Duncton Wood is home to one of the seven great systems of the mole world. Many years before the book opens, the system was based at the highest point of the wood, in the shadows of the wood's standing Stone. The Stone was of vital importance at the time, with the system's religious beliefs centred on it. However, in time, the system slowly migrated down the hill - to the point where, now, nomole now lives in the Ancient System. Traditionally, the system's moles travel up the slopes to pray to the Stone on the Longest and Shortest Nights, though few now hold the Stone in any real regard.
Within the modern system, there are a few different districts - each with its own distinct personality. The Westside is home to the biggest, strongest moles while the moles who live on the Eastside are less aggressive, though stockier and better burrowers. The Marshenders, somewhat unfairly, are considered a suspicious, untrustworthy and unhealthy grouping - though the damp soil doesn't make it an ideal area for the average mole. Where the Stone was the natural centre of the Ancient System, Barrow Vale is considered the centre of the modern system. Close to the Elder Burrows, it's free from predators and is considered `neutral' territory.
Life takes a turn for the worse when Mandrake arrives. Originally from Siabod, he arrives from over the Pastures and makes straight for Barrow Vale. Big, strong and vicious, he kills any mole that stands in his way and - when he disposes of one of the Elders - quickly appoints himself as the replacement. Having effectively installed himself as Duncton Wood's leader, the mood of the system becomes a becomes tinged with fear and suspicion. Mandrake more or less operates a system of `divide and conquer' - any contact between the system's different wings is discouraged and movement to the surface is restricted. While some of the elders pledge their support - most notably the malignant, poisonous Rune and the aggressive bully Burrhead - Mandrake doesn't receive full support from the Elders. The ban on the Midsummer and Midwinter pilgrimages to the Stone meets with open opposition from Hulver - an aged mole who is very loyal to the old traditions. Mandrake's constant attacks on the Marshenders, on the other hand, leaves Mekkins unsettled - although he proves to be a little more circumspect than Hulver, he later has a significant role to play.
Things aren't entirely hopeless, though - two moles emerge who may be capable of restoring some light to the system. However, it's maybe a little surprising which two moles provide the hope. One is Bracken, the son of Burrhead. Although physically a little weak, Bracken proves to be not only brave and intelligent, but also a natural explorer - and, from his earliest days, has a great deal of curiosity about the Ancient System. When he eventually leaves the home burrow, he naturally makes his way up the slopes towards the Stone - where he meets Hulver for the first time. Hulver teaches him a great deal about the Stone, the Ancient System and the Holy Burrows at Uffington. The other mole to bring some hope is Rebecca - amazingly, she is Mandrake's favourite daughter. Initially, she isn't entirely popular - many resent her honoured position, and there are those who suffer at Mandrake's claws to make her life a little easier. However, in time, her kindness, patience and love win over all who meet her. Naturally, the pair can't make it alone - and they receive a great deal of help from others - most notably Hulver, Mekkins, Rose the Healer and Boswell, a Scribemole from Uffington.
While the comparison with "Watership Down" is maybe a little obvious, it's certainly a worthwhile comparison - there are certain similarities between some of the characters. Mandrake and General Woundwort have quite a bit in common - as do Comfrey and Fiver, Stonecrop and Bigwig while there's possibly even a touch of both Hazel and Fiver about Bracken. Although a pretty long book, it is an easily read and enjoyable book at the same time.