Poohsticks is a game first mentioned in The House at Pooh Corner, a Winnie-the-Pooh book by A.A. Milne. It is a simple game which may be played on any bridge over running water; each player drops a stick on the upstream side of a bridge and the one whose stick first appears on the downstream side is the winner. The annual World Poohsticks Championships have been held at Day's Lock on the River Thames in the UK since 1984.
Poohsticks was invented by English author A.A. Milne for his son Christopher Robin Milne. The game first came to prominence upon Milne's description in his 1928 book The House at Pooh Corner, as well as the 1983 Disney animated featurette Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. As first depicted, protagonist Pooh accidentally drops a pine cone into a river from a bridge and, after observing how it appeared on the other side of the bridge, devises the rules for Poohsticks, later playing the game with the other characters, Christopher Robin, Tigger, and Eeyore.
Milne first played the game at a bridge located in Ashdown Forest, close to the village of Upper Hartfield, East Sussex, England. Built in 1907 and originally called Posingford Bridge, it is considered to be the bridge on which Milne and his son first played the game. However, it is uncertain whether the game was first played at the bridge and then written into the story, or vice versa. The bridge maintained the public's interest and a campaign to rebuild it in the late seventies was considered important enough to feature on the BBC Nine O'Clock News. The bridge was subsequently reopened by Christopher Robin Milne and officially renamed as Poohsticks Bridge.
The site was so popular that in 1999 the East Sussex county council made an appeal to Disney as the old wooden bridge had been worn down by an overwhelming number of visitors. The company provided a substantial donation towards the estimated £30,000 needed to replace the bridge. Partly rebuilt in 1979, the donations from Disney, building firms and members of the public funded its complete reconstruction. The newly built and modernised bridge retained its precursor's original style. A plaque was also placed to commemorate the occasion and thank those who financially contributed to the project. The game can still be played in Ashdown Forest to this day and the site regularly attracts tourists from as far afield as the United States and Japan. However, visitors are now advised to bring their own sticks, as previous visitors have caused damage to the trees in the vicinity.
The 'original' Poohsticks Bridge, reconstructed from parts of the original supplemented by similarly aged timber, and located near Penshurst, Kent, was sold at auction for over £131,000 in October 2021. The buyer, Lord De La Warr, intends to give it "pride of place" on his estate, Buckhurst Park, Sussex.
Rules and strategy
A game for two players or more, in the traditional version of poohsticks the participants must drop a stick simultaneously on the upstream side of a bridge and run to the other side. The winner is the player whose stick first appears on the other side of the bridge. Alternatively, players may decide upon a starting point on a river and a finish line farther downstream. The winner is the player whose stick first passes the finishing point.
It is generally agreed that the stick must be made of organic materials, preferably willow, and not of any artificial materials. All participants must drop their sticks at the same time, usually after a referee shouts "drop", "twitch" or any other agreed keyword. Additionally, no advantage may be gained through either dismantling the bridge or the use of any self-propelling stick devices. The stick must be dropped, not thrown, into the water and any player who is deemed to have thrown their stick is disqualified.
Poohsticks is considered to be a game of chance yet some players claim skill is involved. Some strategies involve the way in which the stick is held before it is dropped and trying to find the fastest route in the river. Author Ben Schott outlined a throwing method as a winning strategy in his third book, Schott's Sporting, Gaming and Idling Miscellany, but his method was dismissed as cheating by competition organisers. In any event, the turbulence around the bridge supports make the path of the stick very difficult to predict and may vary according to the season.
World Poohsticks Championships
Following the closure of the short-lived Oxford University Poohsticks Society, Poohsticks was brought to a larger audience by the annual World Poohsticks Championships. Originally these took place at Day's Lock on the River Thames near Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. but were later moved to Langel Common in Witney, also in Oxfordshire, and have attracted over 1,500 visitors, including many from overseas. The championships features an individual event and a four-person team event. Players come from a wide variety of countries including the United States, Japan, Kenya, Australia and England. Before its move to Witney, the event took place from Little Wittenham Bridge but now uses a bridge over the River Windrush near Cogges Manor Farm.
The sporting event was started at Little Wittenham Bridge in 1984 by the lockkeeper, Lynn David, as a fund-raising event for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). He noticed that people occasionally snapped sticks from nearby hedges to play the game and he then came up with the idea of a competition to aid the charity. He put out a box of sticks and a collection box and it soon became an annual event. In this championship version of the game, a finish line is set up farther downstream and the winner is the first to pass this point. The competition originally took place every January, but it was moved to March due to icy weather in 1997.
The event proved popular with the local community and even attracted the attention of the foreign media. After Lynn David's retirement, the running of the event was taken over by the former Rotary Club of Sinodun, based in nearby Wallingford. Additionally, the funds raised were divided between the RNLI and charitable projects supported by the Rotary Club. Twenty years after its first edition, the event had grown in popularity, attracting visitors from across the globe, and had been broadcast on television in countries including Russia, Japan and Czech Republic. Additionally, VisitBritain, the official British tourist board, named it as a highlight in its collection of "Quirky British Events". Throughout its existence, it has raised around £30,000 for the RNLI.
The Championships were at risk of decline when in 2008 Sinodun Rotary Club declared that its members were simply too old to stage an annual event of its size. The then Sinodun president, David Caswell, stated: "The trouble is there is a lot of heavy work staging the event. Some of our members are over 70, and it was just getting too much". However, the Rotary Club of Oxford Spires declared that its members would continue hosting the event, thus preserving the competition for future generations. The President of Oxford Spires for 2008–2009, Liz Williamson, stressed that it should continue as the event was popular locally and demonstrated quirky English nature to a worldwide audience.
The organisers announced in January 2015 that they had decided that the Little Wittenham site was no longer suitable, citing increasing logistical difficulties as the event had become more popular and the use of the land had changed. In June the World Championships were held at their new home, one of the cycle-track bridges over the River Windrush on Langel Common, near the Cogges Manor Farm Museum in Witney, Oxfordshire. This new location retained a rural atmosphere but is a few minutes' walk from Witney town centre with its convenient public transport links to Oxford. Car parking is also much closer than at the original venue, a factor that influenced the choice of venue. For the first year at the new location, the organizers decided not to hold the 2015 team games, but team games were restored in 2016. The move to the new venue also allowed the event to move to June when the weather is likely to be better.
The event continued to be held on Langel Common, Witney until 2018. The Rotary Club of Oxford Spires decided not to hold the 2019 event due to resourcing issues but it was hoped to run it again in 2020. This was not possible due to the Corona Virus 19 pandemic. In late 2020, the remaining members of Oxford Spires voted to hand the event over to the Rotary Club of Abingdon.
Abingdon Rotary were not able to run the 2021 event due to COVID-19 restrictions and there was insufficient time to organize one in 2022. However the event was again run on 28th May 2023, commemmorating the 40th anniversary. The location was at Sanford-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire on the river Thames at Sandford Lock just south of Oxford. The bridge used fot the event links an island to the Kennington side.
The winners of both the individual and team events receive a trophy or medal, and the second and third-placed individuals and teams also receive a smaller trophy or certificate. Despite claims that the game involves skill more than luck, no team or individual has ever won the competition more than once. The individual competition usually involves winning three rounds of matches before receiving an entry to the final.
|Year||Edition||Date||Individual event||Team event|
|1984||1st Annual Championships||?||?|
|1985||2nd Annual Championships||?||?|
|1986||3rd Annual Championships||?||?|
|1987||4th Annual Championships||?||?|
|1988||5th Annual Championships||?||?|
|1989||6th Annual Championships||?||?|
|1990||7th Annual Championships||?||?|
|1991||8th Annual Championships||Ben Salter||?|
|1992||9th Annual Championships||Sue Rayner, Wootton||?|
|1993||10th Annual Championships||?||?|
|1994||11th Annual Championships||?||?|
|1995||12th Annual Championships||?||?|
|1996||13th Annual Championships||Théo Welch-King, a five-year-old from Abingdon||?|
|1997||14th Annual Championships||?||?|
|1998||15th Annual Championships||?||?|
|1999||16th Annual Championships||Daisy||?|
|2000||17th Annual Championships||Blair DeBart, 18, from Brixton||?|
|2001||18th Annual Championships||Cancelled|
|2002||19th Annual Championships||Rachel Banham (age 11) Wantage||?|
|2003||20th Annual Championships||Becky Aram (age 10) Wantage||Australia|
|2004||21st Annual Championships||Susan Young from Didcot, Oxfordshire||Czech Republic|
|2005||22nd Annual Championships||Callum Alexander (age 9)||Japan|
|2006||23rd Annual Championships||25–26 March 2006||Harry Norton Shaw, an eight-year-old from near Abingdon||Team Natural Colour Cotton from Milton Keynes|
|2007||24th Annual Championships||Bob Jones of Carterton||Bears for Life from United Kingdom|
|2008||25th Annual Championships||Lydia Leece, aged ten||Sticking to the Prize|
|2009||26th Annual Championships||Phil Davies||Cytoarchitechno (from Oxford)|
|2010||27th Annual Championships||Cancelled - the flow was too heavy|
|2011||28th Annual Championships||27 March 2011||Saffron Sollit, aged nine||Team Kelly|
|2012||29th Annual Championships||25 March 2012||Aidan Eltham||The Tiglets|
|2013||30th Annual Championships||13 October 2013 (after high river levels forced cancellation on 24 March)||Alex Marshall (aged 30) of Mornington, Australia||We don't spell love we feel it (from Oxford)|
|2014||31st Annual Championships||30 March 2014||Simon Critchley||Blantz Family|
|2015||32nd Annual Championships||7 June 2015||James Smith||No team games this year|
|2016||33rd Annual Championships||5 June 2016||Charlie Roman||Hundred Acre Edwards|
|2017||34th Annual Championships||4 June 2017||Daniel Gooding (age 6) from Oxford||Kanga Roo Pooh from East Hanney|
|2018||35th Annual Championships||3 June 2018||Innes Turnbull||Kids 4 Us|
|Cancelled - lack of resources|
|Cancelled - COVID-19|
|Cancelled - COVID-19|
|Cancelled - Pandemic prevented event's organisation|
|2023 - relocated to Sandford Lock near Oxford||40th Annual
|28 May 2023||Bertie S (age 9)||No team games planned this year|
Notable Poohsticks societies
Rotary Club of Abingdon
Although not a Poohsticks Society as such, the Rotary Club of Abingdon is now responsible for the World Pooh Sticks Championships held annually since 1983, first at Days Lock on the River Thames then in Witney 2015 to 2018. and the future event to be held in 2023. The Championships were voted 'Britain's Favourite Quirky Event' by Countryfile magazine readers in 2012 and are carried out with the aim of raising money for a variety of charities.
Magdalen College Pooh Sticks Society
Revival of the Oxford University Pooh Sticks Society has begun thanks to students in Magdalen College, Oxford, with the creation of the Magdalen College Pooh Sticks Society (MCPSS) founded in April 2013 which mixes classic Pooh Sticks games with commentary and rules in the style of radio programme I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Of late the club has become increasingly well known inside the university and is no longer restricted solely to members of Magdalen College.
Pembroke College Winnie the Pooh Society
Founded in 1993, students of Pembroke College, Cambridge, pay homage to the works of A.A. Milne in a variety of ways, including playing games of Poohsticks alongside events such as visits to the 'real-life' Hundred Acre Wood.
Cambridge University Pooh Sticks Club
Membership is open to all students of the University of Cambridge. The club mainly consists of "Feasts" organised at a variety of colleges once a term, usually during a formal. Members attend with a suitable stick, and have ample choice to drop their sticks together over Mathematical Bridge, Queens' College (1905), King's College Bridge (1819), Clare College Bridge (1640), Garret Hostel Bridge (1960), Trinity College Bridge (1764), Kitchen Bridge, St John's College (1713), Bridge of Sighs, St John's College (1831), and Magdalene Bridge (1823). Alongside this, trips are organised to other rivers within a reasonable travelling distance from Cambridge. This could be in Grantchester, the River Thet or perhaps the little River Ouse.
Elsewhere in popular culture
The traditional game has inspired filmmakers and screenwriters and has been portrayed in the 1998 film Into My Heart with Rob Morrow and Claire Forlani, BBC sitcom To the Manor Born and also in a Marks & Spencer clothes advert where models, including Twiggy and Myleene Klass, played the game. The popularity of the game was underlined when it featured as a question on long-running British quiz series University Challenge.
The "Pooh-stick method" of estimating the flow of a stream gets its name from the use of one or more floating objects (typically passing under a bridge of known width) to calculate the speed at which the water is flowing.
Terry Pratchett mentioned the game in Thud! (2005) as a popular children's game played in the gutters during Sam Vimes' childhood in Ankh-Morpork, originally called "turd races" before renaming it "poosticks" to take the game upmarket.
Julia Donaldson mentioned the game in her children's book Stick Man (2008) when the protagonist, Stick Man, is used by a girl in a game of Poohsticks.
In Season 14, Episode 2 (2010) of Midsomer Murders a group of children play Poohsticks, as DCI John Barnaby and DS Ben Jones drive by. Jones instructs children not to play on the road, Barnaby explains the game to Jones and recommends him to hang on to childhood poetry. The still-playing children later find a dead body floating in the stream.
In Season 5, Episode 7 (2014) of Downton Abbey, Tom Branson and young Sybil play a game of Poohsticks, without referencing the game by name, while he is telling her of his idea to leave Downton and move them to Boston.
The Welsh indie pop band The Pooh Sticks is named partly in homage to the game.
The song "Twydale's Lament" by British band Half Man Half Biscuit, on their 2005 album Achtung Bono, includes the line, "I saw a young professional couple playing poohsticks on a Cotswold bridge".
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- World Pooh Sticks Championships Home Page
- The Rotary Club of Sinodun Archived 4 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine
- The Rotary Club of Oxford Spires
- Map and aerial photo sources for grid reference:
- TQ 470 338 — Poohsticks Bridge near Hartfield — marked on the Ordnance Survey "25k" map
- SU 567 934 — Day's Lock and the Sinodun Hills
- Bruce Hemming's page about the Poohsticks Bridge with QuickTime panorama — note that the coordinates given are in error by 25 km