The Watership Down Walk
Visit the setting of the famous novel by Richard Adams.
Richard Adams' 1972 novel Watership Down follows the adventures of a band of intrepid rabbits after their warren is destroyed by human development. They journey across the English countryside, encountering dangers from enemies and rabbits alike as they search for a new home. With its elements of exodus, survival, warfare, folklore and spirituality, it is little wonder that this book has gained a large and devoted following.
What makes the story particularly interesting is that the countryside featured in the novel is real. The rivers, roads, hills and forests that the rabbits encounter in the book actually exist, and many, myself included, have made the journey to visit them.
Finding your way around can be a bit tricky, though, especially if you're not familiar with all the local foot paths and hiking trails. Below is a documentation of the paths I took, which will take you through each of the landmarks in the novel from beginning to end. I've also made a map of the area.
A few things to know before you go:
1. Wear bright colors. You never know when someone might be out hunting pheasants.
2. Wear sturdy, protective boots and waterproof pants for muddy paths, and carry a poncho in case the weather turns against you.
3. This trail covers a distance of about twenty miles - visitors should plan accordingly.
4. Always respect private property, and do a little research about public right of way laws.
5. No littering, and keep all dogs leashed.
The journey begins at the Newbury Rugby Football Club. Above the parking lot, the Club's field is bordered by a wooden fence. From here you may look out over a row of young trees into the field where Sandleford Warren was. The slopes of two opposing hills meet at the banks of an overgrown brook. These are the fields that Fiver said were 'covered with blood.'
To continue, return to the parking lot and turn left onto Monks Lane. Turn left again onto Andover Road, and yet again onto the aptly named Warren Road. Warren gradually gives way to a public foot path, which will take you through wide open fields, circle around, and cross the little brook the Sandleford Rabbits followed as they left their warren for good. This brook eventually empties out into the Enborne River. You are not far from the place where the rabbits crossed the Enborne, but since that place is on private property, you must cross further downstream.
The Enborne Crossing
Follow the foot path uphill, and it will take you to Newtown Road, across the street from St. Gabriel's School. Cross the road and follow the sidewalk downhill. You will soon come to a roundabout, which made an appearance in Episode 15 of the Watership Down TV series. Turn right, and you will be crossing a bridge that traverses the Enborne River.
A little flight of brick steps descends from the bridge to the northern bank of the river, and here you may stop for a moment to imagine Blackberry getting his nose under a plank of wood as Fiver and Pipkin shiver on top.
From the Enborne, continue down the road. On your right is the field where Hazel suggested his crew take cover amidst the fragrant bean plants. On your left is the road where Bigwig explained hrududil to the others and escorted them across. Crossing this road, the foot path will take you through a small wooden gate and into the cemetery of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin and St. John the Baptist, which made an appearance in the film.
After passing through the churchyard, turn right and follow the road up to the parking area of Newtown Common. Hiking paths abound in this wood, and travelers are advised to take their time here. Richard Adams was known for his love of natural history, and in Watership Down dwelt on how strange the trees, herbage and soil were to the Sandleford Rabbits as they made their miserable way through.
Follow the paths eastward through the Common. They will cross the Adbury Holt road into Herbert Plantation, and finally take you to Church Lane.
Turn right on Church Lane. Just before reaching The Clere School, a brick wall will mark the entrance of a residential street on the left. This street will take you past many houses, and eventually down a farmer's driveway and through their yard. Keep in mind, you're still on a public foot path, but good manners will be your best friend here. The path will circle around Batt's Copse on your left, and then turn right between two open fields.
Following this path, at a gap in the hedge by a large tree, you will be able to look out over three fields to a line of trees in the distance. This is the High Wood, where Cowslip's Warren was situated, and where Bigwig nearly stopped running.
Continue along the path and it will take you over the crest of a hill, from the top of which, if you strain hard enough, you will catch your first glimpse of Watership Down (it's not the hill with the radio tower, but the one to the right).
Trek downhill and across a dirt road, and you will find yourself crossing several fields were cattle and sheep graze. Watch your step.
Eventually the path will take you through someone's back yard (still a public path) to a street called Hydes Platt. Turn right and follow it south into the village of Ecchinswell. Turn left toward Kingsclere at The Royal Oak Free House, and after half a mile turn right onto the foot path. This will circle Nuthanger Copse and let you out right at the front gates of Nuthanger Farm.
Follow the driveway south. It was along this drive that Hazel, Bigwig and the others were chased away with the hutch rabbits after their raid on the farm, though you won't find any storm drain where Hazel took shelter.
At the bottom of the drive is Sydmonton Road. With Watership Down looming overhead, and the line of pylons visible through the hedge, turn right and the road will take you back to Hydes Platt.
Hydes Platt snakes as it climbs the steep slope between Watership Down and Ladle Hill. The next foot path will be on your left. As you climb, you might notice the high concentration of white chalk in the soil.
Eventually, after a total of ten miles of hiking, you will find yourself standing on Watership Down. From here you may explore the Beech Hanger, take a picture with Richard Adams' memorial tree and search for rabbits between the equestrian obstacles. One of the foot paths takes you all the way to the edge of the Down, and it's here that I recommend you sit down for a nice afternoon silflay as you take in the view.
Two miles of southward foot paths will take you through farmlands to Caesar's Belt, a line of trees that follows the path of an ancient Roman road. Its unnatural straight line unsettled Silver as he made the journey to Efrafa.
From Caesar's Belt, follow the Cole Henley Road and turn left down another foot path. Two more miles of farmland will take you to a perpendicular bridle path called the Harrow Way. This path is very popular with equestrians, joggers and dog walkers. Follow the path to the west, and soon it will intersect Jack Mills Lane. You are now at the Crixa, the center of Efrafa.
The Railway Arch
Head south on Jack Mills Lane. To your right are the fields where Bigwig escaped with the Efrafan does on his way to meet Kehaar. Jack Mills Lane goes over the train tracks by way of a brick bridge. On your right will be a field that borders the tracks to the south. While it's not technically open to the public, you can head down to the farm at the end of the road and ask for permission to look around.
Once you enter the field, follow the tractor tracks. The Railway Arch will be on your right. If you're lucky, you'll get to see one of the trains go racing by. Many fans have written quotes from the book and names of their favorite characters on the bricks of the arch.
The River Test
At the foot of Jack Mills Lane is a street called The Lynch, which turns right into Southington Lane, and then crosses the River Test. Just as Richard Adams describes, it is a trout stream, wide, smooth and shallow, where people can fish from the banks.
Regrettably, the bridges encountered by the rabbits in the book are all on a private estate. Only one can be seen from the main road.
Turning right at the end of Southington Lane, London Road will take you up Rotten Hill. After a mile, you may look to the right down a private drive and see a brick bridge. It was here that the punt stopped, and all the rabbits had to jump out, float under the bridge and clamber ashore.
(Note: The 76 bus makes frequent stops along London Road between Overton and Whitchurch if you're tired of walking.)
The Watership Down Inn
Continue further along London Road. You will pass a row of connected thatch-roof cottages and finally come into Freefolk, where the Watership Down Inn is on Priory Lane. Why not stop in for a drink?
And of course, no trip to Watership Down is complete without visiting the man who made it famous. Follow London Road even further, and it will take you to Whitchurch. From the roundabout in the center of town, follow Church Street past All Hallows Church. Whitchurch Cemetery will be on your right.
Richard Adams is buried by the back entrance.
If you ever get the chance to visit Watership Down, you may find that it's not what you were hoping it would be.
You show up with your head full of adventure and drama and talking rabbits, and then when you look around, all you see are ordinary places. The fields are just fields, the rivers are just rivers, and Watership Down, for all its natural beauty and breathtaking views, is just a hill.
Watership Down is a wonderful place to visit, but it's easy to build it up in your head to the point that reality can't measure up. While this can put a damper on your trip, there is an antidote:
As you explore the Watership Down Walk, suspend your disbelief. Let yourself believe, with childlike wonder, that it was all real, and that it happened in the place where you stand.
Believe, and take a look around, and see how everything changes...