I found myself in the Heffalump Trap the other day. It wasn’t a metaphorical heffalump trap; I hadn’t wandered into a controversy of my own making. It wasn’t even a generic heffalump trap; made by one of the legion of small people who have lived in hope of catching a heffalump. It was the Heffalump Trap; a mere hop and a skip from the Enchanted Place.
Indeed I strode past the Enchanted Place without quite realising it was, enchanted that is, what with the lack of signs and my patently being immune to its magic. The view from Galleon’s Leap was magnificent but, unable to see with other than adult eyes, I marched onwards, somehow expecting something…bigger.
I dragged my four year old through gorse bushes until he was more porcupine than boy, only to find that what I thought was the Lone Pine wasn’t. And when we eventually found the true Lone Pine it seemed, for a fleeting moment, underwhelming.
But, standing in the Heffalump Trap, beneath the pine, it suddenly fell into place. No, not a heffalump. I freed all my heffalumps while still small. Rather I remembered what it was like to be six and for topography and imagination to collide. I remembered how every clump and gully, every path and tree, every twisted branch and weathered stone, would be given its own rich history. I remembered how as children we are able to forge a profound connection with our landscape that somehow, by the time we become adults, many of us have contrived to forget.
Winnie-the-Pooh country, or at least that portion of it around Gill’s Lap (cast by A.A. Milne as Galleon’s Leap) is high, sparse and scrubby. In this part of Ashdown Forest clumps of trees, mostly pine, give way to gorse and heather. The woodland on the lower slopes is of beach. Streams cut deep channels through the clay and ironstone. In contrast to the cosiness of much of the rest of the Sussex Weald the loftiest reaches of Ashdown Forest can, on a cold day, be bleak and windswept.
The High Weald of my own diminutive rampages is some dozen or so miles to the East; cloaked in oak and chestnut. Some of it now lies under water but nearby remain the train tracks, the camps, the special hiding trees that others looked at but didn’t see. We dug up pieces of crashed Spitfires and Messerschmitts. We declared holes in nearby fields to be bomb craters; which, unbeknownst to us, was probably exactly what they were given the number of doodlebugs that dropped on the surrounding parishes. In a time before computers and, with only an hour of children’s TV a day, it set light to my imagination. The fire has never, quite, gone out.
Back at Gill’s Lap we wandered through Roo’s Sandy Pit, and the spirit of Roo was there. We marched off in search of the North Pole and it really was at the very ends of the earth. We jumped across raging streams, swung through woods and only realised we were in Eeyore’s Sad and Gloomy Place when our feet got wet in the bog. Of course Eeyore was sad and gloomy. How else would you feel with wet feet? We decided against thistles for lunch, and rounded off a good morning’s stomp with a well earned session of Pooh-sticks at the very epicentre of world Pooh-stickiness; Pooh-stick Bridge.
But the real power of this Enchanted Place lies in what is not there rather than in what is. There are no rides, no guides, no kitsch plastic renderings of Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore, no low-waged happy people in animal suits, no dismal fast-food. There aren’t even any signs to tell you that you’ve fallen into the Heffalump Trap; no, none of that.
Rather it is powerful because it allows you to see the landscape as A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin and E.H. Shepard saw it. It leaves the mind to supply what the forest’s custodians choose not to. It’s the same power that radio has over television; books over computer games; a pit, a tree and a muddy puddle over a theme park.
And so I am building my own small beloved a tree house with borrowed tools, reclaimed timber, much love and little money, because in a perfect world all small people would have tree houses. And when he makes it his home, starts to explore and comes back with news of hidden castles, secret groves and places where dragons dwell, I will listen and I will believe: because a sense of wonder is a seed that is planted in childhood and because the mind that is able to see wonder in everything is a mind that will create the wonders still to come – those that bring comfort to our lives, feed our imaginations and help us meet the challenges of an as yet undreamed future.
(this piece was written in April)