friendly looking map they’d found online. It sketched out the real locations used by A.A. Milne and his illustrator E.H. Sepheard for Winnie-the-Pooh.

Just their names create visions of an idylic inter-war period in British history. You don’t get people calling themselves by their first two or three initials these days. There’ll be no more JRR Tolkeins, CS Lewis’s, WH Audens, TS Eliots, DH Lawreences, HG Wells’s, WB Yeats’s. Or for that matter AA Milnes. The yellow pages adverts with JR Hartley and his fly-fishing neatly draw on this homely innocent Englishness. Of course it is partly an illusion. The First World war had just passed and facists were on the march across Europe. But, Dave thought, being here in Ashdown Forest you can almost believe that the world was as innocent as Christopher Robin saw it.

The two lads followed the well trodden walk outlined on the map. The first location was spotted quickly. The Enchanted Place – A large circular copse of tall pines on the brim of the hill that seemed perfect for a satanic ritual or two. Or maybe home to a unicorn. A very short distance later down a steep banking was Roo’s Sandpit. Actually it was more a brown mud pool. Next the boys came to the Memorial to AA Milne that gave a great view out over the forest and farmland. Somewhere down there was the bridge and house at pooh corner. The map suggested that both were no more than a 10 or 20 minutes away. However as they were soon to find out, the map accurately represented distances in the same way the London Underground map does.

Some time later Dave and Mark came to the realisation that the map’s compiler had not been altogether truthful. Tracks, roads, woodlands, steps and lanes later they came to Pooh’s bridge. A 1990’s reconstruction of an earlier rickety wooden bridge that appears in the pooh books as the location of the game poohsticks. For a moment or two the ladsconsidered heading back to the Devon 21. It was a long climb back up to Gil’s Lap, so they decided they would head onwards to the village of Hartfield where pooh corner lay (and perhaps a cream tea or two) before making the climb back… Unfortunately they didn’t make it. A wrong turn at an unmarked junction in the paths took them away from Hartfield and towards Gil’s Lap on the road. Mark was very dissappointed that there would be no cream-tea for them. Damn that map!

At about 3.30pm Dave and Mark clambered into the van and drove the mile or two to Hartfield. The house at pooh corner was a gift shop and there appeared to be no tea-rooms or cafe! Despondent the boys set off on the 9 miles to Tonbrige Wells. Surely there they would find a cream-tea. They were not dissappointed.
Their appetites sated and armed with a campsite map courtesy of tourist information, the bus motored back out to the lovely countryside around Hartfield. The site was described as quiet and rural. When they eventually found it at the end of several progressively less paved tracks Dave and Mark agreed that it was indeed tranquil. They chose a spot by the side of the small site’s lake to setup camp. The perfect place to end a lovely day.

The light was beginning to fade as Dave prepared a gourmet banquet of tinned chicken tikka marsala curry with rice and nan bread, washed down with a pleasant chardonnay. From the outside Dave thought how warm and inviting the van looked with the gas lamp light spilling out across the the black grass and water. Inside they huddled in for an early night.

Sunday‚Ä®Sunday morning dawned early for Dave. Blinking from beneath the duvet at the impractically small travel clock he saw it was 7am. Mark was less eager to rise and clutched the duvet around him. It was warm and cosy and he wasn’t going anywhere. Dave put the kettle on and took in the fresh sunny morning. A coot was paddling around the lakes’ reeds. Mark was in the toilet and Dave was frying bacon when the site owner walked casually around to the van. They were, he informed Dave, only the second people to stay on the site this year.

The day’s itinerary began with Sheffield Park. A large manor house with walled vineyard and grounds layed out by Capability Brown. The gardens cost too much to view and the weather was extremely dull, so Mark and Dave headed a couple of miles down the road to the starting sation for the Bluebell steam railway. Tickets in hand the lads stepped onto the platform and back to 1935.

The train steamed and smoked. When it pulled away from the platform it seemed so smooth. The hour and a half round trip passed through fields and woods. On the way back Dave had seen enough and rested his eyes it was so smooth and rhytmic and comforatble and warm and….zzzzzzz. Feeling relaxed and sleepy the lads thought how much better steam trains are than those today.

It was decided the next stop of the day should be a roast beef lunch. The problem was finding one! Like bees drawn to a honey-pot the guys ended up in Hartfield, where a cosy local pub served them up a sunday roast. It was time to head for home.

On the way they called by Heve Castle and Mark stoppd for a pee in the woods around RAF Biggin Hill. Exhausted by a busy two days Mark and Dave emptied the Devon 21 and began to dream about where their Devon 21 adventures would take them next.

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