Six years ago when we moved into our neglected nineteenth-century house on the edge of Hampshire’s chalk downs it was a move into two worlds. One was of damp walls, dangerously amateur wiring, a wheezing boiler and icy, see-your-own-breath bedrooms. The other was of the world that lay beyond the streaming window-panes, the sea of rolling green turf that filled the view on two sides from our position in the valley – Watership Down.
Richard Adams’s first and far and away most successful book was published in 1972 but it feels as if it’s been with us for much longer, so established is it now in the list of childhood classics. Originating in the stories Adams told his children to lighten the boredom of long car journeys, Watership Down is a simple tale, but one with epic and universal themes: an arduous and dangerous journey, near-death encounters, doubts over a self-imposed exile from a lost homeland, loss of innocence and the search for peace; a peace that would eventually be found – as it has been for us – on Watership Down.
Walking along the old drover’s road to the top of the down I sometimes see and hear the rabbits that are the heroes of the book, all bustle and haste on the dark edges of the beech hangers. Carry on past coppiced woods and path verges knee-deep in cow parsley and you emerge blinking on to the bright and open down itself. This is where the rabbits’ journey comes to an end, but the journey begins with a febrile, terrifying vision. It is late springtime, five miles to the north on Sandleford Common – easily visible across farmland and copses – where the story begins. Fiver, a rabbit-prophet of sorts, sits before a man-made sign. ‘This is where it comes from!’ he tells his brother Hazel. ‘There isn’t any danger here, at this moment. But it’s coming – it’s coming. Oh, Hazel, look! The field! It’s covered with blood!’
Though he doesn’t understand the words on the sign, Fiver has sensed th
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