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Why Winnie didn't go to The Party

Travel editor Dave Balow went to New York to meet Britain's favourite bear and find out how he likes life on the other side of the Atlantic.

IT was clear from the look on his face that Pooh wasn't a happy bear.

Eeyore, sitting next to him, was distinctly down in the mouth, Piglet was pining, Kanga was missing Roo and Tigger had definitely lost all of his famous bounce.

Although Winnie the Pooh remains a bear of very little brain, he didn't seem to see the hunny side of being locked away with his friends in a glass case thousands of miles away from his spiritual home on the Kent -Sussex border.

Instead of the birdsong, sunshine and cool refreshing breezes of Ashdown Forest, near Tunbridge Wells, where they used to share adventures with Christopher Robin, Winnie and his pals are languishing on the air-conditioned second floor of a public library in New York City, under the constant glare of neon lighting.

How did this come about, you may wonder? And why has the world's best loved bear and his lifelong friends never been brought back home to Hundred Acre Wood to play on Poohsticks Bridge again?

The lovely old stuffed toys were bought by author A.A. Milne and given to his son Christopher in the early 1920s and were the basis of all the famous books and short stories that followed.

Young Christopher would gather up Winnie, Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga and Roo and go off to play for hours in Ashdown Forest near the Milne family home, Cotchford Farm.

Seeing his son disappear into a world of fantasy with the toys inspired author, journalist and playwright A.A. to write Winnie the Pooh in 1926, The House at Pooh Corner in 1928 and the collections of stories and poems When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six.

Beautifully illustrated by friend E.H. Shepard, the books went on to sell millions of copies and delight children and adults all over the world.

A whole industry has grown up around Winnie and friends with the Disney Corporation paying a cool £200 million to hang on to the film rights for a few more years and an original signed first edition of one of the books fetching more than £70,000 at a Sotheby's auction in London.

But what about the priceless toys themselves? And how did they end up in the Children's Room of the Donnell Library on 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan?

Little Roo had been lost years earlier by Christopher Robin while he was playing in Ashdown Forest, but A.A. Milne had kept the other five toys at Cotchford Farm after his son grew up.

When American publishers E.P. Dutton asked if they could be taken on a promotional tour of the States in 1947 the author gladly agreed and handed them over.

After the successful 10-year tour Winnie and friends were taken back to Dutton's offices and put in a glass case for safe keeping.

When A.A. Milne died, his widow said the publishers could keep them and in 1987 they were donated to the Donnell Library "so they could be possessed by all the people who ever read and loved the stories".

There they have remained ever since . . . despite many attempts to bring them home to England.

In 1998 the Repatriate Winnie Campaign took on bizarre proportions with MP Gwyneth Dunwoody raising the issue in the Commons, Stormin Norman Schwarzkopf of Gulf War fame breaking ranks with the Americans and declaring Winnie should reside on this side of the pond, and a national newspaper starting a kidnap plot involving Bosnia SAS hero Col Bob Stewart.

But all this ursine uproar came to nothing and the Americans made it clear that they would not part with Winnie and co at any cost.

When New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani - the man who rallied the city after the horrors of 9/11 - paid Pooh a personal visit and declared that the cuddly toy was now a native New Yorker, all hopes of a homecoming were dashed.

Today, it seems, you would need more than a Hefferlump Trap to trick the U.S. into parting with Pooh.

When I went to the city, as a guest of the New York State tourist board, I arranged for a personal audience with Winnie and Friends.

The library bosses were friendly and helpful, if a little suspicious about my motives, and any question of getting Winnie out of his glass case for a Kentish cuddle was out of the question.

Apparently the toys are only 'freed' on very special occasions or for dusting and weighing every few years when the need arises.

"They are not lonely", assured the Children's Room curator. "They get visitors all the time and are very happy here in New York." She added that there were absolutely no plans to tour or exhibit Pooh and friends in Britain because they are pretty fragile in their old age.

I sat down beside the glass case and asked Milne's menagerie if they were missing England.

Winnie looked content enough, Eeyore kept his big ears across his face, Piglet maintained his expression of perpetual surprise and Kanga was still thinking about long lost Roo.

But I'm sure I saw tears well up in Tigger's big green eyes!

The stuffed toys would fetch an amazing sum at auction these days, and probably would be considered priceless in many circles.

So it might just be worth checking your children's toy cupboard to see if there is an old moth-eaten baby kangaroo somewhere that could have been picked up in Ashdown Forest sometime over the past 80 years.

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