A wise bear once said, “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most space in your heart.” It’s a sentiment that certainly resonates this week, as an endangered little bridge in a corner of East Sussex receives a flood of support and affection has.
This week the Telegraph reported that the aristocratic owner of the original Poohsticks Bridge may be putting it up for sale to a foreign bidder, possibly just 18 months after buying it for £131,000.
In the late 1920s, AA Milne and his son Christopher often crossed this bridge near their East Sussex home at Cotchfield Farm and it was here they devised a simple but very entertaining game involving a stick, gravity and the current of Pippingford brook under. Poohsticks would make its first appearance in The house in Pooh Corner.
“Trouble,” Pooh says as he accidentally drops a pine cone into a river before seeing it swing under the bridge to the other side.
The crossing, originally Posingford Bridge, was built in 1907 and for many years attracted the attention that should be expected of a bridge in a remote wooded area. However, the bridge grew in popularity after the publication of the Winnie the Pooh books and eventually collapsed under the weight of a thousand tiny steps. When the tape was cut for a sturdier replica in 1999, the remains of the original were quietly brought ashore.
When the original Poohsticks bridge was auctioned in East Sussex in October 2021 containing Five Hundred Acre Wood, the inspiration for One Hundred Acre Wood in the Pooh stories. De La Warr’s father was also good friends with Christopher Robin Milne, and they used to play poohsticks by the sides of that bridge.
“I thought it appropriate for this historic bridge to go back to where it was in the book,” De La Warr said, adding that his motivations for purchasing the bridge in 2021 were “largely sentimental.”
While the bridge stands incongruously away from any water on his private property, he planned to move the bridge to Five Hundred Acre Wood and open it to the public for free, an act of generosity that no one should complain about. However, with a change in financial circumstances, De La Warr said he had no choice but to crowdfund or sell the bridge. If the latter were the case, he believes it would almost certainly go to a foreign bidder at auction.
“I know that [in 2021] Bidder numbers two, three, four, five and six were all overseas,” he said. An American was the second highest bidder and there was also interest from a Bulgarian business owner who wanted to install the bridge in his hotel.
Some say the whole thing is overblown, as the perfectly working replica now stands on the very spot that inspired Milne’s books. The Poohsticks Bridge saga, which I discovered on my last visit to Ashdown Forest, is a bit more complicated than the game rules.
“The Poohsticks bridge that Lord De La Warr bought is not believed to be the original bridge,” said Neil Reed of Pooh Corner, the nearby gift shop and teahouse. “It’s the second or third bridge that has stopped the waterway. It may have a piece or two of wood from the original, but it’s certainly not the original bridge, built in 1907.” Lord De La Warr acknowledged that his bridge has been extensively restored.
“As we see it here, the bridge that has been on the site since the 1990s is now ‘the’ Poohsticks Bridge for today’s generations. Poohsticks Bridge is about both the location and the magic of the bridge itself.
“We hold Lord De La Warr in high esteem,” added Reed. “He’s a lovely person and should he sell or keep him he would find support with us at Pooh Corner.”
If the older Poohsticks Bridge were sold to a foreign bidder, it wouldn’t be the first tourist attraction to be replaced forever with a replica. In 1970, a concrete copy of the Cross of St. John replaced the 8th-century original on the Hebridean island of Iona. Checkpoint Charlie, which you can visit in Berlin today, is not the original. Visit the Lascaux Caves in France and you’ll find a full-size replica, while the real Stone Age carvings are safe and sound in a cave nearby.
“Replicas can ‘work’ for us if we let them,” said Sally Foster, Professor of Heritage and Conservation at the University of Stirling. “There is undeniably something particularly powerful about witnessing replicas in atmospheric locations where the historical original once stood, or very close to it.”
It was an interesting thought, and one I wanted to explore for myself. I parked at the aptly named Pooh Car Park on the edge of Ashdown Forest and walked ten minutes to find the bridge. This wasn’t my first visit. My late grandparents lived just around the corner on the outskirts of Crowborough and when the conditions weren’t right for kite flying on the High Weald moors, they would take me and my brothers for a game of Poohsticks.
We weren’t allowed to watch the TV version of Winnie the Pooh at their house because they couldn’t handle the American accent used for British characters. But why would we even want to watch it when the real characters lived just around the corner?
On the way to the bridge I spotted Owl’s House halfway up a tall tree, and Piglet’s House emerged a little further along the path in the roots of a large trunk marked by a tiny red door. And then the main attraction: a simple bridge over a babbling brook that was in no hurry.
With the chirping of birds and no human noise pollution, this place exudes a quiet picture book magic. You’re in damp woodland here, meaning the towering alders and birches wade in waterlogged pools. I didn’t see another soul until a finely dressed couple on horseback approached from the direction of Cotchfield Farm and trotted across the bridge with a hello – a moment that could almost be lifted off the page.
Shortly after a mother arrived with her son and dog, they got to work, scouring the forest floor for branches that had fallen from the trees (breaking them from branches is a sign politely instructed is not allowed). It’s not always that peaceful, of course. It’s a popular spot with families in the warmer months, and local volunteers have to clear the riverbed of sticks to allow the water to flow freely.
With a Poohsticks bridge already in place and an adorable Pooh path surrounding it, you might be wondering if the Ashdown Forest area really needs another bridge dedicated to the game. Wouldn’t it be confusing to have the original Poohsticks Bridge built in Hundred Acre Wood when there is an existing and very popular Poohsticks Bridge replica a mile or two down ‘the’ spot where it was first played by Milne and His son?
“Anything original has much more historical value than a replica – it’s precious, like a historical monument,” said Lord De La Warr, with almost Pooh-like wisdom but a touch of regret given the circumstances. It’s hard to deny that it would be a great shame if the bridge ended up at an Arizona ranch or Bulgarian hotel resort.
Before leaving the Poohsticks Bridge I saw that the mother and her toddler had successfully found two sticks, the little one clutching his branch with a tight fist and an excited face. They dropped them from one side and then rushed to see the sticks floating below. Maybe in the future this little boy will play Poohsticks with his own grandkids in Ashdown Forest I thought.
Possibly at that exact spot, or maybe on the rickety version a mile down the road (if it’s actually saved), or maybe it’ll be a different bridge entirely. Because while wood rots and bridges come and go, this simple game – and the wisdom of Pooh – will never grow old.
Visit ashdownforest.org for more information about the area, including a list of hikes in the area. The nearest train stations are Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes.