View looking north over Ashdown Forest not far from Pines Car park. Two border terriers running across the foreground.

I’ve never known a place of natural beauty so well as Ashdown Forest — the vast East Sussex heathland immortalised by A.A Milne in his Winnie the Pooh books, and visited by thousands each year. I spent eight years living on its doorstep, visiting on a near-daily basis.

First Walks on the Forest

In the late 2000s, I moved to Crowbrough, a sleepy little town perched on the highest inland part of East Sussex . Once upon a time it was known as ‘the Scotland of Sussex’, a Victorian resort town known for the therapeutic value of its fresh air.

My initial visits to Ashdown Forest were sporadic — I wasn’t much of a walker back then, and I would drive up there with my camera and walk a short distance from the various car parks to see if I could get some good shots. It wasn’t until a feisty little Border Terrier pup came into my life that visits to the forest became much more frequent.

With a young dog that needed constant exercise and with Ashdown Forest so close, it was an obvious choice to walk him there. Regularly walking Indy (and a couple of years later, Polly) on Ashdown Forest was when I really came to know it.

Autumn on the Forest

As the season in which I first started walking on Ashdown Forest, Autumn was one of my favourite times there.

During autumn I spent time up the forest reading in the late afternoons. Whilst sunny afternoons were pleasant, there was always a melancholic feeling to seeing the sun set over the southern end of the forest. The chill would start to creep in with the trees casting deep blue shadows. The evening sky would mix with plumes of woodsmoke from open fires down the valley and the feeling that summer’s warmth was receding and winter was soon to come was strong.

October on Ashdown Forest. Looking south down the valley.

Later in the season, the bracken was began to die back and the landscape gained an incredible mulchy, russet texture from all the dying foliage which stood out in contrast to overcast skies, and for some reason it always made me want to curl up with a book.

Winter on Ashdown Forest

New year’s day dog walks on the forest became a tradition, and it seemed like the weather would always go one of two ways — grey and wet — the haze of the rain almost mirroring the hungover state of the nation, or blazing low sunshine that illuminated the golden grasses of the heathland in a fiery glow interspersed with shallow pools of standing water reflecting the deep blue of clear afternoon skies.

January walks from King’s Standing car park would take us down into the valley and up the hill to the patch of pines called Crow’s Nest Clump. Years of rainfall had carved rivulets into the track which required some careful footwork at times to avoid stumbling. Waterproof boots were essential. I always enjoyed how on overcast days, the sunshine on the coast in Brighton and Eastbourne would creep underneath the cloud line above the distant South Downs like light peeping under thick, velvet drapes — it seemed somewhat a semi-permanent feature of winters on Ashdown Forest.

January on Ashdown Forest. On the circular route from Kingstanding on the cusp of snow.

Wet days on the forest in deep winter were bleak. The forest took on a whole different mysterious and haunting persona. On days like this, there were few around — only the hardcore dog walkers. The fog and drizzle would often enclose the usual expanse, and as we went along the tracks, trees and bushes would suddenly appear out of the mist like ancient sentinels.

Fog on Ashdown Forest on the circular route from Kingstanding.

Despite the barren feeling and the cold, there was always something quite rejuvenating about walking on the forest in the winter months. Perhaps the thought of a possible cosy lunch with a pint beside a roaring fire at one of the many olde-worlde pubs in the area.

If snows came, the forest became a bit of a maze with the regular tracks blending into the rest of the heathland. The clumps came in handy as you could navigate using them as landmarks.

Spring on Ashdown Forest

As winter gave way to spring, the bleak swathes of the forest started to take on new life in anticipation of warmer, longer days.

Sunny March mornings seemed full of promise. The freshness marked by faint haze in the sky and the glisten of dew covered grass. I would often stand at the halfway point on the Gills’s Lap walk and feel a deep sense of possibility and optimism as I gazed into the rolling countryside to the north.

Early spring haze on the circular route from Kingstanding.

April could be glorious. This was the time that the gorse that covered much of the forest came into bloom sending waves of citrus yellow across the landscape, and dispersing the faint scent of coconut onto the warm breeze. New shoots of fern growth would emerge bringing luminous protrusions of green from the browned and brittle remains of the previous year’s growth. In general, the forest began to develop new textures as the blanket of sandy brown tones were replaced by a mix of greens interspersed by patches of yellow contrasting under deep blue skies.

Towards the beginning of May, on the floor of the more shaded copses, bluebells were of course common — their waxy, verdant leaves precluding the sea of purple to come.

Summer and Tourists

I wasn’t so keen on the forest in Summer. The summer months brought tourists in their droves, often irresponsible with their dogs, or turning the more popular spots into a sea of ice lolly wrappers, polystyrene cups, and dog shit. Car parks were crowded, and there was litter everywhere – even stuffed into leaflet dispensers.

Balmy, early mornings were the best time to visit in the summer. 6am on the forest, and I met only the most dedicated of dog walkers whose dogs were always well behaved. The dawn chorus was in its cadenza, and fresh foliage glowed in the sunlight cutting through the haze.

After long sunny periods, the forest trails would become dusty tracks upset by strong gusts, and the danger of adders was something to be mindful of. One time walking the dogs I spotted one in our path. I instinctively distracted the dogs with biscuits and lead them around the snake, which I could see was in a striking position. This incident made me a lot more wary of walking the forest at this time of year.

However, most summers on the forest were summers of disappointing weather. Threatening clouds billowed in battleship grey skies and the air was sticky.

When August came, so did the heather, much like the gorse that preceded in the spring. Blooms throwing sheets of vibrant violet over the landscape, and once again the forest would take on a new appearance.

August heather in bloom on Ashdown Forest.

Just Watching

Whilst walking was arguably the best way to enjoy Ashdown Forest, simply viewing it was an experience in itself. I spent many a sunset parked up at Bushy Willows car park — particularly in the winter months looking west towards the unmistakable clump of confiers known as Friends Clump as the sun set in the distance. Sometimes the entire sky would light up in the vibrant colours of sunset. Other times, the sun would sink below the horizon as a lone orange globe. A particularly exposed car park on rough days winds would buffet and shake the car.

Sunset from Bushy Willows car park.

Solo Walks in the Later Years

It wasn’t until my final year living in Crowborough, that I actually walked I walked from my front door to the forest and back. After so many times driving to the forest with the dogs, parking up and walking, this was quite a novel way to explore. Walking through The Warren (an exclusive neighbourhood of stunning houses) and out onto the forest behind the Horder Centre showed me an aspect of Ashdown Forest (and Crowborough) I hadn’t seen before. I spent hours wandering footpaths to find circular routes that would lead back home, and discovered quaint dwellings I had no idea existed. It opened my eyes to just how much we can miss when driving.

Last Memories

My last memories of the forest were times of sadness — a time of emotional turmoil with the end of a long-term relationship and essentially the end of an era. Not far from Pines car park there was a viewpoint looking north across the forest that I photographed many times over the years. One afternoon, I wandered to the spot I had photographed for all those years, into the gorse, and just sat, contemplating life and all that had been and knew it was likely to be my last time there.


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