I have brought my daughter for a day out in Ashdown Forest in the hope of getting some sense of what the original wildwood looked like. The first hedges were, of course, created as assart hedges, the remnants of ancient woodland, surrounding clearings in the forest. From the neolithic period onwards, the forests that covered this land were cleared by people undertaking the backbreaking labour of cutting trees down and grubbing out the roots in order to create land that could be farmed.
We spend a pleasant hour or two wandering through mild, sunny woods without finding anything that really fits the bill. Eventually we find one small patch where the trees are dense enough and the undergrowth sufficiently tangled to allow our imaginations to run wild.
We peer into the dark undergrowth where tree branches tangle together with brambles, saplings, brushwood and forest flowers into an impassable wall of vegetation. The notable thing about this kind of woodland is how dark the interior is. There might be the odd trickle of sunlight from the ceiling of the forest, but at ground level it is murky, a miasma of brown, black and grey shadows.
My mother grew up in the dense woods of upstate New York, in a clapboard house with a patch of land amongst the trees. You could walk into the woods and get completely lost for hours at a time. I visited when I was four years old and when we ventured even a short distance into the ‘big woods’ I was always aware of her warnings about rabid animals, quicksand, wild bears, and yellowjacket’s nests. So my strongest memory of those woods is a keen sense of danger.
In the south of England there aren’t many patches of woodland that can create such a sense of isolation and fear. The nearest woodland to me is in patches such as Highgate Wood or Epping Forest. They do contain much that is fascinating from a historical point of view, including ancient earth banks and evidence of coppicing over the centuries. But nineteenth-century woodland management cleared the undergrowth, creating spacious, sanitised woodland that has been depleted of ancient plant species.
However, patches of ancient woodland can still be found in Britain. I once spent a day walking on my own in Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms, a remnant of the Caledonian pine forest. The dense trees made it hard to see any great distance or to navigate, and many of the paths seemed to peter out into nothing. I remember sitting down, listening to the noise of the birds and the rustling of the trees and feeling that I was a frighteningly long way from civilisation.
Ashdown Forest would also once have been a maze of unknown dangers. It is part of the Weald, which was deep woodland, in the valley between the North and South Downs. The Celts, Romans and Saxons had a few roads into the forest to the iron and tile works there, but the rest of the forest was unpopulated except for a few smugglers, highwaymen and other outlaws. It is only in the last two to three centuries that the area was more extensively cleared.
All afternoon I have been scaring my daughter with stories of the wolves, witches, ogres and monsters of folk tales. As we stare into the dark, tangled branches of this patch of forest we try to imagine how our ancestors must have felt as they confronted their primeval fears. It is only a very distant glimpse of the wildwood, but it seems a good moment to cheer things up.
So I point out that this is the Hundred Acre Wood, the real place from which A. A. Milne conjured up his enchanted wood, with its cast of heffalumps, tiggers, rabbits and owls. After a brief period of negotiation, we make our way to the village of Hartfield and on to the Pooh sticks bridge, which still stands nearby.
I used to play Pooh sticks myself when I was her age and our house was a short walk from a bridge over a stream. I’ve played it with her before in local parks, and now we are at the epicentre of the sport we have to gather some twigs for a game.
After a lot of shouting and excitement, I win six games. She wins seven. Then we head off to find somewhere that sells Ribena and chocolate cake.