Watership Down

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Ordnance Survey map of Watership Down, 1958. This is from the time in which Richard Adams explored this area, and is likely the map he used. [Ask for #990.155.]


1958 Ordnance Survey map of Watership Down. This is from the time in which Richard Adams lived in this area, and may well be the map he used to explore Watership Down. [Ask for #990.155.]

A rag-tag band sets out across an alien, hostile landscape, pursued by enemies, their lives threatened at every moment. This could be Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, or hobbits in Middle-Earth. But it’s not – these are bunnies. In order to avoid certain death they must hop across an immense wasteland of English countryside – seven miles – to the remote shelter of a low chalk hill. This epic journey sweeps across 475 pages of Richard Adams’s 1972 novel, Watership Down.

Adams’s fable for adults is about a lot of things, and one of them is the English countryside. This is no fictional landscape, idealized and manipulated. Every place in the book is real; Watership Down is a real hill, Nuthanger Farm is a real farm, the footbridges over the River Test are precisely as the rabbits found them. You can visit these places. In fact, it’s a good idea; the rabbits’ journey deep into the English countryside reveals some beautiful things.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Downlands, Canola field in spring bloom [Ask for #253.100.]


Canola field in spring bloom, in the downlands behind Watership Down. [Ask for #253.100.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, The Upper Test Valley, Whitchurch, View from a brick bridge over the Test, towards an old mill (now a private house),  a short distance north of the village. [Ask for #253.160.]


View from a brick bridge over the River Test towards an old mill. [Ask for #253.160.]

But first, a word of explanation. Adams brings us into a very special landscape from a very special perspective – about six inches off the ground. At this level, you have to stretch up high on your legs to see over the grass. You don’t walk through the grass; you hop, your eyes bouncing from dirt level to grasstop and back down. This makes it very difficult to hold a straight line, so you have to stop every once in a while to see where you are. And while you can’t see much, there are plenty of animals who can see you, particularly when you stand up to look around. Most of them will kill you when they see you; your enemies are The Thousand. Crossing a field becomes an exhausting trek requiring great skill and courage. On the other hand, you won’t have to find a gate; hedgerows are a welcome refuge, not a barrier.

Time, as well as space, is different. Rabbits only live for two or three years. They experience life as an ever-changing sequence that, remarkably, cycles back as the seasons come around. The backdrop to their lives, the English landscape, remains constant and unchanging through a single generation, or even two or three. Constant but by no means natural; humans have profoundly altered every square inch of England, and the rabbits must fit themselves into these utterly human landscapes. The rabbits like landscapes that are mature, with many species and a wide variety of places to hide, as well as a scarcity of people (prominent among The Thousand). Raw, new landscapes, with people nearby, are deeply hostile.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, RABBIT'S LEVEL VIEW of a patch of grass covered in wildflowers. [Ask for #253.102.]


A rabbit's level view of the grasslands on Watership Down. [Ask for #253.102.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Sheep grazing the steep north face of Watership Down [Ask for #253.112.]


A sheep grazes the steep north face of Watership Down [Ask for #253.112.]

When we visit these same landscapes we see things very differently. In our decades of experience, the seasons flash past and landscapes shift before our eyes. Taxes alter, and meadows are plowed up for newly profitable crops. Roads improve, and rich people build weekend estates. The human population becomes larger and wealthier, and deserted ridges become popular picnic sites. In the years since civil servant Richard Adams walked these hills in the 1950s, and chief rabbit Hazel-Rah led his comrades up Watership Down, twenty generations of rabbits have grown and died. Their descendants probably have not noticed this half-century of change; but you will.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Downlands, Arable fields cover the rolling hills south of the down's crest; see "Watership Down", p267 [Ask for #253.098.]


Crops cover the rolling hills on the south side of Watership Down. Had their Journey been made in years gone by, they would have found the downs far more open, without standing crops, grazed close by sheep; and they could hardly have hoped to go far unobserved by enemies. But the sheep were long gone and the tractors had plowed great expanses . . . [Ask for #253.098.]

The Meadows

In all of this large and sprawling epic, there is only one fictionalized piece of landscape: the housing subdivision that destroys the rabbits' original home. The subdivisions have certainly come close; you can see the goal posts of Newbury's new rugby field from the site of their warren, on a hillside just south of this bustling West Berkshire town. However, the warren itself remains well-protected by England's draconian planning laws that prohibit all new home construction in conservation areas such as this. Homes (and, most recently, a superstore) crowd up to the edge of the forbidden zone, and stop.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Wayfarer's Walk (path) from Watership Down to Ladle Hill, View across a gate over the down's steep northern face [Ask for #253.146.]


The conservation area covering the rabbits' trek from Newbury to Watership Down is known as the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This is a view from the downs' crest. [Ask for #253.146.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Footpath to Watership Down, waymarked as the "Wayfarer's Walk". [Ask for #253.137.]


A public footpath (one of many) runs through the North Wessex Downs AONB. [Ask for #253.137.]

Visiting is easy enough and worth the while of anyone who loves beautiful countryside. An old lane, long closed to vehicles but open to walkers, starts across from the former manor, Sandleford Priory (now a boys’ school), and heads east into what was once the manor’s park – now farmland and the site of the bunnies’ original home, Sandleford Warren. Park without blocking the gate, cross the stile, and enjoy the walk through fields and forests seldom seen by outsiders. The land rolls down to the River Enbourne, a strip of trees on your left; and up across fields on your right, to rich, deep forests that hide Newbury and smother its noise. Great fields of broad beans, covered in their lovely little flowers, line much of the path, yielding their heavy sweet smell in the spring. When the lane crosses a rivulet, you are there. The warren was up the hill, behind you and to your right.

Should you (illegally) stray from the footpath uphill to where the warren set beneath the fine old copse, you won’t find any rabbits. It’s a hunt club now. Shotgun shells litter the ground, and blinds perch in the great oak trees, like tree houses for grownups. The rabbits are long gone.

ENG: South East Region, West Berkshire, Kennet Valley, Newbury, Sandleton Park, Public footpath leads through farmland just outside Newbury; described in "Watership Down", p15. Pea field on left, as on p.49. [Ask for #253.128.]


This farm road, a public footpath, runs very close to the warren the rabbits are fleeing from, Sandleford Warren. [Ask for #253.128.]
ENG: South East Region, West Berkshire, Kennet Valley, Newbury, Sandleton Park, Rolling hill topped by small woods. Site of 'Sandleford Warren' in "Watership Down", p11 [Ask for #253.132.]


High Wood, the site of Sandleford Warren, just south of Newbury in West Berkshire. [Ask for #253.132.]
ENG: South East Region, West Berkshire, Kennet Valley, Newbury, Sandleton Park, Peas in flower, as in "Watership Down", p.49. [Ask for #253.129.]


Broad beans (fava beans) in flower, very near to the Sandleford Warren. The strange fragrance was stronger now, coming over the top of the rise in a wave of scent that struck him powerfully . . . beyond, moving gently in the breeze, stood a field of broad beans in full flower. [Ask for #253.129.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, RABBIT'S LEVEL VIEW of wildflowers and grass along the Wayfarer's Walk footpath. [Ask for #253.138.]


Rabbit's level view of a grassy meadow. [Ask for #253.138.]

The Commons

The rabbits encounter a strange and frightening place, alien to their experience. This was “...Newtown Common – a country of peat, gorse, and silver birch.” They push through thick heather covered in dew, which quickly soaks their fur; they claw over ground made up of soaked peat and sharp white stones. There is nothing fit to eat and nowhere fit to dig; no food and no cover. And it goes on all night, until the bravest are exhausted from fear.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, Burghclere Area, Newtown Commons, RABBIT'S LEVEL VIEW of the commons, past wild rhododendrons, described in "Watership Down", p 57. [Ask for #253.121.]


Rabbit's level view of the rough heathland of Newtown Commons. [Ask for #253.121.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, Burghclere Area, Newtown Commons, Rabbit's level view of the commons, past wild rhododendrons. [NOTE: Crop for vignetting.] [Ask for #253.120.]

Another rabbit's level view of Newton commons, past wild rhododendrons. . . . Newtown Common — a country of peat, gorse and silver birch. After the meadows they had left, this was a strange, forbidding land. [Ask for #253.120.]

And, most marvelously, it’s still there, and still a common. That is, Newton Common is still in common ownership of the villagers of Newtown, who possess certain rights to use its resources but can’t fence or farm it. In medieval times they would cut firewood and peat, coppice trees for pollards (that is, cut large trees for the poles that would grow from their stumps), graze their goats and sheep in the summer, and “mast” their pigs in the winter, letting them survive semi-wild off the autumn nut and acorn crop.

From our towering viewpoint, easily looking over the inedible heather, it’s a wonderful place. Newtown Common is lush with vegetation of all sorts and flush with wildlife. Beech, oak, pine, and birch fight for footholds in the poor soil; underneath, the trees open into large expanses of heather, gorse, and tough bog grass. Brilliant yellow gorse flowers succeed to the delicate lavender of heather blooms. A maze of paths cross over hard white stones and deep black peat; walk softly, and watch for a startled grouse or red deer.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, Burghclere Area, Newtown Village, Village church (c. 1869), with a bridge over a small brook, as described in "Watership Down" p57 [Ask for #253.123.]


The Newtown village church. By moonrise they had made their way through Newtown churchyard, where a little brook runs between the lawns and under the path. [Ask for #253.123.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, Burghclere Area, Newtown Village, Village church (c. 1869); lawn roller leaning against flint wall. [Ask for #253.126.]


A lawn roller leans against the flint walls of the Newtown village church. [Ask for #253.126.]

The River Test

In their daring raid on the Efrafa warren, the band of rabbits hides out on the far side of a small river, believing (correctly) that the enemy rabbits would not patrol there. Rabbits do not like wet places, and the River Test is positively soggy. And rabbits do not like to cross weird human structures like bridges – something our heros face with a great deal of trepidation. Most intriguing is the rabbits’ escape plan, floating in a punt down the middle of the thirty-foot wide Test, a plan formed by the cleverest of the rabbits, Blackberry.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, The Upper Test Valley, Freefolk, Small lake on the River Test [Ask for #253.162.]


A small lake on the River Test, near Freefolk. [Ask for #253.162.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, The Upper Test Valley, Freefolk, View of the River Test, showing the bank vegetation and the clear water; see "Watership Down", p369 [Ask for #253.088.]


View of the River Test near Freefolk. [Ask for #253.088.]

“On almost any other river, Blackberry’s plan would not have worked,” Adams tells us. But the Test is a special river. First, it’s a chalk river, spring-fed from the water seeping from underneath Watership Down. Its flow is constant and fast, its waters are crystalline, and its bed made of sand, gravel, and bits of flint. Second, the Test is renown as one of England’s premiere trout fisheries. As such, it is groomed as carefully as any cottage garden, its center kept free of obstructions, its flow carefully managed. When you look at the Test from any of its many bridges you see straight through the fast, clear water to the few strands of water weeds waving downstream from the gravel.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, The Upper Test Valley, Freefolk, The clear water and gravelly bottom of the River Test. [Ask for #253.164.]


The River Test near Freefolk, But here, on the Test, there were no submerged branches and no gravel spits or beds of weed above the surface at all. From bank to bank the current, regular and unvaried, flowed as fast as a man strolling. [Ask for #253.164.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, The Upper Test Valley, Whitchurch, Sluice gate of old mill (now a private home) that straddles the River Test [Ask for #253.174.]


The sluice gate of an old mill that straddles the River Test near Whitchuch. [Ask for #253.174.]

The rabbits’ hide-out is now strictly off-limits inside a private estate, Laverstoke Park. However, you can see virtually identical scenery a few hundred yards downstream, at Freefolk. Here a short lane crosses the Test on a brick arched bridge, to dead-end in a hundred yards at the village church. This is a good place to walk up and down the bank (fishing is strictly forbidden, reserved by the river’s owners), enjoying the riot of wildflowers, the clear, cold water, the water weeds bending in the fast current. The brick bridge is almost exactly like the one upon which the rabbits come a cropper – three arches, each with a scant foot’s clearance at the high point. Downstream is an old concrete weir, still in use to regulate flow. Further downstream, public footpaths cross the Test, swing away from it and back towards it, then recross it; but there is always a fisherman’s path along one bank or the other.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, The Upper Test Valley, Whitchurch, Arched brick bridge crosses the Test, a short distance north of the village. [Ask for #253.159.]


ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, The Upper Test Valley, Whitchurch, Arched brick bridge crosses the Test, a short distance north of the village. [Ask for #253.159.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, The Upper Test Valley, Freefolk, Arched brick bridge over the River Test, viewed from a weir. [Ask for #253.094.]


This is a different arched brick bridge, near Freefolk, viewed from a weir. [Ask for #253.094.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The North Downs, The Upper Test Valley, Freefolk, Old brick bridge over the River Test, showing the low arches described in "Watership Down", p374 [Ask for #253.084.]


The Freefolk brick bridge is similar to the brick bridge described in the book, which is now closed to the public. It was old, built of darkened bricks. Ivy trailed over it and the valerian and creeping mauve todflax. Well out from either bank stood four low arches — scarcely more than culverts, each filled by the stream to within a foot of the apex. [Ask for #253.084.]

Watership Down

A down is a chalk escarpment, steep in one direction and gentle in the other. Watership Down is simply one of a number of small prominences on a longer range, the Hampshire Downs. From its top the steep north face stretches left and right in an endless crescent that reaches to the horizon. Immediately below, the intensely private manor house named Sydmonton Court stands surrounded by its parks and fields, a intact relict of former glories. Most of this long stretch of remote hillside remains exactly as Hazel and his band first found it.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, View over the steep north face of Watership Down [Ask for #253.108.]


View over the steep north face of Watership Down, at the location of Hazel's warren.Three hundred feet the down rose vertically in a stretch of no more than six hundred — a precipitous wall, from the thin belt of trees at the foot to the ridge where the steep flattened out. [Ask for #253.108.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, RABBIT'S LEVEL VIEW of a patch of grass covered in wildflowers at the top of Watership Down, with a view into the valley below. [Ask for #253.105.]


A rabbit's level view of a patch of grass covered in wildflowers at the top of Watership Down. The solitude seemed like a release and a blessing. The height, the sky and the distance went to their heads and they skipped in the sunset.[Ask for #253.105.]

The rabbits built their new warren just over the shoulder of Watership Down, at the northern edge of a beech hanger named Cannon Avenue. A hanger, in this context, is an open wood at the top of a hill, such that its branches overhang the hill's edge. Today there is a gallop — a long track for training and exercising horses — between the down's edge and the beech hanger, but this may not have existed when the book was written in 1970 and certainly didn't exist when Adams lived here in 1958. A gallop has been bulldozed level and rolled flat, and any trace of a burrowing animal has extirpated. It would be very bad to be a bunny near a gallop. As it is, the Watership warren, the Honeycomb, is only a hundred yards from the gallop. Perhaps the gallop has been extended since the period when the book takes place. It certainly existed in some form, as it is mentioned in passing.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Horse gallop covering most of the crest of Watership Down [Ask for #253.107.]


The horse gallop covering most of the crest of Watership Down. [Ask for #253.107.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, View over the steep north face of Watership Down, showing pylons described p128 [Ask for #253.116.]


Pylons at the foot of Watership Down's steep north face. They had heard the unnatural humming of a pylon in the summer air; and had actually gone beneath it, on Fiver's assurance that it could do them no harm. p128 [Ask for #253.116.]

The Hampshire County Council has included the crest of Watership Down into their long distance footpath, The Wayfarer’s Walk. This path traces the steps of drovers, men who drove livestock to markets over very long distances, from medieval times through the early 19th Century. Like rabbits, drovers hated mud and settlements and searched out loose, dry soil with tall grass. Throughout the drovers’ long history Watership Down was covered in grass for miles in both directions, just the sort of place drovers liked. Take the Wayfarer’s Walk westward for a mile and you’ll come to a Celtic hillfort (a pre-Roman bank-and-ditch fortification) named Ladle Hill, about seven acres in size and never completed. Dating from sometime during the First Millennium B.C., it predates Britain’s rabbits by as much as a thousand years – as the Romans introduced rabbits to Britain around 50 A.D.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Wayfarer's Walk (path) from Watership Down to Ladle Hill, Path follows a fence engulfed in wildflowers; post with medallion waymarks marks an intersection. [Ask for #253.151.]


Wayfarer's Walk, from Watership Down to Ladle Hill. Here an intersection with other paths is marked with medallions, in front of a fence engulfed in wildflowers. [Ask for #253.151.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Wayfarer's Walk (path) from Watership Down to Ladle Hill, Line of beech trees marks the location of a long-abandoned hedgerow. [Ask for #253.143.]


The Wayfarer's Walk between Watership Down and Ladle Hill, follows a line of beech trees. Such lines might have been planted as windbreaks, or be the remnants of abandoned hedgerows. [Ask for #253.143.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Wayfarer's Walk (path) from Watership Down to Ladle Hill, Sheep graze along the path [Ask for #253.149.]


Sheep graze along Wayfarer's Walk. [Ask for #253.149.]

Enjoy the view, which is spectacular. Then retrace your steps to the west end of the gallop, where a large lump marks the remains of a Bronze Age tomb. The lane that extends southward is the one followed by the bunnies in their raid on Efrafa, its hedges replanted. A quarter-mile down this path on your right is a small surviving meadow of downland grass, alive with wildflowers in the spring, crossed by a public path that leads back to the lane. Walk quietly; look closely; here, and in the hedges that survive across the lane. The rabbits remain, as they always will.

ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, The South Downs, Winchester, Southern Suburbs (Badger Farm and Olivers Battery), A rabbit grazes in a residential back garden [Ask for #253.303.]


A rabbit grazes in the backyard of a cottage I rented near Watership Down. [Ask for #253.303.]
ENG: South East Region, Hampshire, North Wessex Downs AONB, Watership Down, Ordnance Survey map of Watership Down, c. 2016. [Ask for #990.156.]


Ordnance Survey map of Watership Down, c. 2016. The footpath marked by diamonds is the Wayfarers Way. [Ask for #990.156.]
Article by Jim Hargan
Originally published in British Heritage, July 2005.
Jim's Brit
Travel + History
Contact Jim at:   jim@JimsBrit.com
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