WHEN I TOLD MY FRIEND I was heading down to Ashdown Forest, I made a promise – that I’d do my best to return from England’s South East outback unscathed. “Well, you never know,” she replied. “My sister’s friend saw a puma when she was walking her dog in East Sussex.” Although there was something strangely plausible about the idea of a big cat roaming wildly in the woods, I brushed her story off as nothing short of a tall tale. I was looking forward to staging my escape from the tuna-tin trauma of our insufferably stuffy city centre Tubes and offices, and I wasn’t prepared to let the urban legend of this South Eastern wildcat rumble my walk just yet.
In fact, half an hour into my route, just outside of the woodlands where clubswinging, burgundy-clad golfers paraded the greens and fairways of the local courses like a catwalk, pumas couldn’t have been further from my thoughts. It was the sunniest day I had walked in months. However, on the gentle slopes of Southbank Wood – between the looming trees and splintered swords of light which cut hazily through the cool morning shade like UFO traction beams – I briefly began to question this cryptid creature’s existence.
My curiosity piqued, I had conducted some research on our elusive feline friend before I left home, and it hadn’t taken long to unearth a wealth of websites dedicated to puma sightings in East Sussex. The evidence is about as credible as the grainy YouTube video footage you can find of Big Foot or the goat-sucking Chupacabra, but puma sightings in East Sussex have been recorded as far back as October 1825, and some as recently as July 2013. I felt the odds would be stacked heavily against me if I did encounter such a creature today. The blue biro in the bottom of my pack would be unlikely to provide much in the way of protection.
My wayward thoughts didn’t take long to evaporate and, instead of hunting for pumas, for the rest of my walk I took my time casually examining the vibrant, mossy greens of these perfect woodlands, listening to the therapeutic rolling of water in the valley below. There are endless avenues of exploration here, but instead of pushing further east I chose to head north, back to Broadstone Warren. I wanted to slowly soak up and savour some more familiar scenes from my childhood, and, if I was lucky, maybe even spot a puma stalking its prey on the horizon.
In the end, I had no such luck.