Film review: Pooh should stick to 100 Aker wood
The Lake District belongs to Wordsworth, Dorset to Hardy and Bath has a 10-day Jane Austen festival. Books, buns and bonnets.
Then, of course, there is “Hundred Aker Wood” where a teddy bear and his chum Christopher Robin had gentle adventures. Hundred Acre Wood is part of Ashdown Forest, on the High Weald of Sussex, just off the A22.
Now reduced to about 6,500 acres of open access countryside, the Forest is more heath than woodland.
But with its stands of Scots pines and sandy paths it still has the same magical tranquility as when Winnie-the-Pooh lived there in a tree.
Quite a money-maker, the Pooh books of AA Milne. Coming to a screen near you is Disney’s latest cinematic exploitation, Christopher Robin, where Winnie, Eeyore, Piglet and the gang go up to London to help Christopher, now all grown up.
Christopher is played by Ewan McGregor. Hum. Tiddely-pom. I love London. But sending Pooh off to the capital misses the entire message of Milne’s bear tales.
In 1925, AA Milne, a Londoner seeking escape from London (see what I mean?) bought Cotchford Farm just north of Ashdown Forest (the property was later bought by Rolling Stone Brian Jones). Born in 1882, Milne was of that Edwardian generation who worshipped nature.
Indeed, one reason so many men, including Alan Alexander Milne, volunteered to fight in the Great War was to protect our countryside.
Love of nature was core to their patriotism. When Milne’s fellow Londoner and writer Edward Thomas, the man who penned the poem Adlestrop, was asked why he was fighting, he answered, “Literally, for this”. And picked up a handful of earth. Thomas died for it.
That generation trooped off to the Western Front, saw the horror men inflicted on themselves and nature, and were traumatised.
Milne served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a subaltern. He fought in the bloody, muddy Battle of the Somme.
He later wrote: “It makes me almost physically sick to think of that nightmare of mental and moral degradation.”
Ewan McGregor stars in the Disney movie Christopher Robin
Eventually he was sent home with trench fever and got a job in military intelligence.
After the war, Milne did what millions of British soldiers did; he found relief in the same British countryside which had inspired him to fight.
So accepted in 1918 was the notion that nature could salve war’s mental wounds that the government made smallholdings available for veterans and the National Trust received “The Great Gift” of Lake District peaks for the people of these isles to wander free.
One ex-soldier, Private Henry Williamson, locked himself away in a Devon cottage to write Tarka The Otter, a keystone of British 20th-century nature writing.
Another wrote a series of books celebrating the wonders of an English wood and the innocent joys his son had there playing with his stuffed toys “doing Nothing”.
That author, of course, was Milne and the boy was the real-life Christopher Robin, who played Poohsticks in Ashford Forest on a footbridge across a tributary of the Medway.
When Milne decided to write the Pooh stories his chosen illustrator was EH Shepard, known to all as Kipper.
Like Milne, Shepard had served in the Great War, winning an MC at Passchendaele, and was equally sensitive to nature. Shepard’s shtick as artist was to draw from life, so Milne took him over to Gills Lap in the
Forest, the epicentre of Pooh’s woody world. From this high-up “enchanted” place Milne and Shepard, like Christopher Robin, “could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky”. The site is marked now by a plaque in memorial of Milne and Shepard’s collaboration. And what a collaboration.
For 90 years the Pooh tales have been gateway books to get children hooked on nature.
Look closely at the pages of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House At Pooh Corner (1928). They are full of loving depictions of fauna and flora.
When Winnie-the-Pooh gets stuck in the doorway of Rabbit’s home after eating too much hunny, he is tugged by Christopher Robin with four rabbits, a stoat, a mouse, Piglet, three more mice, and a hedgehog.
Christopher Robin played by Ewan McGregor with his friend Winnie The Pooh
Christopher Robin is in the cinemas from Friday 17 August
Another mouse is scurrying to help, a beetle is landing behind the mouse and aloft are beetles, a dragonfly and a butterfly.
The Pooh books celebrate natural England and a child’s love of the wild places.
The connection between children and nature has corroded in recent decades, just as evidence mounts that outdoorsy escapades are vital for children’s physical and mental health.
Lack of time outdoors manifests itself in Nature Deficit Disorder, to use the term coined by the American writer Richard Louv in Last Child In The Woods.
Sending Pooh on an exciting “Expotition” to London is to send his child followers in exactly the wrong direction and is a betrayal of everything that Milne wanted for all the Christopher Robins of Britain. Taking Pooh out of the woods ends the message, breaks the spell.
Milne was adamant that the Bear with Very Little Brain could never, ever, leave the wood: “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.”
If you go down to Ashdown Forest today, you’ll be sure of a big surprise. Pooh’s not there. He’s gone up to town.
● Christopher Robin is in cinemas from Friday.
John Lewis-Stempel is the author of Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War (£9.99, W&N)
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