In 1978, at the age of 7, I saw my first film in the cinema: Watership Down. The (accurately) brutal and beautiful adaptation of Richard Adams’ rabbit epic still haunts me. I’ve read the book at least twice since and last Christmas felt compelled to watch the new BBC series. It’s a magnificent, moving tale and is based, at least in part, on real landscapes in north Hampshire.
Footloose in early January with a day of sunshine ahead, I fretted about where to go – and had a lightbulb moment: Watership Down. Let’s see what’s really there. You can also listen to this walk as a podcast
Watership Down is part of a ridge of downs just south of Newbury and I parked my car in the free car park in the village of Kingsclere at the foot of the downs, a 15-minute drive south from Junction 13 of the M4.
Kingsclere is a handsome village with a Georgian high street, pubs, butcher and café. Plus a magnificent flint-built church that dates from Norman times. It’s unusual weathervane is said to depict a bedbug in memory of when King John had a restless night in the Kingsclere Inn due to the tiny, irritating creatures. But the village is older – and first appears in the will of King Alfred the Great (he bequeathed the manor of Kingsclere to his daughter).
Leaving the village
Head south, down the high street before talking the right fork over a small chalk stream onto Bear Hill and then left onto Fox’s Lane. Ignore the first footpath on the left and walk about a quarter of a mile until you see a finger post pointing south towards the line of downs. Follow this track southwest until a T-juntion then turn right.
To the gallops
The path rises into scrub and then woodland. Turn uphill sharply and climb steeply thorugh the woodland and a kissing gate into a steep meadow with hawthorns. Look for red kites riding on the thermals above you and smaller birds flitting through the scrub. Green woodpeckers enjoy the anthills in the open areas. Soon you will reach a sort of plateau and a long grasses racehorse-training gallops of Canon Heath Down. Follow the path alongside these and cross the gallops where indicated but look out for horses.
On Watership Down
A wide well maintained track takes you to Watership Down. Look out for two tumuli (largely disguised by scrub). The top of Watership Down is thickly wooded – the trees clinging to the steep slope – but the trees (beech, ash, field maple and oak) are young so probably weren’t there when Adams wrote his book in the late 1960s. Rabbits are here though – and there are warrens in the open land below the trees. Most of the open part of Watership Down is fenced off farmland. You can see why it would make such a good rabbit stronghold, with views in all directions. Pretend to be Hazel for a while and enjoy a rest.
Follow the ridge
Follow the track to the left of the wood and cross the lane onto Ashley Warren Down and continue on the track opposite, taking a footpath right and under a pylon heading west in the direction of Ladle Hill. Much land has been set aside for wildlife here, with ponds, scrub and newly planted woodland – in winter there are huge flocks of tits, chaffinches, linnets and goldfinches.
Storm the hill fort
Follow the footpath west to the hillfort on Ladle Hill, a clear rampart and ditch that encloses seven acres. The land here is crisscrossed with earthworks and occasional tumuli – with glorious views over the vale to the north and west to more downs, including the impressive buttress of beacon hill.
Descend into the vale
After storming the hillfort, head south following the Wayfarer’s Way. The path isn’t clear to keep on the ridge and look for a switchback path on the right to take you north again. This path descends gently through woodland giving broad views over the arable landscape below – and the unhappy sound of the A34. Look for roe deer and hares in the fields here.
A glorious country estate
After at least a mile, the path ends in a road. Turn right towards Kingsclere. At Sydmonton, there is a lovely diversion north through the red-brick paradise of handsome houses, barns and walled gardens of Sydmonton Court. You can either retrace your steps and follow the lane back to Kingsclere, or, for more Watership Down lore, take the footpath north from the estate onto a lane.
After quarter of a mile, turned right on to the drive Watership Farm – a bustling stables. A quarter of a mile further on, at the road, look for a footpath heading south, initially running in a bridleway beside the road. This takes you to Nuthanger Farm where the Watership Down rabbits have a number of narrow escapes – and from whence their final deliverance is unleashed. But enough spoilers. Nuthanger Farm isn’t a humble rural homestead but a rather grand, prettily salmon pink Georgian country house. The setting is lovely offset only by the newly built mock-Georgian palace next door (under construction when I visited – and there was no big angry dog or hissing farm cat to greet me).
Return to Kingsclere
From there it’s a short walk south down the farm drive to the road and then a mile or so back to Kingsclere and refreshments in the Honesty café or, if you’re in need of something sterner to get thoughts of General Woundwort from your mind, the handsome coaching inn The Crown.
Map of the walk courtesy of Ordnance Survey