The Hard Way

By Susannah Walker

An absorbing nature memoir that uncovers the lives of women walking away from home.

Tuesday, 27 June 2023

Villages, British and otherwise

In The Hard Way, I write about walking to Imber, the village at the heart of Salisbury Plain which was taken over by the army during World War Two and, controversially, never returned to civilian life.  Today only the church remains unchanged; the rest of the housing now has corrugated iron roofs and gaping holes where the windows once were.  That's if it's there at all.  The former Post office now only exists as a sign on a tree.

Visiting times get shorter each year and I suspect the army are keen for us all to forget that anyone ever lived here.

But Imber is not the only village on the plain.  Old Ordnance Survey maps of the area (easy to explore online where whole days can be lost to wandering in their disappeared landscapes) are dotted with tangles of shaded lines labelled, in the black Gothic text which means the vanished past, as British Village.

Nowadays archaeologists would never call them anything some homely: they are Anglo-Roman field systems or strip lynchets or just earthworks.  But I rather like their old name, a reminder that Salisbury Plain was once a busy and populous place and its emptiness is a modern, and sometimes enforced invention.

There's another village out there to be found too, but this isn't marked on any map.  If you look north from the road between Chitterne and Shrewton, its roofscape is silhouetted on the ridge of the hill between trees.  But the buildings look, well, a bit odd.  Perhaps not quite British.

This is Copehill Down Training Area, an entirely fictitious place built on the downs but never inhabited.  It's there for the army to practice what they call FIBUA, or Fighting In a Built Up Area.  The soldiers have another name for it: FISH.  Fighting In Someone's House.

The village looks odd for a reason because Copehill Down is anything but British.  It was first built in the late 80s to appear Balkan, but since then has been altered and accessorised with rubble and shipping containers to be in turn Afghanistan and Iraq.  Surprisinglym a whole skein of footpaths run close by the buildings and when I walked up there a couple of years agod, the burnt-out cars, containers and road blocks were still trying to impersonate the Middle East, despite an icy January wind and acres of very British mud.

This walk was also a reminder of the way that the modern and the ancient are tangled up in the British landscape and in particular how the army and the prehistoric so often end up in the same place.  Stonehenge is surrounded by barracks and ammo dumps, and in the 1920s two airfields sat right up against it; the fields just beyond Avebury were once home to a gunnery range and if you follow the Ridgeway down to Pewsey you cross Stop Line Blue, once an essential defence against the expected Nazi invasion and still marked out by pillboxes and concrete tank obstacles all along its way.  The edges of the Harrow Way, meanwhile, are studded with airfields, rifle ranges and military HQ, while jeeps and tanks on transporters rumble along its prehistoric route.  Nearby, on Beacon Hill, Bronze Age ditches and practice World War One trenches intermingle: both are now listed monuments.

But even modern sites have pasts and history.  I haven't been up to Copehill Down in the last eighteen months but I suspect it may have changed once again.  The soldiers being trained up on these high hill are no longer just British but Ukranian too.  So the empty village will have returned to its original design, back to being a pretend part of middle Europe in the hope that soon the soldiers training there will one day be able to recapture the real thing.


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Lynn Genevieve
 Lynn Genevieve says:

I remember Imber well - I was born and grew up in Salisbury Plain and have visited it in more recent years with my grandchildren. I’m very much looking forward to your book.

posted 27th June 2023

Lindsay Clarke
 Lindsay Clarke says:

Your story reminds me of a visit to another army-possessed village - Tyneham on the Dorset coast. Approaching the site from a distance I gasped in outrage that a lovely village of thatched roofs and buckled wattle-and daub walls should have been permanently depopulated. Only as I got closer did I realize that I was looking at a paste-board stage-set built for a TV production of a Hardy story. The real Tyneham was tucked away behind. At the time we were wondering whether the breeze might be wafting radioactive fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster over us, so a peculiar air of unreality hung over the entire scene.

posted 27th June 2023

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