On Watership Down.
Books, words and wildlife have always gone hand in hand for me; from the small brown Observer’s Book of Birds Grandad gifted me, and the pocket money Punchbowl Farm books I discovered in my local Oxfam shop, to The Wind in the Willows that mapped the chalkstream Moors of Pangbourne for me, and Tarka, Devon. I am one of those people that likes to read a book ‘in season’ or in its place: Wuthering Heights in a storm on the Yorkshire Moors, The Return of the Native on a glow-worm-peppered heath, Tess of the D’Urbervilles with my back to a gibbet. But nothing mapped the narrative landscape of my life quite like Richard Adams’s Watership Down.
As a novel, Watership Down is a dark, brutal, but eventually uplifting tale and I can still recall, as many of my generation can, the haunting film of 1978. The rabbits are threatened, oppressed, hunted refugees who ultimately make it to their place of greater safety and a new life.
Sometimes it takes a new generation to discover an old classic, and your Mum to take you (and her granddaughters) to see the play. Adapted by Rona Munro, at our wonderful, burrow-like Watermill Theatre, Watership Down was beautifully told, clever and unsentimental. It left the wildflowers, language and landscape in, the little bit of bread and no cheese of yellowhammer song and the cherry dew, cherry dew; knee deep, knee deep of song thrush, as well as the brilliantly realised, foul-mouthed gull Kehaar. The battles, protest and odyssey took on fresh meaning for a book so local to me, I have lived in every location it maps. I grew up where it starts and made my own pilgrimage to the ‘high, lonely hills’ where it ends. Like the map in my Hardy Novels, I trace the real landscape through the imagined.
Warren Road, Wash Common is the housing development that precipitated the rabbit’s flight. The dramatic irony of the developer’s sign that pre-empts Fiver’s apocalyptic vision was almost too much: this ex-warren looks likely to lead to a new, much bigger development. When the rabbits flee, they cross the River Enborne (its source a few hundred metres from my house) and the heathland of Newtown Common, ‘where the very plants were strange to them’, is where I got married. The Test River the rabbits cross, rose through the walls of our first damp, cob-and-chalk house. And for a while we lived in a burrow ourselves at Siddown Warren, on the ‘high clear downs’, and have ridden, cycled, walked and even slept out on those hills. I know the title of Chapter 5: The North-East Corner of the Beech Hangar on Watership Down, intimately.
The theatre backdrop could have been a warren entrance, a shining stream or a chalk track, nobbled with flints and more luminous than the sky, leading to home and the hills we run to. I wonder if Adams knew what binding, freeing magic it was to write a story with such a strong sense of place? Its journey, earthbound premonitions and its sense of things beyond?
Books take on a life of their own when others read them. I’ve been running to the hills ever since.