News this week: a Great Bustard has laid a clutch of eggs on the Plain! An infertile clutch of eggs, but eggs just the same. Huzzah!
I visited this bustard project last summer. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but it made me feel old. Because there was a caravan at the release site, and living in it was a species of person I’d not seen for years. Eager youngsters! Would-be ornithologists! Baby bustard enthusiasts! All lanky and curly-haired in overalls and wellingtons, happy to live in the middle of nowhere, on practically nothing, doing everything: six-hour stretches staring through telescopes at lucerne fields; slapping creosote on duckboards; building aviaries; shooting foxes. I used to be one of these people.
It was hawks, not bustards, in my case of course. Oh, those midsummer nights in a damp, mouldy caravan at the top of a hill. With a copy of the Brothers Karamazov (50p from the local Oxfam shop), a packet of cigarettes, and cans of coke in abeyance of a kettle and instant coffee. Up until 11 making sure they all came in to roost, up at 2 ready for dawn. It has the distinct clarity, this memory, of a bad nightmare. I read the same pages over and over again, trying to make sense of the plot while my poor overtired eyes burned. And thanking the skies that it was a still morning. On windy days, the adrenaline hit was massive: I had a well-founded fear not only of the hawks blowing away downwind — but of the caravan blowing down the steep hill. There was still a visible deep double rut from top to bottom of the hill from the time the landcruiser didn’t quite manage to do the thing they do easily in adverts, and instead slid backwards down the hill to crash backwise against the sheep fencing.
Back to the bustards. The Plain is pretty much the largest piece of grassland range left in lowland Britain. It is a really rather magic place. It has a long, long falconry history. And just as long a history as a magnet for pagans and squaddies. A cultural historian would probably call it a heterogeneous social landscape. Which means, a lone figure walking across a bit of The Plain could as easily be a farmer as a pagan on pilgrimage, a dog-walker, a poacher, ecologist, RSPB liaison officer, ferret-man from Faberstown, long-dogger, Great Bustard reintroduction fieldworker, model aircraft nut, archaeologist or a lost truckdriver. Or falconer, of course. I flew a merlin here years ago, in this paradisical landscape crossed by tank tracks and dotted with unexploded ordnance signs. Flooded leys, long hayfields full of toadflax and blue butterflies, heaps of partridges, lapwings, skylarks, quail. There were disadvantages: flying a merlin on an active DZ, for example, brings helicopters in to have a look, just as flying a falcon on an upland moor brings in wild peregrines. Most offputting.
Most offputting of all, I suspect I oughtn’t to have been flying on The Plain at all. Years later I was told—although this may not be true— that my host didn’t have permission to fly hawks on some of these tracts of land. I don’t know whether this was the case, but I did know, even then, that gamekeepers don't usually shout at you and then walk up to you with a shotgun lowered to the horizontal.
The A303 is the road to the Plain. There are few roads in Britain upon which you are guaranteed to overtake at least one tank-transport convoy, and fewer still where you can peer through roadside plantations of beech and ash to see vast bulks, huge, anonymous rectangular objects covered in camouflage nets. Time and tide. You know, I’m finding such sights unsettling these days. I used to find the coincidence of, say, a ten-thousand strong flock of lapwing and the Ludgershall MoD vehicular depot oddly pleasing. Hmm. Anyway, if you peel off the A303 at Andover, go on to Dunning’s corner, just past the Weyhill fair made famous by Thomas Hardy (and now a long, low white wall with “Weyhill Fairground: Craft Fair!” banner on it), drive through Ludgershall and then take a sharp left once you hit Salisbury Plain, you end up, after a long sail through the Plain and myriad villages, in Marlborough.
Just after my trip to the Bustard Project last year, I visited a farm on the Marlborough Downs. No military presence here, but the Downs have a functional equivalent: racing. Fewer encampments and razor-wire: far more gallops and cross-country courses. This thin, stony soil was farmed by bronze age farmers; then it was sheepwalk for centuries, and only in the last fifty or sixty years has much been ploughed. I remember a short, rattly field of linseed, to the left, as we drove up the hill. And then cresting the rise, saw the land sink below us and then rise on the far side of a huge dry grassy downland valley.
This thin, stony soil is like white paste, it’s so thick with chalk. It’s all hair roots and flints and tiny buttons of stone and impasto. And all over it, stranded at various depths, so they rise and hit harrows and ploughs, are sarsens. They look like burned bones; bulky white bones with dark linear scooped sections, and charred patches and broken edges. And then we met the estate manager. Checked shirt, tan, languid etonian accent, talking about quail (lots), corncrake (the occasional), corn buntings (everywhere) and hares. Hares! Hares hares hares. I have never seen so many hares. The size of donkeys, almost. Lolloping along the dry tracks in front of us, or visible only as HUGE black-tipped ears sticking out of green wheat. "We like the hares" he said. I did too.
One of these adjoining farms was apparently a Templar preceptory, way back when. Estate manager told us that a "very strange stone" was found there, a shallow declivity running its entire length.
“Like a basin, for sacrifices or wine-treading. Or washing, I suppose.”
He thought for a moment.
“It’s bath stone, though: bloody hard. You try and drill it. In this stone they found, there’s a hole in the shape of (and he draws a little picture in the air with his finger) a pentangle running right through the stone. Eight, ten inches. Amazing.” He considers. “Those Templars really, really knew their stuff.”
It is refreshing as hell to meet and talk with people who are nothing whatsoever like the people I see every day. This was the kind of chap you just don’t find haunting the University Library. I think we should encourage a reintroduction programme of non-academic types into this university town. And perhaps someone could hack back some of our elderly dons from caravans on the Plain.