This article is no longer available on-line and was copied from

the website below on November 9, 2001.




My Afternoon with Richard Adams

by Jamie Cohen
from the House Rabbit Journal, Spring, 1999

It was a cool, but sunny fall day when we pulled into the driveway of Richard and Elizabeth Adams in the charming village of Whitchurch, about 60 miles southwest of London. My girlfriend Kirstin and I were so exited to meet the author of Watership Down. I had begun a correspondence with Richard after writing him when I first read Watership Down four years before. I loved the book and characters so much that I had to let him know. To my surprise and delight, he responded with a letter thanking me and we've been corresponding ever since. I wrote him that I was planning a trip to England in October '98 and he answered with an invitation to lunch at his home and a visit to the real Watership Down!

Richard and Elizabeth greeted us at the door and we entered their charming house that dates back to 1790. The house is tastefully and comfortably decorated and I spotted several rabbit items among his pictures and knickknacks: mementos from the Watership Down publisher, gifts from fans, and a beautiful framed photograph of a wild rabbit sent to Richard from R.M. Lockley. We then were invited into their living room, offered a glass of wine before lunch and we talked. There was so much I wanted to know about the story.

"I know that Watership Down began as a story you told your children," I began. "Can you tell us how it came to be?" Although Richard has a degree in Modern History, English literature is one of his passions. He wished to expose his daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, to the works of William Shakespeare early and would drive them to Stratford-on-Avon to attend plays. The drive was long, probably five hours, and Richard recalled he told his little girls he would tell a story on the way. Once in the car the girls said, "Daddy, start immediately." I can understand their impatience. Richard has a lovely voice, beautifully British, and when he tells a story his words are as well put together as when you read his books. His dramatic intonation is riveting.

And so began the story of the rabbits that we've come to know and love. Richard said, "The first thing that came into my mind, I don't know if you recall this at all, was the story of Agamemnon, one of the earliest Greek tragedies. Agamemnon comes back from the Trojan War and brings with him a prophetic girl called Cassandra, part of his booty really, a concubine who Clytaemestra, his wife, doesn't like at all. Well, Cassandra had upset Apollo in someway or another and he had cursed her. And the curse was that she should always prophesize the truth and never be believed. When Agamemnon is summoned in the palace by Clytaemestra, he has this long scene with the chorus and it is one of the most effective bits. Cassandra sees the palace walls dripping with blood, blood pouring down the walls and she cries out in horror at this and the leader of the chorus says , 'You are a bit overwrought. It's not blood.' 'Yes it 'tis, I can see it! I can smell it too' she answers. He said, 'No, it's simply the smoke from the altar sacrifices from Agamemnon's homecoming which you smell.' And then she has this marvelous line, 'The stench is like a breath from the tomb. The line is terribly expressive, isn't it?"

I saw the connection between the stories and said, "You gave that line to Fiver."

"Ah, yes," he smiled. "Fiver saw the field running with blood and Hazel wouldn't believe it. I wasn't going to kill Fiver, though. I thought I've got a good character there.

"And the story just went on from there. It wasn't finished on the trip to Stratford. It continued on morning drives to school. It went on for about three weeks, if I remember, before we came to the conclusion, and then the little girls said, 'You know, Daddy, that's too good to waste. You ought to write that down. I said, 'No it would take too long to write, about a year. Also I have my work. I don't know if I can take on more work.' I resisted this for a long time and one night I was reading to them at bedtime and it wasn't a very good book. It jarred on me and I threw the book across the room and said, 'I could write better than that myself.' And the nine year old Juliet said very acidly, 'Well, I wish you would Daddy instead of keep on talking about it.' So thus stimulated, I got some legal paper and started writing in the evenings. I'd get home from work, have my supper, have a look at the 9:00 news on television and then I'd get down to writing another bit. This sometimes went on until 1:00 in the morning. I thoroughly got the bit between my teeth. I remember when I was writing the bit when Bigwig goes into Efrafa, I couldn't stop.

"I was wondering whatever I was going to say because when you're writing a novel, it's a bit like climbing a mountain. You have a general idea, you go look at the mountain and the team determines the route. But when you get onto the mountain you come up with things you have to deal with on the spot. As I was writing I would put in a lot of things that hadn't been in the original story that I thought would make it better. I can tell you one thing that was put in on the spur of the moment, the episode when they come to the warren where the rabbits are frightfully sleek and well fed and they pick up flayrah, expensive food, in the morning. Fiver won't have it, you remember? He was paralyzed with fear. As you know, they discover that the warren has been trapped by the farmer. Fiver didn't foresee the detail but he's foreseen the horror."

Kirstin asked, "Are some of the episodes, like this one with the well fed rabbits, meant to be like a fable with a moral? Those rabbits did have to pay the price to have the good food."

"They were decadent really, weren't they?" he replied. "I can assure you it wasn't planned in advance. It just came to me as I was writing.

"Kehar was another thing that was put in as I was writing. I realized it would be very helpful to have I character like Kehar." I smiled at the memory of that clever bird and commented that to give him a different language and to have him speaking the rabbit language with an accent was so clever! He laughed and replied, "I'm glad you liked it. Also, General Woundwort was a character who came in more or less on the spot. I knew they were going to Efrafa and they were going to have bad times but I hadn't invented General Woundwort. He came into my head as I was writing that bit."

While we were talking, I noticed on a shelf three small ceramic rabbits. When he saw me looking at them he said they were done by a leading London ceramic artist. "That's Hazel on the left sitting up, Fiver on the ground, and at the back is Bigwig. Do have a look at it. They are most beautifully done." I laughed at amazement and remarked how wonderfully she had captured the personalities. He said the sold for 90 pounds "That's about $150. They sold an awful lot of them." They would have sold a lot more if the HRS members knew about them!

I inquired at what point he read The Private Life of the Rabbit for the background information. He replied, "I read it while I was writing the book, and it helped me a lot to get the rabbits okay from a biological point of view, a lifestyle point of view. The bit about the does reabsorbing their embryos in the womb was real."

"One of the aspects about the book that I loved the most," I said, "was the way you gave the rabbits a language since we have no English words for certain things. I find I use the words! When I take my rabbits outside to a pen in the grass, I tell them they are going to silflay." He smiled with amusement. I told him how I enjoyed how the rabbits would call any motorized vehicle a 'hrududu. Now, fellow members, you have not lived until you have heard Richard Adams say the word 'hrududu. Like the word 'zipper' that derived because it is the sound that a zipper makes, 'hrududu' is the sound that a tractor makes but I had not realized it until I heard Richard roll his rrrr's and say 'hrududu. We were amazed and he chuckled. "The word is actually the sound of the tractor going along', he explained and demonstrated, "Hroooo do do do do do do. The tractor was the internal combustion engine that the rabbits saw most frequently. They didn't often see cars but anything where they could smell petrol was a 'hrududu. The other word that people often find difficult is the name of the rabbit hero 'El-ahrairah. Ideally you should roll the r's. A lot of people can't do it. The prince with 1,000 enemies. Elil, enemies, rair, a thousand, rah a prince or leader. Hence, the word." I was fascinated to hear him explain how he put together the small words he invented to make a larger word!

"Is 'Hazel' a common name for men here?" I wondered. I loved the character of Hazel so much and wanted to name a bunny after him. I could never bring myself to name a male rabbit 'Hazel. He said it was not. "Where did you come up with Hazel?" I asked.

"I honestly can't tell you," he replied. "You have to realize that a novel is not like planting a garden. A garden is deliberate like deciding what gets planted where. With writing, you find yourself possessed by things you don't always know why that is. I guess that's what they call inspiration. I can't account for a lot of things in the book. I hope that's not disappointing!"

"Of course not!" we chimed.

Elizabeth announced that lunch was ready so we retreated to the dining room. The conversation continued as we ate spaghetti, tomato sauce with chewy textured vegetable protein and a salad with a variety of greens and vegetables. When I called Richard and Elizabeth to confirm the date of the visit and get directions, I mentioned we were vegan (consume no animal products). She was only too happy to accommodate us. She doesn't eat much meat herself but Richard does. He asked if we found it hard to be vegan. We told him with the variety of plant based foods available now and the knowledge of the animals suffering makes it easy. Years before while on a lecture circuit, actively campaigning against fur, he was put up in the activists' houses. He said he was basically on a vegan diet for a month except when they would bring him cream for his coffee. Being in his 70s, he confesses that he feels he is too old to change his eating habits.

Richard professes to have done a lot for animal welfare. Besides helping to make it very difficult to buy a fur coat in London now, from 1980 to 1982, Richard served as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I told them how I got into animal rights because of rabbits. "I learned of them using rabbits in animal testing, putting them in stockades and dripping things in their eyes. I know they all have sweet little personalities like my rabbits." He agreed that testing on them is terrible. He is very aware intense confinement issues, human health, environmental issues. He said, "Plague Dogs was deliberately set up to satirize animal experimentation as well as government and tabloid press. It was set up at England's lake district where Elizabeth and I went on our honeymoon."

Dessert was an array of succulent berries in their own juices. Through the window of the dining room, you could see their beautiful gardens. Since so many of the rabbit's names are flowers, I asked Richard if he had used a book to find names. He said that he didn't need a book. He loves flowers and knew the names! He did chose the names appropriately. He said the woundwort is not a pleasant smelling flower. "What did you do before you became a writer?" I asked with curiosity. "I was a civil servant and did a variety of things. All sorts of things really. For instance, I was with the National Health Service." The bowl of delicious fruit was across the table in front of Elizabeth. " A bit more fruit for me, Darling," he said to her. I found this very touching. They have been married for 49 years. "You don't do just one job in the British Civil Service," he continued. "You're shifted around about every 4 or 5 years to widen your experience and help you to mature. The next job I had was coast protection. Our shores are continually being eroded. After that I had a really nice job, slum clearance which is a success story in this country. We pull down slums and build more modern, comfortable dwellings. After that I was with the Ministry of Education for 2 or 3 years then Town and Country planning which controls outdoor advertising. My last job was one I enjoyed most: the division on Air Pollution. In the middle of that, Watership Down was published. The people at the top asked me, 'Do you want to go on with your civil service career or retire?' I decided to retire and dedicate myself to writing. First thing I wrote after Watership Down was Shardick. I think it's the best book I've ever written.

"My dear friend, Reg Sones, a fellow civil servant, was so much help when I was writing the book. He's dead now, poor chap. I acknowledge him at the beginning of the book. He was a great help. We used to meet on the lunch hour, eat sandwiches and talk about the book."

We asked if he meant for Watership Down to be a children's book. "No," he said quite emphatically. "It's not children's book. I'm very firm about it. It was told to the children to introduce them to a novel. It wasn't meant to be marketed as a children's book. They tried to do that. I'm sometimes asked by people for what age group the book was written. I say from 8 to 88. I do get as many fan letters from grown up people as well as children."

Richard seemed unaware of his importance to those of us who have house rabbits. I tried to express how we feel. "To people who have rabbits in their house, that they love as people do cats and dogs, you are something an icon!"

"I dear say!" he responded quite surprised. "I've been many things but never an icon!"

"There's an organization in the United States called House Rabbit Society," I continued. It's a rescue and educational group with about 8000 members. When people buy rabbits from pet stores and then lose interest, they take them to shelters. This organization rescues them from the shelters, spays and neuters them, litterbox trains them, and finds appropriate homes inside, not outside in hutches, but inside with people because they are very social animals." They were astonished and impressed.

Elizabeth interjected, "Nobody keeps rabbits inside in this country they all live in hutches in the gardens." In England, they do not use the word yard. Any grass in the back of one's house is a 'garden. I asked if they had ever had a pet rabbit. They never have. Currently they have two cats that we saw scampering from time to time while visiting.

Kathleen Wilsbach, the Baltimore/D.C./Northern Virginia chapter manager had the great idea to give Richard a copy of House Rabbit Handbook. When I told him that I thought he'd find it interesting, he exclaimed, "How splendid!" I told him how excited people in HRS were that I was going to meet him.

"You gave the rabbits such personality! I had a rabbit named Casey that after reading the book I called Casey-rah in Hazel's honor. The rabbits in the book are so wonderful, they are like little people." He smiled and said that some of them were based on real people.

Kirstin asked what he thought of the movie. "It alters the book much to much," he responded. Elizabeth added," They came here before making the movie to draw pictures of the landscape but the film wasn't like the real thing at all. At the risk of appearing ignorant, I asked what exactly downs are. Elizabeth explained. "Basically, they are hills that are very smooth and round. The grass is very short and there's special flowers that only flourish on the top."

"I liked the scene in the film when they were on the river and trying to get Pipkin across," I mentioned. He agreed that was done well.

"One thing I thought they got all wrong," he explained, "was Hyzenthlay's attempt to be allowed to take rabbits out of Efrafa. Her request was refused. In the film, it's not clear what's happening. I told him I though she was a great character and had such a wonderful role in Tales. "When the first book came out," he replied, "a lot of people said I was a male chauvinist because there weren't any prominent female characters so when I was doing the tales I thought I'll put that right anyway." I shared that one of my favorite parts of the book was when they realized while starting their own warren that they had no does and wouldn't survive went on the quest to find the females with the help of the gull. Rich said, "No, they couldn't have done it without the gull! Kehar wasn't to know about the tyranny he just found them the rabbits."

"One of the funniest lines of the book when they met the hutch rabbits who said a little girl took them outside. That was their whole experience of outdoors!" I laughed. "You always come up with great comparisons: hutch rabbits and the wild rabbits view of the world and in Plague Dogs the lab dog and former pet dog's perceptions of man."

Kirstin asked about a current problem in England, the mass extermination effort of rabbits on the downs. He answered," The Hampton Council thought that the rabbits were making the down dangerous with their tunneling. I couldn't go along with that. I don't think the rabbits are making the downs dangerous. The council is worried about getting sued if someone breaks their ankle in a rabbit hole." We asked who owns the down. He answered, "The Councils or sometimes other people are using it for agriculture. The area around Watership Down is now owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote Cats. He told me that he wanted to prevent Watership Down and its environs forever from being built or encroached upon. It's currently used for training racehorses." We were so surprised!

After lunch, Richard took us to his magnificent library, a huge room with ceilings probably fifteen feet high. There were books from floor to ceiling on all walls with ladders to reach them. I gazed at the many different volumes of Watership Down on one shelf and asked hopefully if he was going to write another sequel. "I can't tell at the moment," he replied. "I'm just putting the finishing touches on a novel now that's about people!" I handed him the copy of House Rabbit Handbook! He started looking through it, was captivated, and said "I'm really going to enjoy this!"

I wondered, "Is it a coincidence that you left London and ended up moving near Watership Down." He explained that they grew up near here, met and married here and then moved away for thirty years. They had decided to retire here.

It was getting late in the afternoon at this point and we wanted to see the real Watership Down. It was about six miles from their house. Richard, who walks with a cane, did not feel up to the excursion and it was getting quite chilly. Elizabeth offered to lead us there in her car with our following in ours to the turnoff to Watership Down. It was simpler than us trying to find it. Richard explained that when we turn off the road, there was a gate that was padlocked. Andrew had given him a key to the lock in case he ever wanted assess. He handed me that key. It was such a thrill to realize I was holding the key to Watership Down! We said we would return in a while.

We followed Elizabeth and we cruised along the winding country roads looking out on rolling hills and patches of trees. She stopped and showed us where to enter. I got out of the car, unlocked the gate and we drove several miles to the top of the hill. Richard had said that in the rabbit's woods was a very large tree. On that tree, fans who had visited had carved the names of rabbits from the book. As we looked around, I pictured the loveable little rabbits scampering in their adventure. As we walked, we could see the jumps that were used to now train horses on the rabbit's down. Then we saw the magnificent tree! And just as he said we saw carved into the tree the rabbit's names: Pipkin, Bigwig, Hazel, Silver, and more! It was beautiful place, just like we pictured!

After a while, we returned to the Adams and marveled at our experience. We now retreated back to the living room where we asked Richard to sign our copies of Watership Down, including Kathleen's copy that she asked me to take. We took photos of him signing our books. Then he delighted us by signing and giving us copies of his story of the Civil War, Traveler. Richard explained, "Robert E Lee rides Traveler to see General Grant to make peace because his men are starving. The book is told from Traveler's point of view. Traveler didn't realize it was Lee's army that surrenders and believes Lee won." I was excited to start reading it.

I commented on the Plague Dogs character "the Tod" and how fascinating his dialect was. He got a copy of the book and read us a monologue in the dialect. It was fascinating! He had written the Tod's part and had in translated by a friend. He then read us a few of his favorite poems with such lovely expression. A highlight of the day was when he read to us the children's book he had written called The Bureaucats, the story of two mischievous cats. To hear Richard read is a delight. We knew then what it was like to have been one of daughters and be read a story by Richard Adams. He reads with complete enthusiasm and does all the parts as if acting.

All too soon, our lovely afternoon had to end. I knew there was so much more to talk about. We all hugged goodbye and continued on the road west to Stonehenge. We knew our wonderful afternoon with Richard Adams and his lovely wife Elizabeth would be the highlight of our trip!


This article is no longer available on-line and was copied from

the website below on November 9, 2001.