Many literary pilgrims ramble in the footsteps of their textual heroes, or the writers who set words down on the page—maybe packing into an Alabama courthouse to see a play based on To Kill a Mockingbird, or getting a little misty-eyed when they pop into the sleepy town of Chawton, England, to pay their respects at Jane Austen’s writing desk. But some bibliophiles with a flâneur streak don’t follow the path tromped by a human character, but an ursine one.
For years, fans of A. A. Milne’s portly little pal Winnie-the-Pooh have flocked to the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England, a landscape that inspired the gang’s Hundred Acre Wood. Milne and his family purchased a home in the idyllic countryside in the 1920s, and the stories about the bear and his motley buddies draw heavily on the surroundings, as well as the adventures of the author’s son, Christopher Robin Milne. “Pooh’s Forest and Ashdown Forest are identical,” Christopher Robin Milne wrote in his memoir. The younger Milne fondly recalled family outings in the outdoors, “the four of us in single file threading the narrow paths that run through the heather.” Those walks through the quiet woods “made us feel that it was our Forest,” he wrote, “and so made it possible for an imaginary world—Pooh’s world—to be born within the real world.” Scores of modern visitors collapse that distance between fiction and imagination by downloading a self-guided walk that winds a few miles through Pooh’s environment.
Then, at the end of April 2019, some of the landscape went up in flames. On April 28, a blaze tore through more than 37 acres (or 15 hectares), according to the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. “The fire took hold quickly and was significant,” said Andrew Gausden, an incident commander, in a statement. Several crews reported to the scene to douse the fire, which made quick work of dry bracken. This fire followed two that broke out in February, when a planned burning sparked out of control, Smithsonian reported. The fire department has not yet revealed what caused the most recent blaze.
The recent fire might have been lethal for some of the real-world creatures that walk, flit, or slither through the woods, but Chris Sutton, an Ashdown Forest ranger, told BBC that the overall prognosis seemed promising. “All is not lost,” he said. “Within four weeks we’ll have grass growing, and in six months you probably won’t know too much has gone on here.”
On Facebook, the Ashdown Forest Centre reported that the area that comprises the Pooh walk “was unaffected by the fire and is still open to the public.” And while the woods recover, fans can also skitter their eyes over a charming old map of the Hundred Acre Wood, imagining walking the banks of the wending “floody place” and skipping across the smattering of “big stones and rox”—but maybe avoiding Eeyore’s moping grounds, labeled “rather boggy and sad.” Pooh pilgrims can also leave the woods and go say hello to the little plush menagerie that started it all: The threadbare stuffed animals that once belonged to Christopher Robin Milne and helped to inspire the classic now live in the New York Public Library’s Children’s Center. Another option: Stopping by the remains of a little tree stump in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that awaits Pooh’s return. (Years ago, Rabbit and Piglet had nearby nooks, too.) Imagination has a wonderful way of taking root wherever it’s planted.