Early in the morning I walked back up the hill to pick over the beacon site. I hoped to find some fired nails for the boys. On the hill the grass was wet from the night rain. At the top I found a neat circle of burnt ground. I couldn’t find a single nail, someone had already tidied up; I guessed it was Christopher. In a nearby barn I sat down on a straw bale and ate a breakfast of fruit cake and drank milky coffee from a thermos. A turtle dove watched me from a run of blackthorn. Then I walked up onto the Plain.
It rolled away from me as green and empty as Africa. Squares and rectangles of woodland and stands of tall trees marked firing positions and cover and the sites of old farmsteads abandoned decades ago. Ministry of Defence signs told me to stay on the track. I knew the weather would come off the Plain and the skies looked grey and unsettled. A wind blew but it wasn’t cold. I had a jacket in my rucksack, and apples and chocolate. When I reached the ridgeway, which marks the Plain’s northern perimeter, I turned right and started walking. I planned to have lunch in West Lavington which was about 8 miles away. There was no one there.
Billowing red flags signalled danger; they had been raised that morning to keep civilians away from the ranges and artillery impact areas. The army first conducted exercises on the Plain in 1898 and it now owns a 150 square mile area known officially as the Defence Training Estate. This is where regiments and battle groups gather to train before they commence a tour of Afghanistan. One group of soldiers after another, each given the run of the Plain and ammunition for their weaponry and diesel for their vehicles and the objective is to be as well prepared as possible when the doors of the Hercules open at Camp Bastion (measured by traffic volume the fifth busiest UK-operated airport), and the soldiers disembark. The training programme is directed by a Lieutenant-Colonel based in Westdown Camp, but its administration has been outsourced to a company called Landmarc, which is responsible for barracking and feeding the troops, preparing the ranges and ensuring everyone is in the right place at the right time. Landmarc also mans the vedettes – the guarded entry points onto the Plain. Each vedette flies a red flag.
There was always a large red flag to walk towards and they showed the strength of the wind and they marked the edge of territory which wasn’t mine.
After an hour the artillery started up and it continued for the rest of the day. It sounded like someone furiously slamming a door. Again and again. I could see clumps of white smoke squatting at ground level and then feathering and thinning away in the wind. A copse of bright green beeches, the wind playing the leaves, looked irresistible as a piece of shelter. It was on the vale side of the track and I walked into it and sat inside for a while because I had nothing better to do. The grass was too wet to sit on so I leant against a stump. Looking back through the hoop of the path I had followed into the trees sudden sunlight, which dragged me out. The sun illuminated the vale, and the downs on the far side. Just below the horizon I could see the Lafarge chimney at Westbury.
Twenty minutes later I was plodding into driving rain. By the track, halfway along a young plantation of field maple and ash, a memorial to a German soldier, killed here on exercise when his vehicle overturned. A white mini-van full of soldiers in desert camouflage drove towards me. I waved at the young driver who wore a fusilier’s hackle in his beret and he waved back.
The rain stopped. I kept walking along the ridgeway, thinking all the time about my village and its people and our place in the world, and Britain’s place in the world. Where do we all stand now, and where are we all headed and did anyone really have a plan for this country? Deep into the Plain, on the wrong side of the red flags, sat down in a wooded valley is an empty village called Imber. This was once an isolated but established farming community, raising sheep and growing enough to feed the families and their livestock. The settlement at Imber was first recorded in 967, and St Giles’s church was first built in the 13th century. During the 1920 and 30s the War Office began to buy up the surrounding farms, and then the village itself and in 1943 the villagers received orders to evacuate so that the swelling numbers of American troops might have somewhere to train for the Normandy Landings. Now Imber is a training area for infantry; its houses shell damaged and destroyed, the old manor boarded up, the pub a wreck. Imber’s old families are dispersed; a few days a year they are allowed to visit the church (fenced off but preserved) and tend family graves. In their absence, a vagrant form of life carries on. Each day an Afghan market rings with the sounds of raised Pashtun voices and the authentic smells of cooking meat. Hessian hangs from the shells of houses to create the soft light and ambiguities of a Helmand compound. And each morning out of the tree line patrols of soldiers in desert camouflage wade nervously through the long English grass towards the vicious uncertainties of Afghanistan.
Leaving the Ridgeway I followed a bridleway down into West Lavington, a village on the busy A360. Men from the council were resurfacing the road. Heavy rain fell on the hot tarmac and steamed and scented the air. I moved quickly in search of a roof to shelter under and found it at The Churchill, a Wadworth’s pub. Bunting hung across its white walls and a blackboard advertised double vodka and tonic for £3.70. Inside the door a print of Churchill smoking a cigar. The landlord was standing behind the bar in gloomy light, other than him and me his pub was empty. There was Red, White & Brew for sale behind the bar, and Adnam’s Diamond. I ordered lunch and wandered about inspecting black and white photographs of West Lavington in days gone by – ex-servicemen gathered together in 1919, the uniformed station staff standing in front of the old station, Prince Phillip visiting Dauntsey’s School in 1971. My sandwich arrived and I ate it standing at the bar. The landlord had turned on the television and we stood together watching the news. A ratings agency had downgraded 5 German banks because of their level of exposure to Spain; some sort of Spanish bail-out looked unavoidable. European tourists are staying away from Greece, hitting one of its biggest industries hard and sending expatriate hoteliers home. The UK construction industry was in a slump. All this bad news on a rainy day in the middle of England and nothing anyone could do.
My walk home was dry all of the way, and sunny for most of it. Larks and corn buntings. Two Landmarc pick-ups passed me; each carried the logo ‘Partners in Possibility’. And then one was parked up ahead of me and as I walked passed it out of a beautiful stretch of woodland pointing in a tapering column into the heart of the Plain came like a hammer the ‘tack’ of a heavy machine gun. Tack. Tack. The noise smacked and warped though the trees. Halfway down the wood stood a khaki tent with soldiers standing around, and a military ambulance and a brand new MAN troop carrier and parked on the ridgeway I recognised the white minibus. Tack! Tack tack! The sound dominated. Its power, its objective was sovereign: the grasslands and the trees and the birds and inclement weather were nothing. At the heart of everything is the ability to project force, to clear and hold ground and kill your enemy. I stopped and watched the soldiers for a while, moving between the command tent and tree line.