Plains of Paradox: Lost Villages, Great Bustards and Evil Badgers

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Wiltshire! The mystical land that my husband hails from. It’s a rural English county that is mostly made of green velvet and gently glowing scenery. The natives decorate the rolling hills with white horses (see above) and sprinkle them with sheep.

Actually, pretty much all of the landscape looks like promotional posters for some a rural propaganda campaign:

KEEPCALMMUNCHON

COME TO THE COUNTRYSIDE. LOOK HOW HAPPY THE SHEEP ARE.

Wiltshire is the kindly West. It’s basically the Shire.

With abandoned tanks in it.

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TANKS FOR STOPPING BY!

Which is kind of a contradiction, and one that interests me.

You see, the United Kingdom is a very small place. All of its history, all of its needs, all of its people and its potentials are crammed into very small geographical areas. The results are these odd, rich, isolated portions of land that are absolutely saturated with military history, natural history and meaning.

Salisbury Plain is its military training… bit. The UK is a small kingdom, but a big colonial enterprise, and all of that Plucky Underdog behavior in the world wars had to be backed with some kind of formal military training. An army of fully-grown James Bonds doesn’t just spring from the creases of Winston Churchill’s forehead, like a horde of grumpy Athenas, and swarm out into the world already trained and armed. The British had to practice dropping bombs and parachutes somewhere. Particularly when shit got real close to home during World War Two, when the crowded little island was in particular danger of invasion. Previously, British troops could train in their various worldwide colonial possessions, but that was becoming difficult what with all the ships being sunk and Europe being occupied and so on.

And Salisbury Plain was mostly just a big soft pile of green countryside. It made a lot of sense to take it over as plane-starting and parachute-practice territory – it would be a gentle landing, after all. So the British military moved into Wiltshire, where they remain to this day, owning nearly one hundred thousand acres of countryside. When you visit, you will probably pass a few tank crossings, helpfully marked with signs.

I love these signs: they are HILARIOUS.  They suggest to me that if I look out carefully, I might spot a Wild Tank lurking in the undergrowth, with a pair of baby tanks huddling at its side.

This is a tank habitat! Tanks may cross here! Do not feed them! Photo from bsktcase ‘s Flickr.

The tanks are active, though rarely seen. When I first visited England, I fell asleep in a soft bed to the gentle sound of nightingales and woke to the terrifying sounds of artillery bombardment. The military was practicing by shelling the local hillsides.

So that’s one striking contradiction: these militaristic symbols, these earth-shaking sounds; these quiet villages and ancient churches and gently conservative old people. It’s the equivalent of having a military fort in the middle of a prosperous, WASP-y Connecticut town.

Anyway, around World War Two, much of the Wiltshire area was devoted to the war effort. One particularly isolated settlement on Salisbury Plain was the village of Imber, a small rural community that nobody was going to miss very much. Most of the land around it had been systematically sold off to add to the growing military training grounds, but the villagers of Imber stuck it out in their tiny little community, refusing to move.

Then in 1943, shit was getting about as real as shit could get in wartime Britain. The Americans were finally wandering over to help out, but they needed to train for things like “hand-to-hand combat in European towns” – the farmboys from Kansas being noticeably lacking in narrow cobbled streets for such scenic fight scenes.

And here was this perfectly good model training village – and the only problem with using it for awesome choreographed fight sequences was the presence of the incumbent villagers. Apparently they did not mind living in a firing range, and continued going to the school, the church and the pub with healthy regularity.

In November 1943, the Imber villagers were called to a meeting and told that they had a little over a month to move out of their homes completely. They were evicted, and despite their numerous attempts to return over the years, they were never allowed to return. Most of the old homes were destroyed, from a gorgeous old rectory to a block of social housing that was only a few years old at the time. Only six of the original buildings now remain.

The village of Imber is empty now. It’s surrounded by military land, full of abandoned tanks and unexploded ordinance. The roads leading to it are all private, but they open for the public to visit on certain days. Not all of it belongs to the military – the village includes a church, which belongs, in the awkward way of certain British buildings, to mysterious higher powers. This church doggedly opens for public services on Christmas and Easter.

So this Easter, my in-laws and I trekked over to Imber to check out this famous ghost town.

I thought it would be a photogenic thing. Perhaps I would get some cool post-apocalyptic imagery for my blog.

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Sadly, many of the buildings in Imber are these ugly fake ones, built in the 1970’s.

And there was a little bit of that.

Caution: Do not provoke the wild tanks. They will levitate your trucks.

Caution: Do not provoke the wild tanks. They will levitate your trucks.

But you’ll notice that it was also an incredibly warm, pretty day, with a deep blue sky and a brilliant sun. The colors popped. The birds twittered. It was the sparkliest combat training zone I’ve ever seen.

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And the village HEAVED.

It was nearly impossible to take these pictures, because the whole place was buzzing with people in an official British Holiday Mood. Dozens of Grumpy British Fathers waved giant cameras at each other. Every time I lined up a picture, I was in the way of someone who was trying to line up their own shot. You had to stand in a queue to take a picture of the church.

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I do love the way the graveyard is collapsing into disrepair.

It wasn’t a military post-apocalyptic landscape: it was a giant picnic. It was nearly impossible to find a parking spot, so people were just abandoning their cars at random, even though signs everywhere warned you not to leave the road. The lost village heaved with families and crawled with dogs. Everyone was shouting, calling, squealing, shrieking and barking at each other.

It looked like a very disorganized spontaneous dog show. Nervous greyhounds in fleece jackets. A distracted Borzoi. A Border collie, speculatively eyeing up a herd of shrieking toddlers as if assessing their herding potential. An Australian shepherd that was barking at everything, and a clutch of spaniels who were barking at the Australian shepherd. Terriers by the pound, wearing various tartan jumpers. A corgi puppy in a puffy pink coat. A mastiff, sniffing disinterestedly at a crumbling gravestone. A laborador being extracted from a coil of barbed wire. An escaped hound, trailing a leash and pursued by its family, tearing off happily across fields full of warning signs that read “DANGER: UNEXPLODED MILITARY DEBRIS.” I sincerely hoped that didn’t mean “land mines,” because I didn’t fancy being showered with dog-and-human soup.

And the people! And the children! Little girls in fancy Easter dresses, little boys in suits; a thousand children calling “MUMMY” in that uniquely irritating English way. Children bolting past “DANGER” signs to entangle themselves happily in barbed wire. Everyone seemed incredibly cheerful and happy as they poured into the Lost Village. They chattered and swarmed. They stood in line for the portable toilets. They waved walking sticks, binoculars, and hats. They erupted into arguments over which type of bird they had just spotted and pushed each other out of the way to get pictures of the exact same gravestone from multiple angles.

There is a social script that British people read from in these situations that I simply do not understand. They are operating on a fixed code of behavior that is remarkably consistent. While waiting for our husbands to emerge from the toilets, my mother-in-law and I stood next to a patch of ground that had been worn bare by the traffic. In the space of a few minutes, no less than five groups of middle-class old folks stopped and had the exact same conversation about it.

“Ooh, this patch is a bit bare. Do you think my shoes will be all right?” (This opening gambit was usually introduced by a matriarch in white leather courts.)

“Ooh, yes,” the rest of the family chorused, “it isn’t muddy at-all.”

“Oooh, no, it hasn’t rained for days.”

Then the family walked over the patch.

“Oooh, no, it’s very dry, it wasn’t muddy at-all.”

Next, the family that had been patiently waiting behind them approached the patch.

“Ooh, this patch is a bit bare. Do you think my shoes will be all right?”

I really need to get the playbook for these situations. I’m not doing it right; I’ve lived in England for a year and a half and I still can’t stop laughing when this happens.

We went into the church. It was strung with decorative lighting and crowded with information boards.  I shit you not: they were serving tea. And doing brisk business too, with a big generator producing vast urns of tea, and old women guarding plastic-wrapped plates of snacks. I was able to sneak a picture of this old man, who was selling his honey. I thought he was great.

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Honey from the Lost Village – sounds like a new young adult book.

The basket of Cadbury Creme Eggs on the table to the left are the remains of the children’s Easter Egg hunt. I know that I keep saying “THE CHILDREN WERE PLAYING IN FIELDS SALTED WITH UNEXPLODED MILITARY ORDINANCE!!” as if it’s this crazy thing, when clearly everyone else was cool with it, but it really struck me forcibly at the time. Granted, there’s not THAT much damage you can do to yourself with a plain old live bullet, unless you systematically lick off all the lead, or hit it with a hammer. But something in me quailed at the idea of holding a children’s Easter Egg hunt in Imber. “Here, children, disperse into the military training zone and seek out the shiny things. When you find the shiny things, throw them at your siblings and/or put them in your mouth.”

HOW IS THIS NOT A TERRIBLE IDEA?

Because this is the Salisbury Plain.

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THIS IS NOT A LOGICAL FUCKING PICNIC AREA.

APPARENTLY IT IS WHEN YOU STICK YOUR KIDS IN IT FOR A FUCKING PHOTO. Photo from the Daily Mail.

OH NO WAIT, CLEARLY IT IS. STICK YOUR KIDS IN IT. Same house, same day, different angle. Photo from the Daily Mail.

The Daily Mail was in Imber on the same day, and they tried to make sense of the matter, too.

The Ministry of Defense had promised the villagers of Imber that they would be able to return to their homes after WW2, but they were never allowed to. Many of them did not receive compensation for their flattened homes. Apparently the MOD has absolutely no interest in hearing their complaints about this. However, old residents of the village may be buried in their churchyard, and relatives may visit on public days; one flower-strewn grave was dated 2012. Many of the other graves were recently cleaned and decorated.

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The church and the fenced churchyard would probably be a brilliant zombie-defense zone.

Although I was initially a bit disappointed, I quickly decided that I loved the contrast between the picnic atmosphere of Imber’s open day and its derelict militaristic appearance. There’s something charming about releasing swarms of children into an active military training zone. Crazy, but charming.

Imber is a few isolated, rotten old buildings on pale, winter-barren hills, but it is also a site of pilgrimage. It’s important to people. They want to take their children there. They want to be buried there. And when they get the chance, they like to see it, and bring their families, and eat sandwiches. It’s a ghost town, but it isn’t a dead village.

And the seemingly-empty hills of the Salisbury Plain hold more secrets, more contradictions.

Most of the land was portioned off to the MOD in the early 1900s, so it’s escaped the pressures of development and cultivation. And on this small island, nearly every inch of space is farmed and cultivated. The green and pleasant countryside is mostly edible. If there is a strip of grass at the side of a road, somebody will probably stick a sheep on it. Space is at a premium. If it can be intensively farmed or covered with housing developments, it usually will be.

But when you drive up to the more windswept, isolated, MOD-owned reaches of the Salisbury Plain, the countryside gets a little wilder than the rest of England. Sturdy cattle graze the lower slopes of the military zone (the English really can’t resist putting farm animals in empty spaces) but there are no tractors, no farm equipment, no power lines. There are barbed-wire fences and the occasional silhouette of a bombed-out tank. Here, there be dragons.

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This is what passes for wilderness in England.

Salisbury Plain has been settled by humans for many thousands of years, but it became strictly military property before the advent of industrialized agriculture.

This produces a particularly beautiful paradox: Salisbury Plain is one of the richest, most unspoiled archaeological areas in the United Kingdom. You see, nothing chews up an archaeological site quite like machine plowing.

Pictured: what industrialized farming does to your heritage.

Well, maybe this guy.

The intense military training activities of the past century have seen the hills bombed, strafed and gnawed – torn up by tank treads, pummeled with shells and kicked by thousands of booted feet. This has all contributed to significant wear and tear on its archaeology… but it’s still been protected from plowing. It’s been protected from building. It hasn’t been mined, paved or excavated. In terms of its conservation, the Salisbury Plain is  described as “unparallelled in England.”Aerial images taken in 1924 show the remains of an ancient Romano-British settlement, complete with its pattern of streets….

From the English Heritage website: Charlton Down photographed 12-JAN-1924. Note the "D" shaped enclosure in the middle right that is still clearly visible 70 years later on the modern photograph (CCC 8627/03). © NMR Crown Copyright - Crawford collection.

From the English Heritage website: Charlton Down photographed 12-JAN-1924. Note the “D” shaped enclosure in the middle right that is still clearly visible 70 years later on the modern photograph (CCC 8627/03). © NMR Crown Copyright – Crawford collection.

In 1994, the same area was photographed:

"Aerial photograph of the Central Impact Area of the Plain photographed 22-JUN-1994. In the right foreground is the major Romano-British settlement on Charlton Down that has spread out across the 'Celtic' field system, with its streets leading transversely across the hillside and into the valley. In the distance (top left) is the settlement on Upavon Down. Here it is possible to walk through Romano-British streets in one settlement, through its fields and on, into the next settlement. The small white spots are tank hulks, painted and used as artillery targets (NMR 15042/02). © Crown copyright. NMR."

From the same site: “Aerial photograph of the Central Impact Area of the Plain photographed 22-JUN-1994. In the right foreground is the major Romano-British settlement on Charlton Down that has spread out across the ‘Celtic’ field system […] The small white spots are tank hulks, painted and used as artillery targets (NMR 15042/02). © Crown copyright. NMR.”

This is a great level of preservation. The bumpy lines you see are raised lines of earth describing the silhouette of the ancient settlements – tracing streets and foundations. A few passes with an industrial plow would have flattened them completely. Isn’t it weird to think that artillery practice is less damaging to your archaeological heritage than a field of wheat?

In August 2012, rehabiliting soldiers were tasked with excavating one significant Bronze Age burial mound on the Salisbury Plain, discovering the remains of twenty-seven soldiers, who were buried with treasures of amber and glass. (The authorities had decided to excavate the barrow because it was “under attack by badgers,” who were “chucking things out.”) It was a particularly notable mound in that it had belonged to a larger complex, but the others had been extensively damaged by farming (and presumably angry badgers.) So in a strange, unexpected way, the military presence has ended up preserving its own heritage. (And don’t worry: the “welfare of the badgers” is assured.)

This touching concern over the welfare of the badgers leads us seamlessly to another contradiction of the Salisbury Plain: wildlife.  One hillwalking site has termed it “Military Environmentalism.” With no farming, no development, and no plans for either, the plain has become a haven for wildlife.

Southern England used to be the home of a completely ridiculous bird called the Great Bustard, which has been extinct in the area for nearly 200 years. Here is a Great Bustard. His name is “Purple 5.”

YOU MAGNIFICENT BUSTARD. (Photo by Dave Kjaer)

YOU MAGNIFICENT BUSTARD. (Photo by Dave Kjaer)

Here are some facts about Great Bustards:

So clearly these awkward, awesome birds are not cut out for the fast-paced lifestyle of modern Britain, with its power lines and complicated Tube maps. They went extinct due to hunting (due to being delicious and adorable) but even if they hadn’t,  southern England has very little of the isolated, complication-free habitat that Great Bustards require.

Therefore, it was perfectly logical that the Great Bustards should be reintroduced to England by installing them on the Salisbury Plain. The birds were brought over from Russia and installed in “secret sites” within the military training area. At first, these unlikely phoenixes looked like they would promptly be eaten by foxes, when they weren’t accidentally wandering into France… but now the rehabilitation  seems to have worked! Free from poachers and power lines, the birds have re-oriented themselves are doing well and producing chicks.You can purchase piles of Great Bustard swag and even spot them on days when the MOD opens the area to the public. A March 2013 article in the Guardian states that the success of the project is based in the unspoiled nature of its new habitat: “The bird’s best boon [is] the natural paradise that is the military training area on Salisbury Plain.”

So this military training area is variously a lost-and-found village, a picnic area, an archaeological site, a natural paradise and a place to drop bombs. It’s a model fighting village in which the buildings were replaced with fake ones, but where the church still holds services. It’s a ghost town, a grave, and a place to learn to kill. It’s full of buried treasure, ancient streets, and birds reborn. It is shelled regularly and full of burned-out tanks, but there’s no better place in England to lay your eggs. It’s land stolen from poor villagers, but given graciously back to nature. It’s a high wild place picked over by kestrels, and it’s got human settlements right down to its bones. It’s a place where soldiers fight very important battles against badgers.

I think it’s a charming series of contradictions. And in following up on these paradoxes and contrasts, I found out more about the world around me: the land I live on now, the landscapes of my husband’s heart, my landing place.

We got another Freshly Pressed acclaim last week, so in the spirit of showing the newcomers what this blog is really about, we’re going to end with THIS:

marmot

marmot 2

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THANK YOU AND GOOD DAY.

20 thoughts on “Plains of Paradox: Lost Villages, Great Bustards and Evil Badgers

  1. Ah Imber! Ermahgerd! I can’t believe it was so busy when you went – I have a very distinct childhood memory of wandering about the abandoned buildings and picking up shell casings and no one but our family was there. I think my parents told me at the time that there’s only a few days a year when it’s open but also having a memory of watching my stepdad trying to break into Stonehenge means that maybe we weren’t supposed to be there?!

    Anyway, I’m glad someone else has been – it’s one of those odd memories that feels like a dream so knowing it really exists makes me feel better, thank you :)

    • Have just spent a minute at my desk at work shaping my mouth around the words “ERMAHGERD ERMBER.”

      I love your radical family outings. And I hope that you made it into Stonehenge. I’ve only been there once, but I much prefer the idea – I feel like I would have enjoyed it more if I’d broken in, and it had been empty and quiet. Like, I would slip some money under the door for English Heritage, because I don’t mind paying to get in – I just love the idea of SNEAKING INTO HERITAGE SITES BAHAHAHA.

      Sharing this experience feels like we’ve high-fived each other across space and time. It feels good.

  2. And this is why England is amazing and I never want to leave. Thanks for my history and ecology lessons for today! Also, I would love to see a levitating truck. :D

    Got to love the social scripts too, and the screech of MUMMY. There are so many different ways to inflect that word, depending on exactly what it is you want, whether you’re lost, hurt, hungry, bored, want money etc. I never thought of it as irritating though. Personally the American Mom/Mommy, sounds bizarre; what on earth are you people doing the English language?!

    PS While you’ve been busy, I’ve finally started my own blog, after months of thinking about it.

  3. Yep, Britain isn’t so good at post-apocalyptic wastelands, unless it’s been specially set up to film an episode of Dr Who.

    I had never heard of this place before – sounds very weirdly interesting and I loved your descriptions. Despite growing up in this country, I’m not familiar with rural southern England and all its shires and strange behaviours. This was a lovely little read.
    And I didn’t get that conversation about the bare patch either.

    Bustards are now one of my favourite birds, despite having never heard of them before. The dafterdly little things.

    “because the whole place was buzzing with people in an official British Holiday Mood. Dozens of Grumpy British Fathers waved giant cameras at each other. Every time I lined up a picture, I was in the way of someone who was trying to line up their own shot.”

    That sounds like a bank holiday weekend to me. Every single one. Whatever the attraction.

    If you ever travel across Britain, I’d love to see any perspectives you have on the strangeness of the different parts of this cramped li’l island filled with vast urns of tea and angry badgers. I’ve lived on this island most of my life and I still don’t get it, sometimes. ;)

    • My oh my, you’ve never come across a suspicious, tractor-tracked bare patch in the middle of an un-tarmacced road? One that miiight be safe to walk across, but also, also might be harbouring dangerous squishy areas that will coat your shoes with mud as neatly as if someone had taken a paintbrush to them?

      You are not sufficiently British.

  4. This has completely brightened my day while taking a break from piling up certificate boxes in the office. Thanks for the brilliant lessons on my country, I really should pay more attention to what goes on it really. But then I would deprive myself of your amazing written lessons and the very loud chuckles!

    p.s. My Dad was posted in the Falklands for a couple of years when my sister and I were at University. Now THERE you have unexploded military ordinance, illustrated by the frequent “DAnger unexploded mines” signs on the side of the road. I often wondered how the penguins avoided blowing themselves up on the beaches.

  5. A few Christmasses ago, Mr Satu and I were visiting his parents in Wiltshire and, naturally, took the mountain bikes along. On Christmas Day morning we went for a ride on the Salisbury Plains and got very, very lost. We ended up going through Imber by accident — we didn’t know anything about the place, but Christmas Day happens to be one of the days that the village is open. It was quite eerie (and empty – I guess winter is not as much fun for picnics). I didn’t realise visiting it was such a family thing to do!

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  7. Apropos the liberal scattering of farmyard animals across England, 2 minutes walk from where I live is the lovely Lansdown Crescent, a photo of which is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sunface13/3287725830/ At the bottom of the piece of grass is another road, and the grass is not connected to any farmland. However, there are sheep. I have no idea who owns the sheep, or who owns the land, but possibly there is some sort of ancient common right involved. I imagine the words “Well, why not?” were involved at some point.

  8. Beautiful piece as ever. As an official English Person, I would suggest that encouraging your children to conduct Easter Egg hunts across unexploded ordinance is a typical act of understated defiance, as in, “They think they have taken this place away from us, but we will come back and do determinedly normal things to prove it’s still ours and we don’t forget” – combined with a possibly foolish suspicion that the signs are faked to scare people off.

    I’m charmed that the shoes conversation has proved so baffling. It makes perfect sense to me. Here are lots of people squished into a small area, so it would be rude not to acknowledge each others’ existence. However, none of us have been introduced, so we can’t say anything too direct or personal. On the other hand, it would be legitimate to say something helpful. Also, it would be very rude indeed to say anything which could be thought of self-aggrandising. Therefore anything we do say should be obviously self-deprecating.

    Thus we make a remark which is a helpful warning about the muddiness of the ground, combined with a suggestion that we have brought inappropriate footwear. We have relieved our social anxiety by verbally acknowledging other people’s presence; we have offered helpful warnings; and we have put ourselves down. Mission accomplished – phew!

    On a related note, have you read Kate Fox’s Watching the English? It’s full of things like this.

  9. I read this when you first posted it, but I’ve been a bit busy and didn’t have time to leave a comment until now. I really enjoyed this article!

    That thing with sending the children out to collect Easter eggs from areas with unexploded military ordinance… wow. That’s… a hell of a thing, I agree with you there.
    And yeah, there’s something deeply ironic about the fact that bombing the area has done less damage archaeologically speaking than plowing, but there you go. One of the first things they taught us when I started studying archaeology was how destructive just ordinary farming and stuff is to a potential site.
    Also, increasingly, the places where wildlife flourishes are the places where humans can’t or won’t go… near where I used to live there was this magnificent area of bushland that was used for army training exercises, shooting things and blowing things up and camping in the wilderness and so forth. The locals were always disgruntled that this lovely area was off-limits because the army was always, you know, blowing things up there. And I read recently that in Chernobyl, in all the areas affected by the radiation, they’re finding that the radiation itself does less harm to the wildlife than the human presence did, and so all kinds of rare species and things are living there now in appreciable numbers, to the surprise of pretty much everyone.

    And the caption for the bustard, I AM SO GLAD YOU WENT THERE. I was thinking, ‘there is such scope here for a magnificent bastard pun, I hope she goes there,’ and you did! :D I’m sorry, but I like puns.

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  12. I’m having a bit of a stalk-binge-READ-ALL-THE-THINGS on your blog today and this article was FANTASTIC. Your passion and enthusiasm for learning things reminds me of my own and you have such a funny, uplifting writing style.

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