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A.A. Milne Biography And Visits

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The Enchanted Place, Gill's Lap, Ashdown Forest

The nineteenth century was a time of rationality. Myths and beliefs which had shaped the world for generations were being superceded by an increasingly scientific world view. This caused a reaction. The nineteenth century had a craze for spiritualism, table turning, hypnotism. Nature was idealised, becoming a kind of lost Eden. One of the most powerful manifestations of this reaction was the idealisation of childhood. Up until the nineteenth century children had not been regarded as important. No one was interested in what they thought or did. Not even the childhood of kings was recorded in any detail. The nearest thing to children's literature were traditional rhymes. But this was to change in the nineteenth century. The imagination of children seemed a perfect antidote for an increasingly scientific outlook. Writing for children has its origins in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Charles Kingsley wrote his best known book, The Water Babies in 1863. In The Water Babies Kingsley has his hero Tom, a young chimney sweep, looking for a wonderful place called Vendale, which is "a quiet, silent, rich happy place; a narrow crack cut deep in the earth, so deep and out of the way, that the bad bogies can hardly find it". This Eden is a place like the idealised natural gardens of the time. In this way the two major fanciful reactions to the modern age, childhood and nature, were combined. This kind of combination was also to be found in the work of one of the most successful children's author of all - Alan Alexander Milne.

 

 

 

Hampstead Heath

Alan Milne was born on 18th January 1882 in Hampstead, London. The huge idealised garden of Hampstead Heath was close by. Alan, the youngest of three brothers, was allowed considerable freedom, and Hampstead Heath was the scene of many games and adventures. Many holidays were taken in countryside surrounding London. Alan, who attended his father's school of Henley House, wrote in the school magazine in 1891 of a walking tour in East Sussex, which included a visit to Ashdown Forest. Alan, however, was also a very studious child, a child prodigy in many ways. He could write well by the time he was five and would read any book he could get his hands on. If he saw his older brothers with homework Alan would want to join in. His father wrote in a 1928 memoir of trying to produce a timetable with obligatory periods for play built into it. The playtime only made Alan unhappy, and had to be scrapped (The Precocious Child, Evening Standard 6th January 1928. Quoted in The Brilliant Career of Winnie the Pooh by Anne Thwaite P16 - 17).

In 1892, pen portraits of school characters in the Henley House school magazine, included this one of Alan Milne:

"He does not like French - does not see that you have proved anything when you have done. Thinks mathematics grand. He leaves his books about; loses his pen; can't imagine what he did with this and where he put that, but is convinced it is somewhere. Clears his brain when asked a question by spurting out some nonsense and then immediately gives a sensible reply. Can speak 556 words a minute, and writes more in three minutes than his instructor can read in thirty. Finds this a very interesting world, and would like to learn physiology, botany, geology, astronomy and everything else. Wishes to make collections of beetles, bones, butterflies, etc, and cannot determine whether algebra is better than football or Euclid than a sponge cake." (Quoted Thwaite P 15)

Westminster School followed Henley House, where it seems Alan Milne's appetite for learning dimmed somewhat. His restlessness now seemed unable to decide what to settle on. Milne said of Westminster School: "If only I had been taught this, that and the other instead." Milne now started to write light verse, and when he went up to Trinity College Cambridge in the autumn of 1900, he became editor of the humorous Granta magazine. Milne quite naturally it seems was experiencing his own reaction against the rational age, a reaction which expressed itself in humour and jokey poetry. This continued after leaving Trinity in a career as a journalist working on Punch magazine. It was through Punch that Milne was to meet his wife. In 1913 Milne was invited to the 21st birthday party of Dorothy de Selincourt, god-daughter of Punch, editor Owen Seaman. They married in 1913, but it wasn't until after the First World War, in which Milne served as a signals officer that a son would come along who would inspire what would become some of the world's best known children's stories.

 

Ashdown Forest - Sandy Pit Where Roo Plays

Milne had started writing plays during the war. Plays such as The Romantic Age, Mr Pim Passes by, and The Dover Road provided a good income, paying the bills at the Milne household at 11 Mallord Street, Chelsea (now renumbered 13). It was here on 21st August 1920 that Christopher Robin was born. His father had no particular plans to write for children, but in 1923 he was asked to contribute poetry to a children's magazine called The Merry-Go-Round, edited by Rose Fyleman. On holiday at Plas Brondanw in Wales, Milne had a go, and by the time his holiday was over he had written about a quarter of the poems which were to eventually appear in When We Were Very Young. Once it became clear that there was enough material for a book, E.H. Shepherd who Milne knew from Punch was hired to provide illustrations. When We Were Very Young was published on 6th November 1924, and was, to the author's amazement, a huge hit. With more money available, the family now bought a second home at Cotchford Farm, near Hartfield on Ashdown Forest. From this time onwards there were many trips back and fore between Chelsea and Hartfield. And it was Ashdown Forest which gave Milne the setting for his next children's book which was to appear in 1926 as Winnie The Pooh. In this story the two elements which Kingsley had put together in the 1860s, idealised childhood and idealised nature, once again met. In the face of an urban and scientific age we now had a childhood kingdom based on Ashdown Forest, presided over by a bear of very little brain. In 1929 Milne was to write of this kingdom of childhood:

"Darwin, or somebody, compared the world of knowledge to a circle of light. The bigger the circumference of the light, the bigger the surrounding border of darkness waiting to be lit up. A child's world of imagination is not like that. As children we have explored it from end to end, and the map of it lies buried somewhere in our hearts, drawn in symbols we have forgotten."

Ashdown Forest - the Enchanted Place is the clump of trees in the centre on the brow of the hill. Eeyore's Sad and Boggy Place is in the valley in the middle ground

The apparent certainties of science had thrown up new uncertainties. Instead of a universe comfortably limited by religious beliefs, people now faced a universe which was unsettlingly vast. Sanctuary from this could be found in the Hundred Acre Wood. This was a world that was known from end to end. Being a child's self centred world the Hundred Acre Wood encapsulated everything. Even the north pole could be reached with a bit of a walk. There simply was nothing else beyond the vaguely defined borders of the forest. There was no other knowledge, which in the last sentences of the final Pooh book, The House at Pooh Corner (1928) is described as knowledge of suction pumps and what comes from Brazil. But as in the changing real world, this situation cannot last. Discoveries are made and doubt comes in. The House at Pooh Corner tells the story of a child growing up and away from his toys. Soon the world of Ashdown Forest where everything is known will be gone. There is a moment of goodbye in a clump of trees at the top of the forest, called Galleon's Lap, an enchanted clump of trees, based on a clump of trees high on Ashdown Forest calls Gill's Lap. As the following passage makes clear, in Galleon's Lap there is nothing and nowhere else:

 

 

 

 

View From Gill's Lap

"They walked on, thinking of This and That, and by-and-by they came to an enchanted place on the very top of the Forest called Galleon's Lap, which is sixty-something trees in a circle; and Christopher Robin knew that it was enchanted because nobody had ever been able to count whether it was sixty-three or sixty-four, not even when he tied a piece of string round each tree after he had counted it. Being enchanted, its floor was not like the floor of the Forest, gorse and bracken and heather, but close-set grass, quiet and smooth and green. It was the only place in the Forest where you could sit down carelessly, without getting up again almost at once and looking for somewhere else. Sitting there they could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky, and whatever there was all the world over was with them in Galleons lap." (From An Enchanted Place)

Ashdown Forest today is much as it was when A.A. Milne lived there. Visitors can see Roo's Sandy Pit, Eeyore's Sad and Boggy Place, the Lone Pine, Pooh Sticks Bridge, and of course the Enchanted Place at Gills Lap. In Hartfield, the sweet shop which Christopher Robin used to visit with his Nanny is now Pooh Corner, selling an extensive range of Pooh Bear memorabilia. See Ashdown Forest for more information.

 

 

 

Christopher Robin's bookshop in Dartmouth, Devon

A.A. Milne never again found what he stumbled upon with his Pooh Bear stories. He came to resent the way he was typecast as a children's writer. In his Autobiography of 1930 he devoted only seven pages, out of a total of over two hundred, to the books that made him famous. Christopher Robin also came to resent his father's books. When he went to Stowe School his background as Christopher Robin, the famous little boy who inhabited a fantasy world did not help him. Christopher tried to escape the Hundred Acre Wood by becoming a bookseller in Dartmouth.

A.A. Milne died in February 1956. Christopher Robin Milne died in April 1996. He ran a bookshop in Dartmouth for many years, called the Harbour Bookshop. Sadly this shop closed in 2011.

Christopher's original toys, Pooh, Kanga, Eeyore, Tigger and Piglet are on display at the Donnell Library Centre in New York. A black bear named Winne, who Christopher Robin met on a visit to London Zoo in 1926 was also part of the inspiration for Pooh. A memorial to Winnie can be seen at London Zoo.

 

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©2008InfoBritain (updated 08/11)