Some days just have to be celebrated and Sunday 3 February 2019 was one of those days. Blue skies and sunshine shone over a landscape transformed by snow: Hampshire and Berkshire were a wintery delight. Although the lanes were ice rinks the main roads were clear and we were able to park in a lay-by at the start of a bridleway that was once a Roman road, The Portway, close to the tiny village of Litchfield. The Portway once ran from Silchester, north of Basingstoke, to Old Sarum, close to Salisbury. This is the longest section of public path on its route, leading for approximately four kilometres past a plantation known as Caesar’s Belt https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Way
Even though it was already past 10.30am the temperature was still well below freezing and the snow was frozen into ice where the trees had dripped the day before, or crusted with a fragile layer that gave way beneath our boots with a sudden lurch. The crunching sounded loud in the still air, almost drowning out the roar of the A34 nearby. Our route climbed steadily through a broad boundary ‘hedge’, where the trees threw deep blue shadows across our path. When we emerged into open fields the low sun pushed the blueness far out across the snow towards the ultramarine skies beyond.
The Portway climbed to a broad shoulder with magnificent views to the south over a black and white patchwork of Hampshire fields, then rose and fell across a series of shallow valleys. Every field had a group of hares, racing each other over the stubble. red kites flew above, their keening cries echoing, alert for the possibility of a kill. Fox tracks perforated the snow, and a badger sett gaped like a dark wound. Blood and feathers on the path told of tragedy and triumph. Everywhere animal tracks crisscrossed the snow, writing their lives onto the land.
We crossed a narrow icy lane to climb up beside the woods of Caesar’s Belt, and found a hedge where the wind had cleared some grassy clumps making a warm seat for a lunch of hot homemade soup with potato and rosemary bread. Shortly after we had eaten we left the Portway and climbed north towards Watership Down. In the eponymous book it is rabbits that inhabit the Down, but so far we had seen only hares.
The consistency of the snow had changed now and the crunch of earlier had given way to a squeak. The track was contained within a hedge and the wind had dumped snow into the gap making walking tough going in the drifts. We needed skis or snowshoes. Towards the top of the track the hedge gave way to fences above Ashley Warren Farm. A solitary red farm wagon was a splash of bright colour against the white and blue.
There were sheep digging for grass in the meadow beside the final climb to the top, and a few more human footprints. We had seen no one all day, and even on Watership Down itself – a busy place on a summer’s day – we only saw six or seven people. Why were there so few folk out there enjoying this perfect day? There was a plethora of rabbit tracks though, evidence of the characters that populate the book by Richard Adams, and high jumps for the race horses that train on the Down in summer.
We turned west, passing a field with the trig point, and followed the edge of the Down where derelict beech hedges have grown into elephantine trees. The snow plastered their trunks, etching them onto the sky. Beyond the trees was a wide expanse of open fields with an isolated tumulus and on the skyline the Iron Age hill fort of Ladle Hill. Blue shadowed footprints led up to its ramparts. A runner came past heading up from Great Litchfield Down.
The sun was beginning its descent towards sunset as we followed the runner’s tracks downhill. Across the dual carriageway of the A34 rose the mounds and ditches of Ladle Hill’s sister fort, Beacon Hill, clearly delineated by the low light. The path took us down broad ridge to farm tracks. In the distance a tractor drove slowly, trailing a child on a sledge.
This part of our route was along part of the Wayfarers Walk and here it turns away from Great Litchfield Down to take a steep narrow valley down to the A34. A permissive path along a former railway line heads towards Litchfield avoiding the dangerous crossing of the main road by leading to a farm underpass. We trespassed briefly along the old road to reach the tiny estate village of Litchfield with its attractive church from where a short trudge along the old Whitchurch road brought us back to the car. What a magnificent day!