Sharing a sense of place

WE have been asked to do a book on Wiltshire, a follow-up to our Deepest Dorset, and similarly aiming to create a portrait of the county in the 21st century, through a series of themes including literature, history, landscape, food, the arts, how and where people live and work, and leisure and tourism.

Initially it seemed a daunting prospect – our strongest connections are with Dorset, where we have both worked for most of our lives, and Somerset where we live and also work. But as we reach back into own family histories, and talk to friends and the people who want us to do the book, we have begun to realise how many connections we have and what a fascinating and complex county it is.

It is easy to see Wiltshire as empty farmland and army territory, with picturesque villages and towns in the north-south river valleys, sandwiched between the east-west M4 motorway and A303 trunk road. Look a little closer at a map and a different picture emerges, described by one local as a “doughnut” – a ring of communities, ranging from the tiny villages of the Chalke valley and western Plain to Swindon and Salisbury, surrounding the chalk downs and fields which carry the footprints of humans dating back into pre-history.

There are so many ways in which the doughnut is criss-crossed by human connections – 6,000 years of military encampments, from Battlesbury Hill fort  to Tidworth garrison; millennia of religious and ritual structures, from Avebury and Stonehenge to Salisbury Cathedral; today’s Wiltshire Ham and the Anglo Saxon origins of its biggest town – Swindon is “swine” and “dun”, literally “hill of the pigs”; centuries of transport from the sheep droves on the chalk downs to the coaching routes across Salisbury Plain and the arrival of the railways at Swindon; and the history of the motor car from an early manufacturer in Salisbury to the state-of-the-art Honda plant at Swindon.

We have discovered unexpected depths – like its predecessor this will be “Deepest” Wiltshire. There are the old tunnels under Corsham that would have provided shelter for the Second World War government and royal family in the event of invasion or continuing blitz; and Blick Mead at Amesbury, the area of the spring which never freezes and has been inhabited for at least 8,000 and maybe 10,000 years.

You couldn’t write about Dorset without including Thomas Hardy and the Jurassic Coast; similarly in Wiltshire we cannot ignore Stonehenge or the Army but we will be looking more deeply into the connections between the prehistoric monuments and forts and the present reality of the Army’s role, not only as defenders of the nation but as custodians of the land.

Many years ago, there were campaigns to return both Imber on Salisbury Plain and Tyneham on the Purbecks to the people who had been evacuated to allow military manoeuvres. We should be grateful that neither campaign succeeded. In the annals of unintended consequences, this is one of the more remarkable. While the Army’s tanks have left their marks on the landscape and little of old Imber remains, the benefits to the environment outweigh the damage by armoured vehicles and ordnance. The wildlife flourishes, on the Purbeck ranges and on Salisbury Plain – only on land protected by the military could there be a chance of success for a conservation project like the return of the Great Bustards.

One sceptic doubted there was enough to write about, saying that Wiltshire had no real character, but even our preliminary soundings have shown how wrong this is. A greater surprise has been to discover how important Swindon is not only in the history of Wiltshire but in the national story. Its current prominence as a trading and industrial hub in the Thames valley can mask the developments of earlier centuries including the railways and the health service.

When we worked on Deepest Dorset, it was not the predictable subjects of the arts and local food that were most stimulating. Instead it was the long history of industries including ball clay works, quarrying and defence which were most exciting. So much of what gives a place its distinctive character comes from the geology and topography. Dorset’s character has been carved out of the stone of Purbeck and Portland, the long coast with its safe harbours and the fertile valleys and downs that have supported agriculture since time immemorial.

We found that people were keen to share their knowledge, experience and love of the county – as we are now discovering in Wiltshire. Whether it is an Army officer with a soldier’s view of the history written in the landscape or a farmer ploughing the fields which his ancestors tilled from pre-Christian times, we carry a sense of our place in our hearts and our deepest memories.

Uncovering those memories and making those connections are what makes our project so fulfilling – and since we will also be raising money for three important charities, we hope we will be doing some good as well.

Fanny Charles