Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Anything but Plain.

Utilising contacts and seizing opportunities I was able to able to spend a day in the company of the one of the wardens who oversee the Salisbury Plain military training area. Part privilege, part professional, fully pleasurable - I was allowed a box seat in a scruffy landrover to observe how they spend their days on this patchwork expanse of erstwhile interconnected private estates sold on to the Mod at the turn of the century by families devoted to the military cause.

The plain is a Time Team's plum pudding of tumulus, hill fort ramparts, and more tumps, humps and bumps than you'd find on a medieval witch's nose. And a list of barrows so long that Browning, should he have chosen to write about burial chambers instead of rats, would probably have rejoiced at the quantity he could choose from for repetitious poetic effect: "Barrows!" "long barrows, short barrows, around the mound, round barrows, flat old discers, ponderous ponders, bowls and bells and gallows barrows!" A lot of barrows.

Many are sites of official archeological digs; others are plotted and marked for future exploration. The badgers, no respecters of time schedules, forensic examiners and scrupulous categorization often get together and do a little impromptu grub-digging of their own, and one can only guess at their unfazed indifference as they scoop out priceless clusters of medieval beads, belts, buckles and battered sandals, enough to fill a hippie's shopping list, or inhabit his wettest of dreams. And enough skulls and bones to decorate a pirate's ship twice over.

There is more recent history to be found, as you traverse the scree-laden pot-holed lunar-landscaped terrain: A centuries old blogger's freeway of old signs still poke out of ditches on early metallic roads sides - once pootle territory of honk-honking, early motorcars their affluent, blanket-lapped owners chug-chugging their way to Pre-Betjamin tea shops in Marlborough for cake and scones with butter and jam. Or to Devizes market to buy pepper or tea from India. And even earlier jagged milestones looking like a giant dog's broken teeth stick out along tracks used by old stage coaches with their clacking, pant-snorting horses and rackety rolling wheels.

The plateau-like plain covers about 300 square miles, largely treeless, drained to the south by the River Avon and its tributaries. It rolls as far as the eye can see. It is, they say, roughly the size of the Isle of Wight. Bumping along in the four-wheeled truck makes me feel as if I'm on safari. Everything is covered in dust. It billows up behind us like yellow smoke, then hangs, suspended, as if it were a sneeze cloud of the Devil's sniffed, snuff. As it clears, buzzards wheel into view, and peregrine falcons dart about like huge swallows, and kestrels, as common here as sparrows, beating their wings like demented moths and dive bombing fieldmice with the precision of the heat-seeking missiles with which they share their days.

The contrast is everywhere. The endless fields are pock marked with the craters of modern warfare training, and tanks - a through the ages guide book of now broken and exhausted models no longer offensive, except to the eye, used as undefended target practice, like aging pugs taking shot after sickening shot, their only use, to be obliterated by an impressive, new strength.

And in the middle of the plain, this plain, there still remains the wrecked leftovers of the village of Imber. An isolated village requisitioned by the War Office a week before Christmas 1943. Its location an irritation to the sweep of the military training area. Now a dolorous island of empty buildings. It is said that villagers were given a month to leave, and, in a finger-snap, the area was evacuated and the village erased, literally, from the map. It's ghostly shape, with its 15th Century church and Old Bell pub with its sign still squeak-swinging in the wind, is still discernible as a village from a distance, despite stories of over enthusiastic gung-ho American servicemen back in the fifties who mistook its purpose as a target for obliteration and knocked walls, roofs and spires into undeserved oblivion. The village can sometimes be seen from the public road, though often its shrouded in mist as if all the souls of the dead villagers have been summoned by the rusty clappered cracked bells of St Giles and joined up in a vain attempt to protect it from view. And further harm.

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