Magazine article Geographical

Bombs & Bustards: Our Series Showcasing the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)'s Discovering Britain Walks Continues as Olivia Edward Learns How the Military Has Helped to Keep a Large Part of Salisbury Plain Safe from Harm

Magazine article Geographical

Bombs & Bustards: Our Series Showcasing the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)'s Discovering Britain Walks Continues as Olivia Edward Learns How the Military Has Helped to Keep a Large Part of Salisbury Plain Safe from Harm

Article excerpt

Since 2004, more than 100 birds have been released in the area

Ratatat-t-t-t-t-t-t-t. Ratatat-t-t-t-t-t-t-t. 'Ooh, is that a...? Yes, I think it is. It is. It's machine gun fire,' says my companion. Normally, it would be disconcerting to hear heavy weaponry in a remote part of the British countryside, but for us, it just confirms that we're in the right place--Salisbury Plain's military training area.

I've been brought here by Marianna Dudley, an environmental historian from Bristol University who has designed a nine-and-a-half-kilometre walk that slices right through the middle of this unusual part of southern Britain. She's keen to highlight the somewhat unexpected links between militarisation and conservation, and encourage more people to walk in these areas.

'People see the signs that say "Military Training Area" and think that they should keep out, but actually, the public has access to much of this land,' Dudley says. Presumably not the land where the machine gun is spraying out rounds of ammunition? 'No, that's in the Impact Zone. Military training areas tend to consist of an Impact Zone surrounded by a Dry Zone, and the soldiers fire their weapons into the centre of the Impact Zone, so we're safe here and actually have the right to roam, whereas in the Impact Zone, access is much more restricted for safety reasons.'

It's a big landscape, bigger than we're used to finding in England. There's little that's cosy here; in fact, it's verging on bleak. The vast, open, near-featureless landscape is more on the scale of the US Midwest than England's customary rolling hills.

And there are a lot of 'biggests' here. At 38,000 hectares, it's Britain's biggest military training area and Northern Europe's biggest area of unimproved chalk grassland. It's also home to Europe's biggest land bird, and right now, we're standing on the nation's biggest prehistoric long barrow--a mound of raised earth thought to have been used as a collective tomb.

FOSSILISED LANDSCAPE

The entanglement of humans with this landscape goes back a long way. There are more than 2,000 prehistoric sites in the training area, dating back to around 4,000 BC. 'Archaeologists view it as a fossilised landscape because so much has remained intact,' says Dudley. The first humans are thought to have settled here more than 6,500 years ago, and by the time nearby Stonehenge and Avebury Circle were constructed, 1,000 years or so later, the landscape would have been dotted with small farming settlements.

But it wasn't an easy life. Salisbury Plain lies on a bed of chalk that stretches from Norfolk to Dorset, created from the remains of sea creatures that drifted to the bottom of warm, shallow seas during the Cretaceous Period (65-90 million years ago). When sea levels receded, the chalky land of Salisbury Plain gave rise to a poor and exposed soil. The local Neolithic people eventually took their tools to more fertile ground and the land lay fallow--apart from a brief agricultural renaissance during the Middle Ages--for around 2,000 years.

Between then and now, the place gained a reputation for its eerie bleakness. As one 19th-century poet wrote: 'Not a shrub nor a tree/Nor a bush can you see:/No hedges, no ditches, no gates, no stiles/Much less a house, or a cottage for miles;/ It's a very sad thing to be caught in the rain/When night's coming up on Salisbury Plain.'

For his part, William Wordsworth spoke of its 'wastes of corn that stretched without a bound' and being 'the only creature in the wild. On whom elements could rage their wreak.' Moby Dick author Herman Melville described it as 'desolate' and compared its 'inhospitable wilds' to those of the oceans traversed by whaling ships.

But the very aspects that made it unwelcoming for civilians made it attractive to the military. The British Army began buying land in the area between the First and Second Boer Wars at the tail end of the 19th century. …

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