Drive for about 10 minutes north of where I live and you’ll find yourself on the Ashdown Forest – a high, sandy plateau covered with heather, gorse and stunted birch trees, crisscrossed with narrow, steep-sided valleys cut by streams the colour of cold tea. Immortalised by A A Milne as the setting for Winnie-the-Pooh, this is this is a ‘forest’ in the medieval sense; that is, a royal hunting-ground. Not that you’ll see HM Queen Elizabeth II and her courtiers galloping about in pursuit of the noble hart; these days, it’s a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where commoners like me are free to ride horses (but not mountain bikes, fortunately) and walk dogs where and whenever we please. At 2,500 hectares – about nine square miles – it’s no Yellowstone, but it is the largest public-access area in the south-east of England. We know how lucky we are.
Although it’s a forest by name, there aren’t many full-grown trees up there. The few there are tend to be pines, growing in small clumps with lovely evocative names like Camp Hill, King’s Standing, Crow’s Nest and Greenwood Gate. There’s also one called Friends Clump, named in honour of the volunteers who care for the Forest. I regularly ride past the sign at the car-park entrance; today, I stopped and took the Madone’s picture. And guess what: a new bike-related poem quickly followed – appropriately enough, in rhyme royal.
It seems an odd relationship at first:
The passenger provides the motive power;
Just one of us feels cold, heat, hunger, thirst,
And pain. And yet it works: we can devour
Long miles at high speed, hour after hour.
We take whatever fickle Fortune sends:
The bike and I are partners – and fast friends.
(Taken on my phone camera – think the lens needs cleaning…)