The High Weald AONB: Rolling hills, endless forest and steam railways puffing through a very English landscape

The High Weald AONB's rolling landscape is the archetypal image many of us have of rural England. Octavia Pollock takes a look.

There are few who have not explored the High Weald Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as least in their imagination, for this is the home of Winnie the Pooh. His Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest, high on the Weald Forest Ridge, is the heart of this medieval stretch of Kent, Surrey and Sussex, where kings once hunted and the tree cover (at 28% the highest in the country) would satisfy the most ardent proponents of planting.

Until the 16th century, when the coalfields of the North took over, Wealden oaks drove the iron industry and hammer ponds that powered the water wheels remain.

Downgate Farmhouse nestled among the trees of the High Weald AONB.

Sunken lanes or droves radiate across the region, bluebell-filled tree tunnels dappled with sunlight that were formed by pannage, when pigs were driven to the woods to feast on acorns. White-topped oast houses evoke the scent of drying hops.

Above rise sandstone outcrops, such as climbers’ favourite Harrison’s Rocks, and the 770-acre Bewl Water marks where houses were drowned to create the reservoir in the 1970s; when full, it can hold 31 million litres of water. Nature reserves and SSSIs abound, from sandy heathland to beech woods.

The long prosperity of the Weald means it is rich in historic houses and gardens, from Penshurst Place in the north, home of Elizabeth I’s favourite Sir Philip Sidney, to Arts-and-Crafts Standen in the west and 14th-century moated Bodiam Castle in the south. Anne Boleyn lived at Hever Castle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took inspiration from Groombridge Place, Denys Eyer Bower collected from Chiddingstone Castle, Ellen Terry rehearsed at Smallhythe and Rudyard Kipling wrote at Bateman’s.

Penshurst Place, Kent.

At Sissinghurst Castle, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson created the breathtaking garden still enjoyed by their grandson, Adam. Gardeners, indeed, are spoilt for choice: Kew manages Wakehurst Place, Pashley Manor Gardens embody rose-strewn Englishness and the Messel family’s talent is evident at romantic Nymans.

Criss-crossing this land are no fewer than three heritage railways that still puff through the Weald: the north-south Bluebell Railway, from East Grinstead to Sheffield Park; the Spa Valley Railway, from Tunbridge Wells to Eridge; and the Kent & East Sussex Railway, from Tenterden to Bodiam.

A steam train on the Bluebell Railway, Horsted Keynes, West Sussex.