A visit to…Ashdown Forest

The recent mayoral elections in London may have been a messy and unpleasant affair, but there was an added benefit for us: preschool closed to become a polling station, followed by a bonus inset day, suddenly a glorious four-day weekend beckoned. We won’t get many opportunities like this left once school starts, so we have to grab ’em while we can.

I had been longing to visit Ashdown Forest, the real location which inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, and it being very conveniently a short hop away on the Sussex downs, it was a nice easy long weekend option. 

As it turned out, roadworks in Tonbridge made the ‘nice easy drive’ a nightmare, but we reached our holiday cabin (found via Airbnb, the first time we’d used it since we stayed in in Hastings in 2013) and discovered we were on the edge of a smallholding with views like this: 

– and then we realised it was probably going to all be OK. Going out to see the sheep and chickens in the morning and at bedtime became a fixture, and I felt quite sure I too could easily keep sheep and chickens and live on the side of a valley in Sussex miles from anywhere – well, maybe. There was good 3G reception there and that does count for a lot.

We spent the first afternoon exploring our local patch and only venturing into the nearby town (Heathfield) to pick up food for dinner. The next day, we set out to explore the forest.

My first destination was the legendary, real Poohsticks bridge. We have our own personal favourite Poohsticks places, at Morden Hall Park and in Wales near my parents’, but I’d always dreamed of visiting the real thing.

The bridge is deliberately hard to find – I imagine they don’t want to encourage coach parties – but having missed a turning the first time, we doubled back and found the discreetly signposted car park. 

There were several paths leading into the woods, and again the one leading directly to the bridge only had a very subtle sign indicating that this was the right route. The big girl was keen to have a proper explore, so we took a different path winding in the opposite direction, only to find that it looped back, crossed a field and took us down towards the bridge anyway. 

So we rounded a corner and there it was – 


The stream itself was pretty lazy so playing actual Poohsticks was a rather gentle affair compared to a rushing Welsh stream, but we had a good go at it. Lots of sticks had got stuck, I do wonder if the huge drifts of washed-up sticks get cleared out every so often to avoid a dam building up! 


From there, we drove to the nearby Gill’s Lap, which in the AA Milne books becomes ‘Galleon’s Lap’, Christopher Robin’s Enchanted Place. 

From the signboard at the car park, we could see that there was a circular walk taking in some of the other well-known locations – Roo’s Sandy Pit, Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, etc, but not all these were necessarily accurate to the places Milne had in mind; it was more the case of retro-fitting the key locations from the stories to make a nice child-friendly circular walk.


Unfortunately, we didn’t have the leaflet for the circular walk, and yet again the signposting wasn’t great – plus it was, by then, a very hot day with little shade, so we didn’t go further than the clump of trees on the horizon (above) – the high point of Gill’s Lap.


However even just going this short distance was very satisfying – the atmosphere of Ashdown Forest feels exactly like an EH Shephard illustration come to life. 

It may come as a surprise that so much of the ‘forest’ is actually heathland, but the landscape of gorse, heather, clumps of pine trees and sand beneath the feet is certainly a favourite habitat of mine – nice gentle walking conditions under foot, lovely views, sweet smelling gorse – give me that over a trudge through Forestry Commission plantations any day! 

The lack of shade did deter us from going any further, though, so we beat a retreat to have lunch and in the afternoon went to the Ashdown Forest visitor centre

Here we found the leaflets for guided trails which would have been useful earlier on – and did a circular walk starting from the centre which proved to be a bit of a struggle with the buggy up a steep slope and a big girl increasingly unwilling to walk any further in the heat. As much as I loved it there, I do think Ashdown Forest is somewhere we’d go back to once we’re out of the buggy years – far fewer buggy-friendly trails than we found in the New Forest last year.

The next day was spent in a more leisurely fashion travelling on the beautiful Bluebell Railway – another place of childhood dreams, with dinky little private compartments making you feel you’re on your way to Hogwarts, and if you peer out the window (not too far, boys and girls!) the sight of real steam puffing out of the engine. 


Not to mention all the glorious retro and vintage signs which adorn the stations along the way – 


The line ends (or begins, depending on which way you go), at Sheffield Park, a National Trust garden near Uckfield. We had a few hours to kill after our lunch before the return train, so we explored the grounds laid out by Capability Brown.


To be honest, masses of carefully tended rhododendrons and artfully arranged vistas of trees are not really my thing, although there was a proper wild area with bluebells that had just finished flowering, but there were some undeniably lovely views.


We finished the weekend in the best possible way, by the seaside at dear old Birling Gap which never fails to impress:


The slog of a drive back to London was the only really unpleasant prospect, not to mention returning to a stuffy house which had sweltered for 4 days with the windows shut, but we counted ourselves lucky; based on what’s come since, those 4 days appear to be the main summer we are getting this year! At least we can say, we made the most of them.

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The Battle of the Bluebells

You can keep your Wars of the Roses, it’s all been about the battle of the bluebells here. 

I’ve seen plenty of garden bluebells everywhere (more on them, later), but it seems like years since I’d seen proper swathes of woodland bluebells and I longed for them – in spite of the rather muddy time we’d had seeing snowdrops, I didn’t want to miss out on bluebells this year.

So, on an unexpectedly warm day we set off to Emmetts Garden in Kent, described as one of the best places to see bluebells locally. It is a gorgeous spot on the downs – the description of a ‘hillside garden’ doesn’t do it justice, more of a rolling downland meadow and woodland glade which just happens to have a formal garden attached to it too.

We wandered through the shrubberies and past empty rose gardens and rockeries that were clearly not at their best yet – all this the preamble to the main event. 

The bluebell woods were on the far side of the hill, below the tea room and picnic area, and approaching them from above, the full glory wasn’t immediately apparent, then we rounded a corner and finally got the full intensity of blueness I’d been craving. 


Knowing that blue is generally thought to be a calming colour, I wondered if that was why people love bluebell woods so much – a small patch of bluebells in a garden or a roadside may be pleasing, but the full visual effect of blue stretching as far as the eye can see must have a positive effect on the brain, surely? 


The only place I can remember which delivers that same intensity of blueness was the Sanctuary of Dom Bosco, an amazing church in Brasilia with blue stained glass floor to ceiling – a rather exotic comparison, I’ll grant you, but if you like blue as much as I like blue, well, you’d like it there, trust me.

The woods were not only full of blue, though: starry little wood anemone peeped through the bluebells, and here and there we spotted white bluebells, which I’d never seen before – 


The bluebell walk finished at a viewpoint where you could suddenly, out of nowhere, see for miles – here we sat down, with the sun on our faces, and soaked it all in. 

There was a longer trail from that point down into the woods below, and the temptation to just keep walking on and on into the trees was very strong, but on the other hand, if we went back to the cafe we could have tea and cake.


When we got home, I went out to the garden to photograph my own bluebells, and here you can really see the difference between the British (above) and Spanish (below) varieties.


The British flower is a much deeper blue, and bends over daintily – and what the picture can’t capture (and I had quite forgotten) is the heady, intense smell of them. 

The Spanish garden variety are much paler, with more individual florets on the upright flower stalk, and have no scent. In the battle of the bluebells, there’s no comparison, is there, really? Nothing beats that lovely, deep, rich blue, and I’m so glad I had the chance to see it this year.

A couple of weeks on, our garden bluebells are all over, and tonight I had the joyless task of (yet again) pulling up every single one before they become brown mush. 

If I can face it, next week’s task is to dig out as many bulbs as I can to clear some space for new plants, but I know the Spanish bluebells will march on, and maybe increase their territory next year. I will just have to keep going back to the woods to get my fix of the real thing, then.

Let it snow, let it sleet, let it hail…

This weekend, it felt like a door opened just a crack and we got a tiny glimpse of Spring, what a real spring day feels like. I actually sat out in the sunshine for two consecutive days. I can’t think when that last happened!

Up until Saturday, the week had delivered snow and sleet on Tuesday, hail on Wednesday and thunder and lightning too, then more hail on Friday. And yet, thanks in part to all the rain (and the lack of really cold weather, despite the snow flurries), Spring marches on – the leaves are out, flowers are blooming, we’ve seen birds gathering nesting material. It just hasn’t felt like Spring up until now.

On one of the sunny early April days which was much colder and windier than it ought to have been, I had a chance to revisit one of my favourite local open gardens. The site is on one of the loveliest roads in Herne Hill, in fact the very one I walked up many years ago to visit the Velodrome for the first time – and thought to myself ‘some day I’d like to live round here’. 

Well, I never made it as far as moving to Herne Hill, but I’m close enough, and it is certainly a pleasure to be able to return to this particular garden. 


It has a fantastic wild area at the bottom – great inspiration for how my birch tree might look in a few years, if I can persuade anything to grow under it!


And a very palatial looking bug hotel, with child beside it for scale.  This puts me to shame as I have made no attempt to create a bug hotel at home and there is no excuse, I’m sure I can find some way of cobbling one together.


In terms of plant inspiration I was spoilt for choice – gorgeous Yellow Archangel (top) with its deceptively nettle-like leaves, but so much more glamorous than the ordinary varieties of dead-nettle, the dainty fritillaries (bottom) which are probably far too delicate to survive in my garden right now, and in the middle, something I have discovered the name of but promptly forgotten: forget-me-not flowers but with the lovely heart-shaped leaves, very striking and definitely a plant that’s going on my list for the shady garden patch. (They have it in the local garden centre, so at some point I will buy some and hopefully remember the name….).


The garden also has lovely sculptural features – box balls next to a bird bath on a plinth, a rusty wire mesh fox (does it keep away the real ones I wonder?) and stone birds next to, um, a giant egg. 

I also really liked the use of wood and gravel here – another idea I’ve been mulling over is whether to put more gravel around some of my more drought-ridden areas, to try and keep weeds down and help disguise some of the bare patches of soil that plague me.

I have been keeping an eye out for other pretty things, too, and it is possible, if you look only at the pictures taken on nice sunny days, to imagine we really have had a spring after all. 

We had a sunny (but briskly cold) afternoon at the Horniman museum, and I was keen to see how their formal beds had been planted this year – and I wasn’t disappointed! 

The whole series of beds had been planted with pink, blue AND white forget-me-nots (White ones! Who knew?), with dark burgundy tulips dotted like sentinels throughout. 

The effect was charming and haphazard up close, but a seriously spectacular view when you look down the full length of the beds – patchwork of flowers so dense you could hardly see a bare space. And whilst tulips have never been a real favourite of mine, here they add some height and drama to an otherwise very pretty, delicate forget-me-not patchwork.

If the good weather is here to stay for a while, I will keep my eyes peeled for more inspiration – in the mean time, this lot have given me plenty of ideas to be going on with!