Once upon a time, a long time ago now, about last 1925, Christopher Milne left Mallord Street in Chelsea with his mother and father to live at Cotchford Farm in Sussex. This remained his home for many years, until he began to walk the paths that eventually led to an idyllic 18th century hillside home, a former forge in Embridge, Devon, where, surrounded by plane trees, oaks, hazels, pansies, daffodils, primroses, bluebells, campions, narcissi and sun-basking cats, he shared many happy years with his wife, Lesley, and their daughter, Clare. Sadly, continuing ill health forced him away from that peaceful hollow in the hill and he spent his last few years with his Lesley and Clare in an early nineteenth century house situated on the outskirts of Totnes in Devon, complete with walled garden, lily pond and conservatory.
As he watched his father, Alan Alexander Milne, pipe in mouth, on the putting green at Cotchford, the young country-lover was innnocently unaware of the literary adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, which had begun during the wet Welsh summer of 1923 and the effect the bear would have on his life. He would explore many paths and by-roads along the route from Cotchford; Miss Walters' School in Tite Street, Chelsea; Gibbs' day school near Sloane Square; Boxgrove, Guildford; Stowe; Trinity College, Cambridge; the Army to the Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, Devon.
During these adventurous years, Christopher began frequently, and often rudely, to be mistaken for the Christopher Robin portrayed in his father's books, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, and in poems such as Vespers, Buckingham Palace, The Engineer, Lines and Squares, In the Dark, James James Morrison Morrison. The real Christopher, only hinted at in Us Two and Market Square, remained unfamiliar and unrecognised, though burdened with the fame that rested uneasily on his reluctant shoulders. By making him a household name in millions of homes throughout the world, A. A. Milne had "filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son".
Father and son saw very little of each other during Christopher’s early years — perhaps half an hour at the breakfast table and a few minutes before dinner, although Christopher sought every opportunity to accompany his father on his frequent walks through the woods, where they both shared a passion and joy in nature. In his late teens, Christopher forged a close friendship with his father. His mother, Daphne, was more interested in fashion and spending her husband’s money than spending time with her shy son. After his father’s death Christopher did not see his mother again, although she lived on for another fifteen years.
Christopher shared a passion for pure mathematics with his father and took up a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge after leaving Stowe school; but the coming of World War II made it impossible for him to enjoy his success and he enlisted in the Royal Engineers. He had a good four years, enjoying the comradeship of his fellow officers and a fascination with building Baily Bridges and dismantling landmines. This career ended abruptly with a serious head wound at Salerno in Italy. His wartime travels left him with a lifelong love of that country and he and his wife, Lesley, holidayed there almost every summer for the next fifty years.
Up to the day he died, he used old woodwork tools that he bought as a nine year old and his talent as a carpenter proved useful during the years as a struggling bookseller when money was short — no holiday luggage was complete without his trusty tool kit. He was ingenious designing and fashioning furniture and equipment for his daughter, Clare, who had cerebral palsy.
After a year or so of unemployment and dead-end jobs in London, he and his wife Lesley opened The Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, Devon, a small but successful venture. After his mother’s death he felt able to write freely about his life and his first autobiographical book “The Enchanted Places” was a critical success and set him on his writing career. This led to “The Path Through the Trees” - ‘The Story of my non-Pooh life’, followed soon afterwards by “The Hollow on the Hill” a portrayal of his personal philosophy and finally “The Windfall”, a reinterpretation of the Adam and Eve story (and his own favourite) proved to be his last work.
Christopher was a quiet man who lived in a small world, where he lovingly researched its inhabitants. He loved beetles and moths and birds and music and knew them all intimately. He loved a few people very much indeed. He died after suffering for some years of a neurological disease, myasthenia gravis, on April 20th 1996. A few days later, his life was celebrated in a small Quaker gathering of family and friends. Describing the service, Michael Brown, the Chairman of the Pooh Trustees, wrote the following:
"We are here ... we all remember the words spoken at Pooh's party ... "because of what someone did." And we are here because of what someone, Christopher, was and, for us, will always be. And we are here because of the path he chose. I think of his book "The Path Through The Trees" and of the words on the last page about Christopher and Clare at the top of the garden. "Here we come Clare and I ... And here we sit and dream and perhaps I do this and that among my trees ... Small and slow is our world and luckily this is how we like it."
We all had the extraordinary privilege of being counted amongst Christopher's friends and we knew him as a man of such talents, such humility and such goodness. Sadly, not all of his friends could be with us here. In particular Peter and Diane Dennis, who so much wanted to come all the way from California but could not do so, have asked me instead to read on their behalf a poem by Robert Frost which they always associate with Christopher. It appears at the front of The Path Through Tthe Trees and its significance for Christopher is explained in the opening pages of the book. It is called The Road Not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
It is painful to imagine what the world will be like without Christopher Milne, but Christopher Robin of the stories and verses will live on in the homes of countless generations of millions of families the world over for all time. However, he would prefer to be remembered as Christopher Milne to a few close friends, rather than as Christopher Robin to the rest of the world.
"So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest, a little boy and his bear will always be playing."
Extracts of letters from Christopher Robin Milne:
17th October 1991
Dear Christopher Toyne, The postman brought your parcel this morning, ringing the bell and leaving it lying against the door. What an extremely handsome production you have made. I do thank you for wanting to do it and for presenting me with my own copy of it. I have just been listening to the opening chapter – and of course Peter reads it perfectly, as I knew he would. I congratulate you both, and I wish you great success with it. Well done!
22nd April, 1995
“Pooh is as English as Brer Rabbit is American. And so a dramatic interpretation, to be as faithful as possible to the original, must not only use the author’s words but speak them with an English accent. Many Americans know Pooh only through Walt Disney’s cartoon version. This is an interpretation which, to me, is so far from the original as to be unrecognisable. By contrast, Peter Dennis’s ‘Bother!’ is totally English, sympathetic and truthful.”