A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A rare day off afforded me (us, actually) to venture somewhere during an afternoon when it didn’t rain continuously. We settled on the Ashdown Forest, an hour’s drive from my corner of south-east London, in East Sussex between Tunbridge Wells and East Grinstead. A perusal of the visitor centre’s maps online led us to choose Walk 11, Chelwood Gate, in the south-west of the Forest.

The area has got the lot: interesting geology, flora and fauna, views, history and literature, being the landscape for Winnie the Pooh’s capers with many recognisable spots. These include Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, Galleons Lap, the Heffalump trap, for example, all of which can be identified.

The walk was beautifully laid out in printable format, with lots of informative text. But it was very difficult to follow; a “narrow path” beside a ditch was actually a wide path that went through a huge puddle – that sort of thing, but we made it around thanks to careful map analysis. In fact, with a compass, a sense of direction and an Ordnance Survey sheet you can pretty much make it up as you go; there are many paths to choose from and the Forest’s inner Pale is open for exploration in a similar way to Knole Park, for example.

What was immediately apparent was just how much rain has fallen this winter; everywhere there were overflowing ponds, gushing streams, seas of mud. You’d think it was Scotland at times. But in fact the Forest, being easily the highest point of the Weald between the North and South Downs does attract far more rainfall than the lower surrounding areas and really does pep up the local rivers, eventually flowing into the Eden and Medway. The high heath and the Pale melds into wooded valley mires where the pines give way to alder and birch, and planks serve as bridges over vigorous streams, alongside some very old looking stone bridges.

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I love how the Forest has its own vocabulary: there are ghylls, hatches, laps … And the names of the car parks are evocative too: Friends, King’s Standing, Roman Road, Goat, and of course Piglets and Pooh.

After we finished with Chelwood Gate (where medieval hero John of Gaunt used to enter for hunting and a home to Howard Macmillan, who once entertained JFK here) we drove a few miles east past Nutley and up onto the highest part of the Forest, to Gills Lap (Galleons Lap in Winnie the Pooh). Up there the views extend over bright yellow gorse for mile after mile in all directions. We walked down to the memorial to AA Milne and EH Shepherd. I felt quite moved, those stories have a real character and a sense of an innocent time that has been lost.

Our final port of call was the 15th-century Anchor Inn in the small village of Hartfield, a cosy labyrinth of a pub that serves two of the finest ales in all England: Harvey’s and Larkins. As we arrived at dusk a barn owl glided across the road in front of us. Then it was back to the smoke to plonk in front of the telly to watch Chelsea beat Liverpool … who would have credited that?

Getting there on public transport: Train to East Grinstead from East Croydon then the 261 or 270 bus seems to be the best option. At East Grinstead the brilliant Bluebell Railway takes day trippers by steam train down to Sheffield Park, south of the Forest. At the moment a landslip caused by rain means trains can’t reach East Grinstead, but there is a bus service from Lingfield. Boring though… so best wait ’til services are restored, hopefully in spring.
Getting there by car: Drive via Keston, Biggin Hill, Westerham, Edenbridge, Cowden and Hartfield on the rather pleasant B2026.

Ashdown Forest – great even on rainy days

Ashdown Forest – great even on rainy days

Just a one-hour drive from south-east London or train journey from London to Tunbridge Wells, Crowborough (nearest station), Uckfield or East Grinstead then bus/taxi/cycle. More info on public transport options here

Further afield than the walks on this site, but not inaccessible from London by train/bus/taxi/bike, is the extraordinary Ashdown Forest (map here) in East Sussex. ‘Forest’ is a misnomer; the word did not originally mean just woodland, it referred to areas where deer were kept for hunting – often in a mixed habitat.

The Ashdown Forest lies on the high weald of sandstone between the chalk of the North and South Downs. It’s a great place for walking – you can wander anywhere, there are few fences and loads of paths. There is scots pine, heather, gorse, rare birds like the dartford warbler, lizards and snakes, many varieties of butterfly, moth and dragonflies. There’s also a lot of history – the area was a favourite hunting ground for Henry VIII (useful for nipping into Hever Castle on the way back too or, if Anne wasn’t in, Bolebrooke Castle), and there was a medieval iron industry in the forest too. On a misty, drizzly, murky day like Monday this week it really resembles parts of Scotland (you wouldn’t be able to see any mountains on such a day anyway).

The pictures here were taken around Gills Lap – a place immortalised by AA Milne in Winnie the Pooh – and Wren’s Warren Valley (Eeyore’s gloomy place in Milne’s stories).

Where to go: Parking is easy in the Ashdown Forest. There are many little car parks from which paths meander off. My favourites are King Standing, Gills Lap, (both off the B2026 from Hartfield and great for high level walks between the clumps of pines), Hollies (off the Nutley Rd near Duddeswell), Lintons (ideal for the Tabell Ghyl walk), and Broadstone (close to the excellent visitors’ centre).

• Mapped walks in the Ashdown Forest from the Ashdown Forest Centre
• Guided walks
• Map of walking routes and carparks
Forest Row bike hire

Near the Ashdown Forest is a flat off-road cycle route called the Forest Way running 6 miles from Groombridge to Forest Row (bikes for hire in Forest Row). Groombridge (home of the superb manor house, gardens and woodland, Groombridge Place) is on a steam train line – the Spa Valley Railway – between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge, on the edge of the Forest.

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