Just about everyone knows Winnie-the-Pooh. We’re also familiar with Christopher Robin, the young boy who was one of Pooh Bear’s best friends. And Pooh’s posse: Tigger, Eeyore, Owl and the rest, all of whom roamed the Hundred Acre Wood of A.A. Milne’s writings.
Milne’s stories were fictional, of course. Well, to a point.
“I think people forget there was a real story,” says author Kathryn Aalto by phone from England. “Disney slicked it up a little bit. Pooh Bear has an American accent and a U.S. mailbox. But there’s a real story.”
Aalto tells that story in “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest That Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood” (Timber Press).
Aalto is a landscape designer, historian and speaker with master’s degrees in garden history and creative nonfiction. A California native, she and her husband and their three children moved in 2007 to England, where he is a geology professor at the University of Exeter.
“I moved here thinking it’d be an adventurous chapter of our lives,” she says.
She remembers flying into England, looking out of the plane and wondering how her kids would react to their new lives.
On her third day, she came across a book on walking.
“That started it. I wanted to get my kids out and give them the same kind of outdoorsy, free-range childhood I had,” Aalto said. “I was also reading them a lot of classics. I was reading ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ to them. Because I was here, I was thinking, ‘Who is Christopher Robin? Is there a Hundred Acre Wood?’ ”
Her curiosity led her to Ashdown Forest, about 30 miles south of London. Just north of the forest is Cotchford Farm, which Milne purchased in 1925. It was here that Milne and his wife, Daphne, raised their son, Christopher Robin, and where he wrote the Pooh books (the first was published in 1926). Many of the scenes in the books were based on Ashdown Forest.
“It’s a gentle landscape. Not dramatic like the Tetons or the Badlands,” she says. “Right now if I went out, it’d be full of purple heather and yellow gorse, a beautiful tapestry.
“I discovered what an interesting landscape it is, and wearing my hat as a garden historian, I looked into this.”
Aalto’s book takes readers into the forest, a 10-square-mile tract that is heavily protected and well maintained.
“The landscape really does look like the (‘Pooh’ illustrator E.H.) Shepard drawings,” Aalto says. “It’s still sandy by Galleons Lap; there are still lovely streams around, with stony places to sit.”
In the book, Owl’s house was in a cluster of old chestnut trees, but it was based on a magnificent old beech tree that was lost in a windstorm during World War II. “So those big, gnarly limbs where Christopher Robin used to play and his father would watch are now gone,” Aalto says.
Also gone is the original Poohsticks Bridge — Posingford Bridge in real life — where Pooh invented the game of Poohsticks, dropping twigs over one side of the bridge then running to the other side to see whose floated by first. The original bridge was utilitarian and unremarkable. But it has been reconstructed several times and is now very English in appearance and closely resembles what’s seen in the books.
“It has been rebuilt to look like Shepard’s drawings,” Aalto says. “It didn’t look like what he drew for the book. He reimagined the bridge. Now, life imitates form.”
In her book, Aalto also devotes a chapter to the flora and fauna of Ashdown: bracken and foxgloves, eagles, warblers and turtle doves.
Visitors can enjoy several 2- or 3-mile walks through the forest. Aalto says a hiker can go half a day without seeing anyone, a solitary, enchanted journey.
“On Galleons Lap there’s white sand,” she says. “When I’d walk there, I felt like it was pixie dust. And if you’re familiar (with the books), there’s this feeling, this mix of nostalgia. If you bring kids, they’re screeching because they think it’s like it is in the story. You feel like there could be a Winnie-the-Pooh or Tigger coming around a bush.”
That’s not so fantastic. That actually happened to her.
“I came around a corner, and there was someone in a Tigger costume,” she said. “There was a whole family in Tigger costumes. Once a year they come out and have a picnic.”
In researching the book, she visited Cotchford Farm.
The gardens there have changed over the last 90 years. A 200- or 300-year-old walnut tree that stood at the top of the driveway and was the catalyst for the stories — there was a big gash in the trunk where Christopher Robin would hide and be in his own little world — is gone. Daphne Milne’s rose gardens have been replaced by flowers favored by subsequent owners.
And an interesting footnote: One of those subsequent owners was Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones, who bought the property in 1968 and who drowned in the home’s swimming pool the following year. Aalto writes that Jones left his mark, painting the ceilings between wooden beams a bright blue, for example. He also installed a pink light over the bathroom sink that Aalto got to see.
“The owner turned it on and said, ‘I’ve only done this six times in the 43 years I’ve lived here.’ ”