This story, which appears in the final chapter of A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, will always bring tears to my eyes. Walking into that small, sun-dappled glade as a grown woman, holding my husband's hand, almost felt like coming home.
We were on a pilgrimage of sorts on that cool, sunny September morning. We'd driven down to East Sussex, about 35 miles south of London, to follow in the footsteps of Winnie-the-Pooh, perhaps the world's most famous teddy bear.
It was here in the quiet, forested hills of southern England that Milne wrote and set the adventures of Pooh, Christopher Robin, Piglet, Owl, Eeyore, Rabbit, and, of course, all of Rabbit's Friends and Relations. Having grown up with the stories - like so many millions of others - we wanted to see the place for ourselves.
We started our morning in Hartfield, a cozy little hamlet with two pubs, one church, and one village shop. Milne, who was born in London in 1882, bought a second home in Hartfield in 1925 and came to the area regularly until his death three decades later. His former home isn't open to the public - it isn't even marked - but his influence in the village is palpable.
Our first stop was the Pooh Corner Shop, where you can pick up everything from Winnie-the-Pooh lunchboxes to stuffed-animal versions of Eeyore to little pots of local honey, Pooh's favorite snack. We sat down for a coffee in Piglet's Tea Shop, a sunlit room in the back of the store, and asked the friendly staff for some Pooh-tracking advice.
We'd come to the right place. The Pooh Corner Shop is owned by Mike Ridley, a Pooh fanatic who has devised a guided tour of local Pooh-related sights, with step-by-step directions and relevant excerpts from the Milne stories. We bought a copy of his pamphlet, titled "Two Expotitions to the Enchanted Places" (an "expotition" being Pooh-speak for an adventure), and set off on our way.
Destination No. 1: The Poohsticks Bridge. For those who may need a refresher, Poohsticks is a game, invented by Pooh, in which the participants drop twigs off the upstream side of a bridge, then race to the downstream side to see whose stick floats through first. The original bridge is at the bottom of a wooded hill a couple of miles outside Hartfield, not far from Milne's old farm. Visitors are encouraged to visit the bridge and try their hand at the game.
After a quick drive, we found the right trail and set off into the woods, keeping our eyes peeled for promising-looking twigs as we went. (The area around the bridge itself is usually picked clean, or so we'd been warned.) A mile or so down the trail, we came to the bridge, a simple wooden structure that, like many objects of celebrity, was somewhat smaller than how I'd imagined it. But still, it gave me a little thrill to see it for myself.
Twigs in hand, we took our spots on the upstream side and commenced our competition. The game was remarkably engrossing, even for a couple of thirtysomethings; we ended up playing at least four rounds, plus tiebreakers. (A tip for potential competitors: The secret to winning is "letting your stick drop in a twitchy sort of way," as Eeyore once explained to Tigger.)
We wandered back to the car and set off for the next stop: Ashdown Forest, a 6,000-acre protected area that lies just outside Hartfield. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin, spent many hours wandering through the forest in the 1920s, and it was here that the beloved Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard came for inspiration.
Today, the forest is home to many spots of interest to Pooh fanatics - assuming, that is, that you know where to look. We pulled into a little gravel parking lot at the designated spot and set off on our walk, guide in hand.
We were out of the trees at that point, high up on a windy plateau that offered wide views of the surrounding hills and villages. I squinted against the sun and zipped up my jacket against the autumnal chill.
We set off walking at a good pace, keeping our eyes peeled for our first point of interest, the Enchanted Place, which we encountered at the top of the highest hill. We paused for a good half-hour in that magical little circle of forest but then continued with the walk, as there were plenty of other spots to find.
And find them we did: We saw the Cunning Trap to catch a Heffalump (but that ended up catching Pooh), as well as the Sandy Pit Where Roo Plays, which really is quite sandy. In the bottom of a little valley, we discovered the North Pole (including the spot where Roo fell in), as well as Eeyore's Gloomy Place, which Milne rightly describes as "Rather Boggy and Sad." And looking across to the next hill, we could see the Hundred Acre Wood, which is where Owl lived, in a house with both a bell pull and a doorknocker.
We carried Milne's two most famous books - Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner - with us as we walked, and we enjoyed rereading the stories as we encountered their settings. But even apart from all things Pooh, the area was beautiful in its own right, with its shady streams, quiet forest corners, and fields of windswept purple heather.
At one point, a sudden clearing in the trees revealed a lovely view to the north and west. And there in the middle of the clearing we saw the memorial stone that honors both Milne and Shepard. The stone is placed at the spot where, according to Christopher Robin, who died in 1996, his father liked to pause for a rest and admire the view.
The walk finished and our pilgrimage complete, we passed through Hartfield one last time on our way home. We were pretty hungry by that point, so we stopped for a meal at the Anchor Inn, a 15th-century building just off the village's main street.
It might have been because of all that walking, or maybe it was the sun and wind followed by a hearty meal, but sitting there sipping my soup beside the pub's 500-year-old fireplace, I suddenly found myself in a daydreamy sort of mood.
This would be a lovely place to write, I thought - and I imagined Milne sitting quietly in a corner, scratching away at his notebook as he worked his way through a pint of beer. And then I started to think about Pooh in a nostalgic kind of way, almost missing this comfortable little corner of England before we had even left it.
So I took one of the Pooh books out of my bag and reread that final story, relishing Milne's words one last time, there in the part of the world that had inspired him.
Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh's paw.
"Pooh," said Christopher Robin earnestly, "if I - if I'm not quite - " he stopped and tried again. "Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won't you?"
"Oh, nothing." He laughed and jumped to his feet. "Come on!"
"Where?" said Pooh.
"Anywhere," said Christopher Robin.
So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.