Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blasted Heath

Ashdown Forest is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, covering roughly ten square miles, on the higher ground right at the top of East Sussex. Stretching from Hartfield in the north to Maresfield in the south, from Wych Cross in the west to Crowborough in the east, it was originally an enclosed forest that was the preserve of the hunting nobility in the centuries after the Norman Conquest. Commoners were allowed to use the forest to collect vegetation for firewood and animal bedding, and to graze their livestock. Access was not open but was strictly limited via a series of gates, or hatches, that are still seen in existing place names, such as Coleman’s Hatch and Chelwood Gate.

There were constant tensions over Ashdown Forest, as landowners’ attempts to deny access were strongly resisted. This came to a head in the 17th century when the forest was divided, with just under half granted to commoners and the rest falling into private hands. To further protect the land for the people, Parliament introduced legislation in the 19th century and, at the end of the last century, East Sussex County Council obtained the freehold of the remaining common land and established the Ashdown Forest Trust to protect, in perpetuity, one of the largest open public spaces in the south east of England.

The ‘forest’ part of the area’s name is something of a misnomer, however: the areas of woodland are limited and, in the main, Ashdown Forest is not just open in terms of access. Writing in Rural Rides in 1830, the brilliantly acerbic reformer William Cobbett observed, “the forests of Sussex: those miserable tracts of heath and fern and bushes and sand, called Ashdown Forest”. Clearly not a fan, Cobbett is probably not alone in his initial reaction. There can be something of the blasted heath about the place, particularly on a day like yesterday when I was there: a fierce wind and a drop in temperature had turned July into September; but the views across the countryside were spectacular, the sense of space inspiring and kids and dogs ran free and untamed.

Ashdown Forest is probably best known today as the thinly disguised setting of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. The forest’s Five Hundred Acre Wood became the Hundred Acre Wood in Milne’s series of books and many of the landmarks in the stories – the Enchanted Place, Roo’s Sandpit, the bridge where Pooh and Christopher Robin played Poohsticks – can be easily located. Something of a Pooh tourist industry has grown up in Hartfield, the nearest village to Cotchford Farm, Milne’s home when he wrote the tales in the 1920s. Forty years later, the same house would be the scene of the death, from booze and drugs, of ex-Rolling Stone Brian Jones just one month after being booted out of the band for hedonistic excess. There is no Jones memorabilia in the local Pooh-themed gift shops.

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