Of all the days on the trip, the one that meant the most to me was visiting the actual forest where A. A. Milne's young son would set off for his imaginary adventures with his real-life stuffed animals: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo. The Milnes acquired Cotchford Farm in East Sussex as a holiday home in 1925, when their only child, Christopher Robin, was five years old. It was in nearby Ashdown Forest that Milne set the bedtime stories he told Christopher Robin and his faithful bear, Pooh, every night. So it was to Ashdown Forest that we headed for our visit to the Hundred Acre Wood.
The forest is completely unspoiled, "unimproved," uncommercialized, and, on the day we visited, very muddy. There is a small, charming Pooh's Corner gift shop in the nearby village, but the forest itself wears its fame lightly. There is one sign pointing the way to the Poohsticks bridge; there is a plaque in Milne's honor at the top of the forest. But there are no recreations of the houses of the animal characters, except for an Eeyore house here and here, made by visitors.
The twenty-four students trooped along to the bridge to play Poohsticks: the game that involves dropping sticks from one side of the bridge and then looking over the other side to see which stick emerges first as the winner. I had read in a guidebook that it isn't respectful to the site to denude it of every available stick, so I brought sticks with me from the DePauw campus in Indiana, the sticks I'm clutching here.
Our guide, Simon, asked where I had gotten the sticks, and when I told him "Indiana," he was flabbergasted. "You're pulling my leg!" "You have to be kidding!" "Really?" I guess we were a little more zealous than most of his visitors.
And so we played, and I hope it isn't bragging too much to inform you that in the round I entered, my stick did win. (Fatter sticks tended to prove victorious). You can't see my stick here, so you'll have to take my word for it.)
Our next stop was Gills Lap, Galleons Lap in The House at Pooh Corner, the very top of the forest.
There we peered into the heffalump trap (my colleague Tiffany's daughter, Rebecca, pictured here).
And there we entered, with hushed voices, the Enchanted Place, where Christopher Robin says goodbye to Pooh at the end of the second book:
Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out "Pooh!"
"Yes?" said Pooh.
"When I'm--when-- Pooh!"
"Yes, Christopher Robin?"
"I'm not going to do Nothing any more."
"Well, not so much. They don't let you."
Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.
"Yes, Christopher Robin?" said Pooh helpfully.
"Pooh, when I'm--you know--when I'm not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?"
"Will you be here too?"
"Yes, Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be, Pooh."
"That's good," said Pooh.
"Pooh, promise you won't forget about me, ever. Not even when I'm a hundred."
Pooh thought for a little. "How old shall I be then?"
Pooh nodded. "I promise," he said.
Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh's paw. "Pooh," said Christopher Robin earnestly, "if I--if I'm not quite" he stopped and tried again --"Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won't you?"
"Oh, nothing." He laughed and jumped to his feet. "Come on!"
"Where?" said Pooh.
"Anywhere," said Christopher Robin.
So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.