25 March 2014 by Walking Class Hero
As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his 1903 poem, Ubique: “pronounce it as you may – ‘you bike,’ ‘you bykwee,’’ubbikwee”’. It’s the Latin for ‘everywhere’ and pretty obviously it’s where we get the word ubiquitous from. It’s also the motto of the Royal Artillery.
Since 1915 the Royal School of Artillery has been based in Larkhill, a Wiltshire village on the edge of Salisbury Plain. Indeed there has been a substantial military presence on Salisbury Plain since 1897 when army exercises were first conducted there. These days the Ministry of Defence (MoD) own 150 square miles (390km2) of land, making it the largest military training area in the United Kingdom. Live firing is conducted on the plain for approximately 340 days of each year. Military personnel from the UK and around the world spend some 600,000 people days on the Plain every year. Of this, around 39 square miles (100km2) are permanently closed to the public, and access is controlled and restricted in other areas.
The Plain is a chalk plateau in central southern England covering 300 square miles (780km2). It is part of a system of chalk downlands throughout eastern and southern England, is sparsely populated and the largest remaining area of calcareous grassland in north-west Europe.
Calcareous (or alkaline) grassland is an ecosystem associated with thin basic soil, such as that on chalk and limestone downland. Plants on calcareous grassland are typically short and hardy, and include grasses and herbs such as clover. Calcareous grassland is an important habitat for insects, particularly butterflies, and is kept at a plagioclimax by grazing animals, usually sheep and sometimes cattle.
So you can see that the MoD own about half the Plain. And in one of those ironical outcomes (serendipity anyone?) this area of land that has consistently been pummelled by all sorts of military ordnance for over a century not to mention assaulted by soldiers, tanks and other vehicles is a wildlife haven. You can find, when you can get access, 13 species of nationally rare and scarce plants, along with 67 species of rare and scarce invertebrates. There are also up to 20 pairs of stone curlew representing 12% of the British population who breed here as well as buzzard, barn owl, long-eared owl and nightingale to name but a few.
Getting access is the key and these days it is not as restricted as you might think. It’s also fair to say it is not as available as many walkers (including this one) would like. There is the Imber Range Perimeter Path – a 30 mile (48 km) route ‘buffalo-gals-ing’ it round the outside – as well as several rights of way permanently open. Using the offices of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, a monthly online & paper-version of the Salisbury Plain Training Area newsletter is produced, along with up-to-the-minute news on their twitter feed @mod_dio. You can see that the MoD is doing its level best to improve access to the Plain and these days seems more sympathetic to the needs of walkers and other recreational users. So when the red flags are not flying and the army is not practicing warfare you can travel for miles in what seems another world.
As Candida Lycett Green puts it so much more eloquently than me: “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."
When walking on the Plain it is not hard to believe that much of the landscape has never been put under the plough let alone been subject to the chemicals of modern intensive agriculture. All around is evidence and echoes of the past. Stonehenge and Durrington Walls from the Neolithic period. Bronze and Iron Age forts and settlements like Scratchbury Camp and Sidbury Hill. While the faint traces of Roman roads disappear off to Old Sarum. There are also a number of chalk carvings here with the most famous probably the Westbury White Horse.
In their own words the MoD say Project Ubique aims to provide managed public access across Salisbury Plain in accordance with the Ministry of Defence declared presumption in favour of access. Project Ubique is being delivered through a series of sub-projects focusing on specific areas of Salisbury Plain, with each project adhering to the following three principles – Certainty, Clarity & Consistency. These principles aim to guarantee a consistent approach to the provision of public access, ensuring both civilians and MOD personnel are clear as to where safe public access lies to reduce the potential for conflict between recreation and military training.
Undoubtedly Salisbury Plain repays your perseverance in planning a visit. And the fact that we enjoy greater access to this magical and mythical terrain is due to the numerous campaigners over the years who have attended public enquiries and stubbornly badgered the MoD to open as much of the Plain to the public as is safely possible. It is worth noting that the rights of way are of a very high standard and the MoD actively pursue illegal off-roaders (now there’s a literal image worth savouring) and seek prosecution where applicable.
However, I’ll leave you with these cautionary sentences from a MoD pamphlet: ‘You may meet Army personnel engaging in military exercises whilst out walking. These activities are unlikely to affect your walk, but please follow any instructions from military personnel.’ Well you would wouldn’t you because they’ll be carrying guns!
Walking class hero’s playlist:
As I Walked Over Salisbury Plain by The Memory Band
Salisbury Plain by Maddy Prior
Salisbury by Uriah Heep
Stoney End by Barbra Streisand
Island of No Return by Billy Bragg
Ironic by Alanis Morissette
Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McLaren
Walking Class Hero is a regular blog contributor. Find out more about him, including his previous blog posts. You can also follow him on twitter @walkngclasshero.