The Hundred Acre Woods series: post 1

 “It was a rather gloomy day, for a rather bright idea…”

November, 2018. It’s high-time to take advantage of scientific meetings, at a level a bit more than in the past, and I have something more specific and special in mind for my autumnal trip to England. The normal sight-seeing and wandering will occur, of course, along with a day visiting – a stark change from the usual solo travels – with a previous co-visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge, and all surrounding the British Mycological Society’s annual autumnal meeting that I will present at. I still have some pounds I took with when I moved away during a ‘snow storm’ of the southern-British variety late February of 2018 (we Midwesterners in the States would not have blinked twice at such paltry accumulations, especially when reaching the end of winter; the southern US would, however), though no longer a residence permit or rental lease, so I think of this trip as more likely close to a last than a continuance.

Figure 1. There are no exits in London, I have been led to believe, though you need not worry: there is always a way out.

Already I am looking forward to returning to London and to wandering around the streets, taking in people and stores, pausing for café treats, a museum, a book store that I will become enthralled and lost within (English language books are never so abundant elsewhere as they are in their native ranges). Most of my goals are rather trivial to those other than me: a walk in a park with a morning coffee, if I am able to get into London-proper at that hour. At the grocery store, I will smile to see that ‘biscuits’ refer to, as we say in the States, ‘cookies’ (and not to the ones served with gravy for breakfast), and during transit via the Tube, I will be amused that there still seems to be no ‘exit’, instead only a ‘way out’ (Fig. 1). Some time along the river might be nice, as well as some contemplation of the history of the city. Just some simple things which I used to partake in on weekend day trips in from Cambridge last year. I will, actually, miss that I cannot go back to ‘home version Cambridge 2017-2018’, in the way we can all miss good parts of the past where we have spent enough time. 

There is something else, too, on my mind that harkens back to my childhood and those of many others, across generations and with varied media forms, but originating with books. For example, as a girl, I would wake up early on Saturday mornings because the first cartoon shown on antenna-TV (as early as 6:30 am) was a favorite, though not one to shout loudly about at school after the third grade. The years after it was removed from TV syndication, video rental stores were in their boom, so that I would sneak over after school, certain again to not confess – even to my closest of friends – the VHS tapes that I had just rented. Even exposing their labels to the store clerk would redden my cheeks.

However, I really, really loved watching them: the bear was a bit annoying at times, and so clueless. The little pig could be far too anxious and paranoid, though very nice. The kangaroo matched too much to mother-gender stereotypes for me to appreciate fully (others could better), except she also was nice and reasonable, I thought. The tiger really could get on my nerves, as could the know-it-all owl who really knew-almost-nothing, but never stopped talking; neither paid attention to the others, it seemed, and that irked me. The rabbit was grouchy and sort-of selfish, although if someone was always stealing my carrots while someone else gratuitously ate all my honey, I might not be much different in attitude. I liked the donkey despite his whining, though it could get to be a bit much. Just fix the tail with something more lasting!

Figure 2. Books, movies, TV shows, and subsequent video games (the one I played pictured) about Winnie the Pooh’s adventures were enough to turn me – and many others – into a grinning kid again when I visited the real place, wandering the ‘Hundred Acre Woods’ despite gloomy, cool November weather. The computer game shown was, by the way, high-tech at the time; just look at the pixelated imagery and the interactive gamebook-like options as proof!

There was even a video game back when command-line computers were connected to clunky, blinking monitors, and the novelty was that they became available in color (instead of neon green or white). I was never savvy with them, but I could press the number and arrow keys after someone booted up the game for me (Fig. 2). I grew up early thinking about the map of the forest, learning north as up, east as right, and so on. The fog could cause a player to become completely lost in the forest, as could a bounce from Tigger, so frustrating!

Why bring this up, however?

Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that most of the animals lived in holes in or at the base of trees (Fig. 3), else a burrow into the ground. There was vegetation surrounding them, they played with wooden sticks and crossed rivers.

Figure 3. In these clips from ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’ movie, Pooh (left) is walking against a fierce wind from his home — in what is most likely the base of a beech tree (something of interest for these posts) — and is about to hop across the page to continue the story. One can further see, not much longer into the movie (right), how strong the wind was that day, in the Hundred Acre Woods, when even the book’s letters are blowing right off the film screen along with the leaves (right)! Images of video clips from YouTube searches of the movie.

The second thing to keep in mind: I just spent five years analyzing fungal data that includes those from the United Kingdom. I even lived in Cambridge for a short time. Despite minor linguistic differences (Fig. 1), I understand the language enough to reference the necessary material for such a project.

Third, the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Woods does really exist, though that specific location is called differently, and is a parcel of the entirety that is Ashdown Forest; I’ll soon explain further.

Finally, I thought it may be fun to visit there, never having found the time earlier when I actually lived in the UK, and to connect up ecological information and accuracy, inclusive of the fungi in the “forest”, to those One Hundred Acres so many of us, across generations, feel we grew up with, even in lands far away.

The Victoria and Albert Museum had an exhibit on Winnie the Pooh the year I lived in Cambridge, lucky me, and from this the fact that the land actually existed came into my knowledge. While geared to the youth, nonetheless my interest was sparked via the drawings and information that were provided in the exhibit. It was while staring at the sketches (Fig. 4) that I began to consider the fungi and natural ecology of the area. I thought right away to the fungal data I had been working with… to the ecology and natural history of the locations… Subsequent online searches helped fill in the remaining gaps. There are even books, I have now learned, of others who were curious like me; certainly, Winnie the Pooh – and its originations – have touched the hearts of many of us.

Figure 4. Eeyore lived in a damp, foggy heathland with shrubs but few trees (left). Piglet, on the other hand, lived within a hollow in a beech tree, in a woodland (middle). The habitats that Pooh and his friends lived in, thus, were varied (right). See the next post for further ecological explanation.

The ‘One Hundred Acre Wood series,’ as I term these posts, are formatted into five parts:

1. This post, on the rational and starting logistics regarding actually visiting the One Hundred Acre Wood: “It was a rather gloomy day for a rather bright idea…

2. The next post, where the natural history and general ecology of the area is explained with reference to the Pooh stories, characters, and their homes: “It seems that a forest may not always be what it may seem

3. Combining a childhood fondness for a cartoon with an adult’s ecological interests, I next found a reason to check out the UK fungal records data, along with available online resources, to prepare myself, mycologically-speaking, for my visit: “Fungi of the Hundred Acre Wood” (sorry, still preparing the post)

4. During the trip to the Hundred Acre Wood, I share my experiences in reference to the ecological relevancy of some of the organisms that I encountered (no heffalumps or woozles): “It only rains inside the woodland, not in the heathland” (sorry, still preparing the post)

5. A final, fifth post on how the forest has likely changed since the books of Winnie the Pooh (especially related to vegetation dynamics and major disturbances). Speculation into global change consequences, how to mitigate anthropogenic influence and which forms should be, i.e., the role of land management and how the forest is managed: “Preservation and change: potential futures of the Hundred Acres” (sorry, still preparing the post)

Now, onto starting logistics of visiting the One Hundred Acre Wood:

Via web searches, one can find almost immediately that the One Hundred Acre Wood is part of Ashdown Forest, this ‘forest’ being a Norman-based terminology reflecting royal hunting preserves, rather than the mixture of woodland and heathland that comprises it. It means it’s been fairly protected, though managed for game and human use, across many centuries. Like many natural lands, there are scatterings of towns and private land that parse Ashdown Forest into different components, though most of the common land is contiguous between parts. I have read that public footpaths connect much of the forest; keep within gated boundaries and all should be fine.

Finding information on visiting the One Hundred Acre Wood is easiest for those with automotive transportation. There are already really great sites to help you out (start here, here, and to many news articles via web searching). Essentially, hop in the car, drive to there, step out, and walk about a bit. Get back in the car, drive there, step out, walk about a bit. Take a photo or two. Strategically place the kids over there… and… smile!

However, it is perhaps more fun on foot – what a true adventure it turns into, I can promise you! The only thing to worry about is scheduling for breaks, though with strategic stops at cafés and train stations, it is entirely possible. More on this in the fourth post, “It only rains inside the woodland, not in the heathland” (if the link doesn’t work, sorry, I am still preparing the post).

The town closest to Pooh-related components of Ashdown Forest is Hartfield. There is a café there, Pooh Corner, serving tea and edibles, offering nearly all Pooh-related merchandise for sale, and also providing informative walking and driving instructions. Ashdown Forest also supplies a map and summary information for a small fee. Through online material and/or the maps, one can begin to understand that the Pooh-related components can be divided into two to three walks, and these divisions differ a bit between sources.

I separated them into three potential walks: the first starts at Chuck Hatch Lane (Pooh Car Park) and goes north to Pooh Bridge (and if walking from Hartfield, one comes in from the north). The second and third (considered the same in the Ashdown Forest map) can start at Gills Lap Car Park; head straight north on foot from there, leading to the Memorial, Heffalump trap, Sandy Pit, etc. Adjacent but across the road from the car park, that is, east and a little north, is Eeyore’s domain, along with the North Pole. If continuing south on foot from the first walk, there is a path one takes past Wrens Warren Car Park; while walker-friendly, it will take substantial time, so if truly on foot (as I was), this needs to be timed according to the transportation link back north in Hartfield. It seems weekend busses make this an easier trip, though likely busier; I visited during the week so cannot speak more than what I saw online regarding that.

The land itself is not, I am glad to report, a tourist-trap for Winnie the Pooh fans; it is the natural land, publicly available via footpaths, that spurned the imaginations of a boy, his caretakers, creative artists, and, later, countless of audiences. What is fun about the visit is to understand this; while there are small props scattered about that help one to visualize the stories, consider that really it is the echoes of childhood laughter and imaginations, dragging along stuffed animals on outdoor excursions, and the ability to turn fun from simplicity, that has made the land so special (along with the ecological relevancy, as I shall next explain; soon if not quite yet, i.e., if the link doesn’t work quite yet).