When you travel the lonelier tracts of Salisbury Plain the ghost of prehistoric man is always beside you. Scattered all over with his wood henges, cromlechs, earthworks and mounded graves, these windblown heights are engulfed in an almost audible silence. It is a primeval landscape from where, a hundred million years ago, wave upon wave of chalk downs began to form, now stretching away into Sussex, down through Dorset and north-eastwards to Berkshire. They rose above what had become the sea, the oldest hills of all, moulded in smooth, voluptuous folds by melting ice and harbouring the first beginnings of our civilisation. Here in their midst, on a bleak, bare stretch stands Stonehenge, the supreme monument of the Plain.
Perhaps because the water-table changed, the Saxons chose to move away and farm only the lower slopes of the Plain . For over a thousand years this high plateau became the haunt of shepherds whose flocks of sheep cropped the turf and kept the undergrowth at bay. Today, Salisbury Plain remains the largest area of untilled chalk downland in North-West Europe. The Army has been its saviour from the plough. In 1897, they began buying up parcels of land to use as training grounds, and by the 1940s owned much of the Plain – a tenth of Wiltshire – stretching from Upavon in the north To Amesbury in the south, and from Ludgershall in the east to Westbury in the west. The outer circle of land around the Plain is let by the MOD for farming where sheep still graze the steeper slopes and there are yellow brimstone and chalk-blue butterflies. Further in, after a band of ‘Schedule 3 training land’, the High Impact area begins – some of the wildest and remotest country in southern England. Hidden beyond shallow combes is the abandoned village of ‘Imber on the Down, five miles from any town’, which was requisitioned by the army in the 1940’s. The villagers never returned, but once a year are allowed to visit the church. It is used as a battle school. Sometimes you can hear the rumbling of an explosion and see smoke rising in the distance and in the ensuing silence on a hot day in late summer when the tufty grass is dry and yellowing and the oceans of treeless may –and-juniper –sprinkled downs stretch out for ever, you could imagine yourself in the Serengeti Desert, with the distant smoke rising from some primitive settlement. The emptiness is overwhelming.
This isolated plateau, stretching over Great Fore and Chirton Down, Urchfont and Charlton Down, Can and Rushall Down, East Down and Honeydown, is cut through by the old coaching road from Devizes and Lavington to Salisbury, where the ghost of the highwayman William Boulter, hanged in 1778, is often seen. When the red flags are not flying and the army is not practicing warfare you can travel for miles of in another world. It is so far from any chemical farming drift that a phenomenally rich and rare flora and fauna survive. There are Adonis blue, brown hairstreak and marsh fritillary butterflies, burnt orchids, tawny bumble-bees, soldier beetles, great crested newts in the dew-ponds and nesting stone curlews camouflaged among tufts of grass The bustards, though, which ran at fifty miles an hour, were hunted out a hundred years ago.
From east to west, the low-moaning A303 slashes through the middle of the Plain, a fleeting blur as though it were a thing apart and not connected, the sights of its journeyers set to the far, long distance, off the map. But the shallow river valleys of the Plain carry their winding roads, strung all along with villages and reedy, willowy fields, to the hub of red-roofed Salisbury, capital of the Plain. For centuries the huge circular earthwork of Old Sarum on its strange mound on the town’s northern skirt was the magnetic pull, but now the cathedral, with its soaring spire commands the great watershed of the Plain.