With sufficient imagination, any place can evoke a sense of enchantment. Not just as a pleasure to visit, but also in the word’s original meaning – casting a spell. In his 1,300-page novel Jerusalem, writer Alan Moore managed to transform the run-down streets of his Northampton childhood into a multi-dimensional universe imbued with magic.
Thankfully, such genius is not required when writing of the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex; its charm and beauty are apparent to all who visit. As is its serenity. It is almost mystifyingly quiet. Even in midsummer there are rarely traffic jams or long queues for a 99, despite the forest’s proximity to London and long association with former resident AA Milne and a certain bear of little brain. As Christopher Robin Milne would write in his memoir, this was “an enchanted spot before ever Pooh came along to add to its magic”.
Covering almost 2,430 hectares, Ashdown Forest, in the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty, is actually more heath than woodland, a landscape now rarer than tropical rainforest. Undulating sandstone ridgetops of gorse, heather and fern dominate, peppered with woodlands and bordering the mile-long Weir Wood reservoir. This is an ancient place, having escaped cultivation since Norman times, when it was set aside as a royal hunting ground.
In the 1980s it was nearly lost to the nation when former owner William Sackville, the 10th Earl De La Warr, planned to sell it off. Thanks to a fundraising campaign it is now council-owned, protected and managed by conservators. A population of silka, fallow, muntjac and roe deer share the land with a wide variety of dragonflies, rodents and snakes, plus badgers, stoats and weasels. Favourites for the birders include redstarts, flycatchers, crossbills, Dartford warblers, woodlarks and tree pipits. Here, wildlife is given top priority. Off-road biking is banned; this is a land for walking.
For a small donation, there are 13 circular walking routes to download from ashdownforest.org (the visitor centre is currently closed). An OS map will serve just as well and allow greater freedom, creating personal routes along the forest’s clear pathways. Good starting points are Old Lodge nature reserve (paths from its main car park offer sweeping views of heathland and open woods), Tabell Ghyll, the old airstrip, the airman’s grave and Gills Lap. For me, this spring Ashdown Forest became a place of rediscovery and respite from the claustrophobia of lockdown. Once travel restrictions had eased, I roamed in weather fine and foul, enjoying its heathland coconut-scented by yellow-flowering gorse. Warblers skulked among the flora; dragonflies, huge and iridescent, helicoptered over the ferns. And all to a soundtrack of chittering finches, the chick-chick of stonechats and the air-pump wheeze of the great tit.
Over the summer I returned to sample some of the forest’s other delights, travelling on the steam-hauled Bluebell Railway from Sheffield Park, by its western edge, to Kingscote 10 miles to the north. Its reduced post-lockdown service involves pre-booked compartments, extra spacing, masks obligatory on platforms, but a full menu of cream teas, breakfasts and fish and chip suppers.
Two miles north of Sheffield Park is 100-acre Heaven Farm, a popular camping site and nature trail, with ridiculously cute albino wallabies, rescued decades ago by the farm’s owner, John Butler, now 90. Latchetts Farm, in its grounds, offers ice-cream “straight from cow to cone”.
Tablehurst Community Farm on the outskirts of Forest Row, east of Kingscote, became a favourite place for stocking up on essentials. In its shop, everything from the biodynamic organic meat and vegetables to the raw Jersey milk comes direct from their not-for-profit farm. Food doesn’t get more local than this. An outdoor cafe (Wed-Sun, 10am-4pm), overlooking farmland and elevated wooden beehives, makes a beautiful spot for lunch, though £5 for a sausage roll is a bit steep. There are bikes to hire from a Countrybike outlet on the farm.
Recently reopened in the pretty village of Hartfield are the Gallipot and Anchor pubs, both with large beer gardens, and Pooh Corner – the village sweet shop that Christopher Robin once frequented and now a Pooh-themed tea room. Since taking over last year, owners Neil and Sam Reed have added a tiny “Pooh’seum” with memorabilia, artwork, photographs and literary curios. One staff member even has a Winnie-the-Pooh tattoo.
But while Milne and his creations are undoubtably the main draw for the forest’s overseas visitors (of which there are, of course, currently few), locations associated with the books remain low-key and unspoiled. Galleon’s Leap (Gills Lap) and the Enchanted Place have only modest signage and a plaque to Milne and the illustrator of the books, EH Shepard. Revisiting the Pooh Sticks Bridge near Chuck Hatch after 30 years, I took the 15-minute walk down a sandy path from the car park to find that while the unassuming wooden bridge was rebuilt 20 years ago, it still looks as it did in Shepard’s illustrations. The forest’s globally famous landmark has not suffered the fate of Land’s End. Its enchantment has not been killed off by gaudy signs and shopping arcades but lives on through ritual and imagination as – 100 years on – kids clutching cuddly Eeyores, Poohs and Piglets gather sticks, drop them in the water, race to the other side of the bridge and bicker over who actually won. Fans of nature writer Tristram Gooley will of course know that to win at Pooh Sticks you need to drop your twig into the river’s deepest part, the thalweg.
Tight controls on land use may have put paid to any hopes for pop-up camping in the forest, but there are plenty of campsites, B&Bs, cabins and shepherd’s huts. Pegs and Pitches’ family-friendly Wild Boar Campsite has nine pre-erected, well-equipped bell tents hidden away in an ancient five-acre wood. Nice touches include a central parachute awning and hot-water outdoor bucket showers, complete with peep-hole for watching steam trains pass by.
Shovelstrode Forest Garden, north of Forest Row, has six secluded wooden cabins and bell tents in a vast wooded garden. “We initially set this up as somewhere to run courses themed around self-sufficiency,” owners Charles and Lisa tell me, after I settle into Anderida Cabin for the evening, “but somehow we also fell into hospitality.”
A treatment used in the 1918 flu pandemic was open-air therapy, and this could have been a good place to try it. The site offers perhaps its 21st-century equivalent, forest bathing sessions. There is also outdoor learning at the woodland workshop, which runs a variety of traditional craft courses, including bee-keeping and green woodworking.
My cabin has a double bed, sofabed, dining areas and woodburning stove; walls are decorated with old tapestries, photographs and carvings. It would be ideal for couples and small families, and is snug. This is how I’d imagine Henry David Thoreau’s cabin in Walden to have been, though I suspect he didn’t have a phone charging point by the bed. Or succumb to a pizza from Deliveroo.
I spend the evening on the porch with photographer and friend Jason, listening to Alan Bennett’s gentle voice reading Milne’s playful tales. Dusk approaches. Owls call. Fire and candlelight hypnotise. Whisky animates the conversation. Magic is afoot.
GK Chesterton once remarked that a unicorn is a creature that looks like it should exist but doesn’t; while a hippo looks like it shouldn’t exist but does. In Ashdown Forest there are wallabies, llamas and miniature deer. Around Gills Lap and the Five Hundred Acre Wood, Milne’s fictional creatures walk (and bound) with us. But only at night in spring and summer does the forest’s most improbable and otherworldly creature stir. The size of a small falcon, the nightjar is a nocturnal bird with reptilian eyes that makes its presence known at dusk with its low, fluttering, lilting churr. According to folklore, anyone who sees one of these “puck birds” cross their path at night with a “devil clap” of its wings, would be well advised to turn on their heels. Such were the days when we viewed nature with suspicion and saw wild places as uncivilised and hostile. Those living outside towns and villages were known disparagingly as heathens – literally, people of the heath.
On warm evenings (or cooler nights with more layers), a bench near the Hollies car park, a few miles from Nutley, offers spectacular sunsets. Save for the odd house there’s little sign of human existence – just hills, forests and heathland as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to believe that London is so close. And that my home in Brighton is closer still.
It was here, one night in early summer, that my partner and I were drawn by the exotic churr of the nightjars. Venturing deep into the heathland we found ourselves surrounded by a trio of these inquisitive birds. Silhouetted like angels in the moonlight they clapped their wings in courtship and danced in the air around us. We were spooked and spellbound. If modernity, city life and progress equate with our “disenchantment of the world” as philosopher Max Weber had it, the flora and fauna of Ashdown Forest may long continue to enchant – and make heathens of us all.
• Accommodation was provided by Forest Garden Shovelstrode, which has bell tents and cabins sleeping five from £295 for two nights.
Pitches at Heaven Farm cost £10 adult, £5 for 5-18s. Bell tents for two at Wild Boar Wood Campsite cost from £77.50 a night