May is National Walking Month, an annual event encouraging all of us to stretch our legs. In East Sussex, with hundreds of miles of footpaths and spectacular landscapes, we are spoilt for choice. One fantastic walking option is the amazing Ashdown Forest in Wealden. Its natural beauty has not always been appreciated, however…
“Verily the most villainously ugly spot I saw in England.”
These are blunt, uncompromising words. You’d be forgiven for thinking the author was describing some blighted and scarred post-industrial landscape. But no, William Cobbett, the famous chronicler of life in the English countryside, was in fact describing the Ashdown Forest!
The year was 1822 and Cobbett was on one of his very many horseback rides exploring and recording the landscape around him. I don’t know if he was in a particularly bad mood that day or if the weather was being unkind, but it is hard to reconcile the countryside he described so unkindly as the same amazingly beautiful forest we know and love.
It even makes me wonder if Cobbett was using a few shortcuts in his musings about the English countryside. Maybe he trusted someone else’s ill-informed opinion, or even just made it up all together?
Deer hunting forest
Fortunately, few share Cobbett’s lack of enthusiasm for this corner of East Sussex. Ashdown Forest near Uckfield and Crowborough traces its history back to Norman times when it was a deer hunting forest. Henry VIII loved it as one of his favourite spots for falconry and hunting. It is now one of the largest free public access spaces in the Southeast and a great place for walking and enjoying spectacular views over the Sussex countryside. Of course, it is also known the world over as the ‘home’ of Winnie-the-Pooh.
To describe it as a “forest” is actually misleading. It does contains areas of woodland, but nearly two thirds of its 6,500 acres are heathland a rare and protected landscape. The forest, loved by walkers, wildlife enthusiasts, dog walkers and horse riders, is at the heart of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and has national and international protection because of its wildlife. It’s one of the few places in England, for example, that you can spot and hear a Dartford Warbler.
But it’s for being the home of Winnie-the-Pooh that the forest has properly secured international fame. In 1925 AA Milne, Christopher Milne’s father, bought Cotchford Farm, in Hartfield and although still living in London, the family would spend weekends, Easter, and summer holidays there. The place became the inspiration for the Pooh stories.
In all seasons Ashdown Forest is one of my favourite spots. Spring unleashes so much life, summer brings warm sunny walks with wide-ranging views across the Weald and towards the South Downs, Autumn’s early morning mists and golden bracken are magical, while the forest develops a whole new identity when gripped by Winter’s frosty grip.
If you haven’t already discovered this marvellous corner of East Sussex, once described by a national newspaper as one of the best kept secrets of the Southeast, I would urge you to pull on your walking boots this National Walking Month and explore the Ashdown Forest. I am convinced you will come away trusting AA Milne’s judgement rather than the baffling criticism of Cobbett.