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:
Wiltshire is the kindly West. It’s basically the Shire.
With abandoned tanks in it.
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.
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.
And there was a little bit of that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
In 1994, the same area was photographed: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.”
Here are some facts about Great Bustards:
- Great Bustards one of the heaviest flying birds in the world, weighing 18-20 kg (~40 lbs).
- “The great buftard, though a very large bird, is exeffively timorous, and feems neither confcious of its ftrength, nor animated by the fpirit of exerting it.” (From the 1821 Encyclopaedia Londinensis — which also describes them as “daftardly.”)
- They have AMAZING MOUSTACHES.
- Their binomal name is Otis tarda, meaning “slow or deliberate bustard.”
- They take five years to reach sexual maturity.
- They can’t really be bothered with flying.
- They are delicious, and their eggs are delicious.
- They look like fat, angry dinosaurs.
- They tend to kill themselves by flying into power lines at very high speeds.
- “They do tend to wander, they give every impression of being lost.“
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:
THANK YOU AND GOOD DAY.