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Part Five - On Watership Down

The first couple of hundred yards or so of the Wayfarer's Walk are fairly nondescript, with woodland to your left blocking any distant views, but before long you come up over the rise onto the ridgeline of the Down itself (passed a sadly fenced-off trig point that marks the hill's highest point) and see... well, the one thing you don't get is "a high, lonely place ... where ... men hardly ever come." In the book, the rabbits see only one or two people in the course of an entire day, but while I was up there I don't think I went more than twenty minutes without seeing another human being, and this on a weekday in March. Still, before doing anything else, I took out of my bag the rather battered copy of WD that I take more or less everywhere, and recorded its presence for posterity, as you can see below.

WD book

Back to the Down itself, though. The existence of gallops on the hills is mentioned in the book - the rabbits are told of them by the mouse they save from the kestrel - but it would seem that the use of the Down by horses has greatly increased since those days. It's actually a somewhat startling sight to have slogged up several hundred feet yet be confronted with well-mown turf and hedge-hurdles for schooling horses. At the western edge of the summit, there is a big open grassy area, and it takes a minute before you realise that you need to go straight on and not turn right down the hill towards Cannon Heath Farm. I was half-expecting a notice warning of soil erosion, since chalk is easily worn away, but didn't see one anywhere on the Downs.

What I did see were fences. There's no getting away from this: Watership Down is not the open hillside it once was, and human access is quite severely restricted. This inevitably takes away a little of the feeling of freedom that the story gets across, and in that sense it's a sad reflection of just how developed much of southern England now is; anyone used to the more open hillsides of Snowdonia, the Pennines, Dartmoor or even the Shropshire hills may find it hard to warm to. It doesn't help that it's at such low altitude - the aforementioned trig point is at just 247m (810 feet). However, this disappointment is tempered somewhat when you think that it is rabbits who have their adventures here, and that given the easily-dug topsoil, for them the fences are no barrier at all. One should also reflect that the use of the fields for training horses and not for growing crops makes it less likely that the local farmers will wish to exterminate the rabbits that most certainly do live up here.

View from the Down

I felt some very strong emotions on Watership Down, and despite the fences the majority of them were happy ones. However, it was also here that perhaps my single greatest disappointment was encountered; the fences (which have flexible tops, making them more or less unclimbable even if I had been that way inclined) prevent you getting to the spot at which Dandelion makes his famous outburst as he sees the view into the valley below. You are kept a considerable way back from the brow of the Down; I really don't see why a small gate should not be put here for the use of WD enthusiasts, given that there are no crops growing here, but only grass. Even so, you can still see a long way, and although the view was rather hazy when I was up there, the photo above shows quite clearly the view northwards towards Nuthanger Farm; if you look carefully on the full-size version you can easily see the lane leading to it in the middle of the picture.

On Watership Down

Of course, the place on Watership Down that stands out to a fan more than any other is the beech hanger where the Honeycomb itself was located, and the site of the climactic battle against Woundwort's Efafans. I dearly wanted to visit this, despite the fact that the Great Beech itself had been almost destroyed in a storm some years ago. The problem was that the Ordnance Survey map seemed to indicate that the whole hanger was fenced off, and I had resolved at the start of my journey that I would not trespass at any point. What to do? Well, you'll have to wait until the next section to discover that, but for the time being let's stick to the main path; the photo above is pretty typical of the highest part of the Down.

Despite all those fences, the sense of place up here was very strong indeed, and I would certainly urge any Watership Down fan who has the chance to pay a visit. It was just so wonderful to be able to look at the hillside and think that Hazel, Fiver and the rest spent (after the Efrafans' defeat, anyway) such happy lives up here. There was certainly a shiver, too, when I recalled the book's Epilogue, and that here too had been... well, either El-ahrairah or the Black Rabbit or both, depending on your outlook! =:P The photo below is back towards the distant beech hanger from the east - since I'm saving the hanger section for later, this is slightly out of strict chronological order.


Of course, most people think of the view from Watership as being the one down the steep slope to the north, towards Nuthanger Farm. Actually, though, while more gentle in nature the scenery to the south is quite pleasing on the eye as well - and would probably have been a very popular area for the Watership rabbits to enjoy an evening silflay. My final photo in this section (which is a little blurry, I'm afraid) shows the view down towards Cannon Heath Farm. *grins* And yes, the section after this may well involve a certain beech hanger... =;)

Cannon Heath Farm