The footpath into Sandleford Park starts directly opposite St Gabriel's School, but you wouldn't know it without a map, since there was no information whatsoever telling you that it was a Right of Way. The presence of a stile was a good clue, however, and in any case I still had my trusty Ordnance Survey maps, complete with little a dotted "public footpath" line. So, over the gate I went, and found myself before too long walking along a path through a field that sloped gently down to the River Enborne, as you can see below.
On that photo, things look nicely open, don't they? And indeed they were, if we're referring to the lack of any physical barriers. However, one thing that did spoil this part of the day a little for me was the quite extraordinary number of "Private Land. Keep Out. No Right of Way" signs that the landowners had put up practically everywhere to either side of the path. Honestly, would someone walking from the path down to the river along the edge of that field really have caused any trouble? Still, as I'd already seen the Enborne, I didn't feel the need to stray from the path here.
The path now ran quite markedly downhill and became somewhat muddy. The cause of this was clear: at the bottom of the dip a small stream ran under the path by means of an overgrown culvert, as pictured above. There was no doubt that this was the brook mentioned on the very first page of WD as being "no more than three feet wide, half-choked with king-cups, water-cress and blue brook-lime." I was walking along the "lane" mentioned at the very end of the first paragraph of the book.
One thing that struck me as I walked along this path was that I had seen very little evidence of "rabbitation." No holes, no hraka - nothing. It could well be that I was simply looking in the wrong place, and of course all those "Keep Out" notices discouraged thoughts of searching too hard, but it was odd nevertheless. Still, some way beyond Gorse Covert, I did get to see another important site to the south-west. You may recognise the picture below from the film, and careful reading of the book leads me to believe that the location is the same there.
If you haven't guessed, I'll tell you now: this is the very field that Fiver saw "covered with blood" right at the start of Watership Down, in "The Notice Board." And that line of trees is the same one that (in the film) seemed to cast the light of the sunset into blood-red shadows on the grass. Standing there now, on a still pleasant late afternoon, the place seemed benign, and I reflected that, had Sutch and Martin had their way, I would probably now be in the middle of some "exclusive development of luxury apartments" or the like. Considering that, the "Private" signs seemed almost a blessing.
The actual Sandleford warren site is sadly completely inaccessible and invisible from the path, but you can see the wood mentioned in chapter 1, and on the far side of that would have been the Threarah's warren itself. The picture below gives a reasonable general view of the wood. You can't really tell from this photo, but the wood is in fact not deep - perhaps only twice the width of the beech hanger itself.
It was clear now that my day was coming to a close, as the path was approaching the edge of the grounds of a large school - and sad to say, this coincided exactly with a marked increase in the amount of litter lying about. Beyond the school were the southern suburbs of Newbury, and all at once the path became a straightforward suburban close. However, I was pleased to find that it bore the name "Warren Road," and that one of the houses along it bore a most appropriate name, as can be seen from my final photograph.
What remains to tell? Very little, if truth be told. I walked the two miles (in theory; it felt like four) back to the centre of Newbury, a nondescript walk if ever there was one. However, nothing could take away from the fact that I had walked over the same grass once trodden by Hazel, Bigwig, Pipkin and the rest, and that in itself was exhilarating and elating. I hope you've enjoyed travelling with me over the Downs; for myself I am content to sit back in the certain knowledge that one day I shall return. =:)
Copyright © David "Loganberry" Buttery 2004. Updated 08/04/04.