It was a Saturday morning in very early spring – one of those fresh, crisp but not cold days when you can sit outside for a couple of hours and turn the pages of a book with ungloved hands.
I had escaped to the bottom of the garden to sit on the swing and read perhaps the first ‘grown-up’ novel I’d attempted. In my memory, I am 12, but the reprint date on the imprint page of the book I was holding – Watership Down by Richard Adams – tells me I must have been 13. It had been given to me as a surprise Christmas present by my cousin Ray, older than me by ten years.
I was a town-raised child. To me, public green space meant the managed town recreation ground with its swings, roundabouts and impossibly high slide with open metal steps and a narrow ledge right at the top. My family didn’t visit rural places for fun. We only drove through them to get to the nearby town where our relatives lived or the seaside resorts where we took our summer holidays. I rarely saw rivers or forests or hill-tops. I knew the names of garden flowers and trees, including the weeping willow in my neighbours’ back garden, but wild flowers and woodland trees were unfamiliar to me.
The wildest place I knew was, in fact, the bottom of our garden. Meant as a large vegetable plot, it was actually a neglected square of mud, weeds and brambles, just waiting for someone (a future owner) to turf it over. So it was probably the best place for me to open Watership Down and read the first words, which carried me off in imagination to that alien place, the countryside:
The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog-mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes…
I loved the book from beginning to end. I was touched by the character of Hazel, Chief Rabbit of his warren not because he was the biggest, strongest, fastest, cleverest or most creative, but because he was able to meld all the holders of those titles into a team that could achieve great things together. I also vaguely understood that there were real places like Efrafa in human society – cruel totalitarian states where dissent was disallowed and spirits were all but crushed by harsh regulation and even harsher penalties.
In the story, by the time the Watership Down warren is besieged by the Efrafans, Hazel is lame, and his inspired escape to the farm with Blackberry and Dandelion, to release their rescuer, is overlooked by General Woundwort as utterly insignificant: ‘It doesn’t matter. Let them go. There’ll be three less when we get in.’ Woundwort is rather like Lord Voldemort, the arch-villain of a later tale, in his assumption that the smallest and weakest creatures (lame rabbits / house-elves / children) are no threat to tyrants.
The 1978 movie of Watership Down disappointed me. Disastrously mis-marketed as a kiddies’ film, it’s now infamous for traumatising the children it was supposed to entertain! The sad little song ‘Bright eyes’ was all wrong too – a death-lament to accompany a story that celebrates ongoing life.
The two-part TV adaptation shown just before Christmas 2018 was better – simple and humorous without glossing over the violence that’s an integral part of the story. (Just one big complaint: Bigwig’s decision to call Hazel ‘Chief Rabbit’ at the crucial moment should have been his choice, not Hazel’s suggestion…)
Nothing beats the book, though. I’ve walked on Watership Down itself since first reading about it in my muddy back garden on a fresh, crisp spring morning in 1977. But the magic is in the imagination, seeing the hedgerows from a rabbit’s-eye view and listening to approaching thunder with a rabbit’s ears.
Nothing enhances a river like a weeping willow tree planted on its banks, overhanging the water. The tree itself is watery, the wavy branches with their long leaf-sprays flowing up and over in imitation of a fountain.
The first willow tree I ever knew, though, was not by a river. My next-door neighbours when I was a child had one in their back garden.
Willows drink a lot of water from the ground around their roots, and it showed.The earth beneath the tree, within the area enclosed by the drooping branches, had no chance of growing any grass, partly, I suppose, because it got very little light but also because the willow was so thirsty for moisture that there was none to spare for any other green growth.
On the rare occasions when I played next door (the little girl of the family was younger than me – closer to my sister’s age), I enjoyed sheltering inside the waving curtain of branches, being encircled by that delicate fretwork of leaves. It felt secret and secure without being scarily closed in.
I loved to look at the tree from across the fence, too. But I was destined not to look at it for long. Late one Saturday morning I woke to the awareness that far more light than usual was coming through my thin bedroom curtains. Looking outside to work out what was happening, I was shocked to see that the weeping willow had gone. Only a stump remained. The neighbours’ lawn recovered from the loss, but I’m not sure I ever did.
We had a tree in our garden as well – an apple. After I’d left home, it too was cut down, and I never really knew why. Though not as spectacular in form as the willow, it was more useful, providing a ready-made cricket stump in summer, windfall apples to eat in the autumn and a natural climbing frame for cats all year round. And in spring time, it excelled itself in beauty with masses of pink blossom.
Perhaps as a result of those experiences, I don’t trust in the permanence of trees. The enormous yew that stands right outside my bedroom window now – as tall, as wide and probably as old as the house – I worry that it doesn’t look as healthy as it did 15 years ago. The magnolia in the garden across the road, with a wind-chime hidden in its foliage – it could fall victim to the owners’ sudden whim for a rose-bed, for all I know. The line of sycamores in the car park opposite – might they one day be sacrificed for a few more parking spaces?
There’s no room in my own tiny courtyard garden for a willow, an apple, a yew or a magnolia, but I have managed to squeeze in a small Japanese maple, in a corner bed that was once a pond. In its first few years of life, the maple’s leaves shrivelled up every summer, and one whole side of it eventually died completely. But new growth sprouted from the bottom, and now I can usually rely on it to stay alive all year round and to turn from purple to scarlet in the autumn.
The maple is my responsibility, and I shall never willingly chop it down. And in my memory of the place where I grew up, the apple and the willow are both still standing.