Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 1: Salisbury Plain


Introductory remarks--Wiltshire little favoured by tourists--Aspect of
the downs--Bad weather--Desolate aspect--The bird-scarer--Fascination
of the downs--The larger Salisbury Plain--Effect of the military
occupation--A century's changes--Birds--Old Wiltshire sheep--Sheep-horns
in a well--Changes wrought by cultivation--Rabbit-warrens on the
downs--Barrows obliterated by the plough and by rabbits

Wiltshire looks large on the map of England, a great green county, yet
it never appears to be a favourite one to those who go on rambles in the
land. At all events I am unable to bring to mind an instance of a lover
of Wiltshire who was not a native or a resident, or had not been to
Marlborough and loved the country on account of early associations. Nor
can I regard myself as an exception, since, owing to a certain kind of
adaptiveness in me, a sense of being at home wherever grass grows, I am
in a way a native too. Again, listen to any half-dozen of your friends
discussing the places they have visited, or intend visiting, comparing
notes about the counties, towns, churches, castles, scenery--all that
draws them and satisfies their nature, and the chances are that they
will not even mention Wiltshire. They all know it "in a way"; they have
seen Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge, which everybody must go to look
at once in his life; and they have also viewed the country from the
windows of a railroad carriage as they passed through on their flight to
Bath and to Wales with its mountains, and to the west country, which
many of us love best of all--Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. For there is
nothing striking in Wiltshire, at all events to those who love nature
first; nor mountains, nor sea, nor anything to compare with the places
they are hastening to, west or north. The downs! Yes, the downs are
there, full in sight of your window, in their flowing forms resembling
vast, pale green waves, wave beyond wave, "in fluctuation fixed"; a fine
country to walk on in fine weather for all those who regard the mere
exercise of walking as sufficient pleasure. But to those who wish for
something more, these downs may be neglected, since, if downs are
wanted, there is the higher, nobler Sussex range within an hour of
London. There are others on whom the naked aspect of the downs has a
repelling effect. Like Gilpin they love not an undecorated earth; and
false and ridiculous as Gilpin's taste may seem to me and to all those
who love the chalk, which "spoils everything" as Gilpin said, he
certainly expresses a feeling common to those who are unaccustomed to
the emptiness and silence of these great spaces.

As to walking on the downs, one remembers that the fine days are not so
many, even in the season when they are looked for--they have certainly
been few during this wet and discomfortable one of 1909. It is indeed
only on the chalk hills that I ever feel disposed to quarrel with this
English climate, for all weathers are good to those who love the open
air, and have their special attractions. What a pleasure it is to be out
in rough weather in October when the equinoctial gales are on, "the wind
Euroclydon," to listen to its roaring in the bending trees, to watch the
dead leaves flying, the pestilence-stricken multitudes, yellow and black
and red, whirled away in flight on flight before the volleying blast,
and to hear and see and feel the tempests of rain, the big silver-grey
drops that smite you like hail! And what pleasure too, in the still grey
November weather, the time of suspense and melancholy before winter, a
strange quietude, like a sense of apprehension in nature! And so on
through the revolving year, in all places in all weathers, there is
pleasure in the open air, except on these chalk hills because of their
bleak nakedness. There the wind and driving rain are not for but against
you, and may overcome you with misery. One feels their loneliness,
monotony, and desolation on many days, sometimes even when it is not
wet, and I here recall an amusing encounter with a bird-scarer during
one of these dreary spells.

It was in March, bitterly cold, with an east wind which had been blowing
many days, and overhead the sky was of a hard, steely grey. I was
cycling along the valley of the Ebble, and finally leaving it pushed up
a long steep slope and set off over the high plain by a dusty road with
the wind hard against me. A more desolate scene than the one before me
it would be hard to imagine, for the land was all ploughed and stretched
away before me, an endless succession of vast grey fields, divided by
wire fences. On all that space there was but one living thing in sight,
a human form, a boy, far away on the left side, standing in the middle
of a big field with something which looked like a gun in his hand.
Immediately after I saw him he, too, appeared to have caught sight of
me, for turning he set off running as fast as he could over the ploughed
ground towards the road, as if intending to speak to me. The distance he
would have to run was about a quarter of a mile and I doubted that he
would be there in time to catch me, but he ran fast and the wind was
against me, and he arrived at the road just as I got to that point.
There by the side of the fence he stood, panting from his race, his
handsome face glowing with colour, a boy about twelve or thirteen, with
a fine strong figure, remarkably well dressed for a bird-scarer. For
that was what he was, and he carried a queer, heavy-looking old gun. I
got off my wheel and waited for him to speak, but he was silent, and
continued regarding me with the smiling countenance of one well pleased
with himself. "Well?" I said, but there was no answer; he only kept on

"What did you want?" I demanded impatiently.

"I didn't want anything."

"But you started running here as fast as you could the moment you caught
sight of me."

"Yes, I did."

"Well, what did you do it for--what was your object in running here?"

"Just to see you pass," he answered.

It was a little ridiculous and vexed me at first, but by and by when I
left him, after some more conversation, I felt rather pleased; for it
was a new and somewhat flattering experience to have any person run a
long distance over a ploughed field, burdened with a heavy gun, "just to
see me pass."

But it was not strange in the circumstances; his hours in that grey,
windy desolation must have seemed like days, and it was a break in the
monotony, a little joyful excitement in getting to the road in time to
see a passer-by more closely, and for a few moments gave him a sense of
human companionship. I began even to feel a little sorry for him, alone
there in his high, dreary world, but presently thought he was better off
and better employed than most of his fellows poring over miserable books
in school, and I wished we had a more rational system of education for
the agricultural districts, one which would not keep the children shut
up in a room during all the best hours of the day, when to be out of
doors, seeing, hearing, and doing, would fit them so much better for the
life-work before them. Squeers' method was a wiser one. We think less of
it than of the delightful caricature, which makes Squeers "a joy for
ever," as Mr. Lang has said of Pecksniff. But Dickens was a Londoner,
and incapable of looking at this or any other question from any other
than the Londoner's standpoint. Can you have a better system for the
children of all England than this one which will turn out the most
perfect draper's assistant in Oxford Street, or, to go higher, the most
efficient Mr. Guppy in a solicitor's office? It is true that we have
Nature's unconscious intelligence against us; that by and by, when at
the age of fourteen the boy is finally released, she will set to work to
undo the wrong by discharging from his mind its accumulations of useless
knowledge as soon as he begins the work of life. But what a waste of
time and energy and money! One can only hope that the slow intellect of
the country will wake to this question some day, that the countryman
will say to the townsman, Go on making your laws and systems of
education for your own children, who will live as you do indoors; while
I shall devise a different one for mine, one which will give them hard
muscles and teach them to raise the mutton and pork and cultivate the
potatoes and cabbages on which we all feed.

To return to the downs. Their very emptiness and desolation, which
frightens the stranger from them, only serves to make them more
fascinating to those who are intimate with and have learned to love
them. That dreary aspect brings to mind the other one, when, on waking
with the early sunlight in the room, you look out on a blue sky,
cloudless or with white clouds. It may be fancy, or the effect of
contrast, but it has always seemed to me that just as the air is purer
and fresher on these chalk heights than on the earth below, and as the
water is of a more crystal purity, and the sky perhaps bluer, so do all
colours and all sounds have a purity and vividness and intensity beyond
that of other places. I see it in the yellows of hawkweed, rock-rose,
and birds'-foot-trefoil, in the innumerable specks of brilliant
colour--blue and white and rose--of milk-wort and squinancy-wort, and in
the large flowers of the dwarf thistle, glowing purple in its green
setting; and I hear it in every bird-sound, in the trivial songs of
yellow-hammer and corn-bunting, and of dunnock and wren and whitethroat.

The pleasure of walking on the downs is not, however, a subject which
concerns me now; it is one I have written about in a former work,
"Nature in Downland," descriptive of the South Downs. The theme of the
present work is the life, human and other, of the South Wiltshire Downs,
or of Salisbury Plain. It is the part of Wiltshire which has most
attracted me. Most persons would say that the Marlborough Downs are
greater, more like the great Sussex range as it appears from the Weald:
but chance brought me farther south, and the character and life of the
village people when I came to know them made this appear the best place
to be in.

The Plain itself is not a precisely denned area, and may be made to
include as much or little as will suit the writer's purpose. If you want
a continuous plain, with no dividing valley cutting through it, you must
place it between the Avon and Wylye Rivers, a distance about fifteen
miles broad and as many long, with the village of Tilshead in its
centure; or, if you don't mind the valleys, you can say it extends from
Downton and Tollard Royal south of Salisbury to the Pewsey vale in the
north, and from the Hampshire border on the east side to Dorset and
Somerset on the west, about twenty-five to thirty miles each way. My own
range is over this larger Salisbury Plain, which includes the River
Ebble, or Ebele, with its numerous interesting villages, from Odstock
and Combe Bisset, near Salisbury and "the Chalks," to pretty Alvediston
near the Dorset line, and all those in the Nadder valley, and westward
to White Sheet Hill above Mere. You can picture this high chalk country
as an open hand, the left hand, with Salisbury in the hollow of the
palm, placed nearest the wrist, and the five valleys which cut through
it as the five spread fingers, from the Bourne (the little finger)
succeeded by Avon, Wylye, and Nadder, to the Ebble, which comes in lower
down as the thumb and has its junction with the main stream below

A very large portion of this high country is now in a transitional
state, that was once a sheep-walk and is now a training ground for the
army. Where the sheep are taken away the turf loses the smooth, elastic
character which makes it better to walk on than the most perfect lawn.
The sheep fed closely, and everything that grew on the down--grasses,
clovers, and numerous small creeping herbs--had acquired the habit of
growing and flowering close to the ground, every species and each
individual plant striving, with the unconscious intelligence that is in
all growing things, to hide its leaves and pushing sprays under the
others, to escape the nibbling teeth by keeping closer to the surface.
There are grasses and some herbs, the plantain among them, which keep
down very close but must throw up a tall stem to flower and seed. Look
at the plantain when its flowering time comes; each particular plant
growing with its leaves so close down on the surface as to be safe from
the busy, searching mouths, then all at once throwing up tall, straight
stems to flower and ripen its seeds quickly. Watch a flock at this time,
and you will see a sheep walking about, rapidly plucking the flowering
spikes, cutting them from the stalk with a sharp snap, taking them off
at the rate of a dozen or so in twenty seconds. But the sheep cannot be
all over the downs at the same time, and the time is short, myriads of
plants throwing up their stems at once, so that many escape, and it has
besides a deep perennial root so that the plant keeps its own life
though it may be unable to sow any seeds for many seasons. So with other
species which must send up a tall flower stem; and by and by, the
flowering over and the seeds ripened or lost, the dead, scattered stems
remain like long hairs growing out of a close fur. The turf remains
unchanged; but take the sheep away and it is like the removal of a
pressure, or a danger: the plant recovers liberty and confidence and
casts off the old habit; it springs and presses up to get the better of
its fellows--to get all the dew and rain and sunshine that it can--and
the result is a rough surface.

Another effect of the military occupation is the destruction of the wild
life of the Plain, but that is a matter I have written about in my last
book, "Afoot in England," in a chapter on Stonehenge, and need not dwell
on here. To the lover of Salisbury Plain as it was, the sight of
military camps, with white tents or zinc houses, and of bodies of men in
khaki marching and drilling, and the sound of guns, now informs him that
he is in a district which has lost its attraction, where nature has been

Meanwhile, there is a corresponding change going on in the human life of
the district. Let anyone describe it as he thinks best, as an
improvement or a deterioration, it is a great change nevertheless, which
in my case and probably that of many others is as disagreeable to
contemplate as that which we are beginning to see in the down, which was
once a sheep-walk and is so no longer. On this account I have ceased to
frequent that portion of the Plain where the War Office is in possession
of the land, and to keep to the southern side in my rambles, out of
sight and hearing of the "white-tented camps" and mimic warfare. Here is
Salisbury Plain as it has been these thousand years past, or ever since
sheep were pastured here more than in any other district in England, and
that may well date even more than ten centuries back.

Undoubtedly changes have taken place even here, some very great, chiefly
during the last, or from the late eighteenth century. Changes both in
the land and the animal life, wild and domestic. Of the losses in wild
bird life there will be something to say in another chapter; they relate
chiefly to the extermination of the finest species, the big bird,
especially the soaring bird, which is now gone out of all this wide
Wiltshire sky. As a naturalist I must also lament the loss of the old
Wiltshire breed of sheep, although so long gone. Once it was the only
breed known in Wilts, and extended over the entire county; it was a big
animal, the largest of the fine-woolled sheep in England, but for looks
it certainly compared badly with modern downland breeds and possessed,
it was said, all the points which the breeder, or improver, was against.
Thus, its head was big and clumsy, with a round nose, its legs were long
and thick, its belly without wool, and both sexes were horned. Horns,
even in a ram, are an abomination to the modern sheep-farmer in Southern
England. Finally, it was hard to fatten. On the other hand it was a
sheep which had been from of old on the bare open downs and was modified
to suit the conditions, the scanty feed, the bleak, bare country, and
the long distances it had to travel to and from the pasture ground. It
was a strong, healthy, intelligent animal, in appearance and character
like the old original breed of sheep on the pampas of South America,
which I knew as a boy, a coarse-woolled sheep with naked belly, tall and
hardy, a greatly modified variety of the sheep introduced by the Spanish
colonist three centuries ago. At all events the old Wiltshire sheep had
its merits, and when the Southdown breed was introduced during the late
eighteenth century the farmer viewed it with disfavour; they liked their
old native animal, and did not want to lose it. But it had to go in
time, just as in later times the Southdown had to go when the Hampshire
Down took its place--the breed which is now universal, in South Wilts at
all events.

A solitary flock of the pure-bred old Wiltshire sheep existed in the
county as late as 1840, but the breed has now so entirely disappeared
from the country that you find many shepherds who have never even heard
of it. Not many days ago I met with a curious instance of this ignorance
of the past. I was talking to a shepherd, a fine intelligent fellow,
keenly interested in the subjects of sheep and sheep-dogs, on the high
down above the village of Broad Chalk on the Ebble, and he told me that
his dog was of mixed breed, but on its mother's side came from a Welsh
sheep-dog, that his father had always had the Welsh dog, once common in
Wiltshire, and he wondered why it had gone out as it was so good an
animal. This led me to say something about the old sheep having gone out
too, and as he had never heard of the old breed I described the animal
to him.

What I told him, he said, explained something which had been a puzzle to
him for some years. There was a deep hollow in the down near the spot
where we were standing, and at the bottom he said there was an old well
which had been used in former times to water the sheep, but masses of
earth had fallen down from the sides, and in that condition it had
remained for no one knew how long--perhaps fifty, perhaps a hundred
years. Some years ago it came into his master's head to have this old
well cleaned out, and this was done with a good deal of labour, the
sides having first been boarded over to make it safe for the workmen
below. At the bottom of the well a vast store of rams' horns was
discovered and brought out; and it was a mystery to the fanner and the
men how so large a number of sheep's horns had been got together; for
rams are few and do not die often, and here there were hundreds of
horns. He understood it now, for if all the sheep, ewes as well as rams,
were horned in the old breed, a collection like this might easily have
been made.

The greatest change of the last hundred years is no doubt that which the
plough has wrought in the aspect of the downs. There is a certain
pleasure to the eye in the wide fields of golden corn, especially of
wheat, in July and August; but a ploughed down is a down made ugly, and
it strikes one as a mistake, even from a purely economic point of view,
that this old rich turf, the slow product of centuries, should be ruined
for ever as sheep-pasture when so great an extent of uncultivated land
exists elsewhere, especially the heavy clays of the Midlands, better
suited for corn. The effect of breaking up the turf on the high downs is
often disastrous; the thin soil which was preserved by the close, hard
turf is blown or washed away, and the soil becomes poorer year by year,
in spite of dressing, until it is hardly worth cultivating. Clover may
be grown on it but it continues to deteriorate; or the tenant or
landlord may turn it into a rabbit-warren, the most fatal policy of all.
How hideous they are--those great stretches of downland, enclosed in big
wire fences and rabbit netting, with little but wiry weeds, moss, and
lichen growing on them, the earth dug up everywhere by the disorderly
little beasts! For a while there is a profit--"it will serve me my
time," the owner says--but the end is utter barrenness.

One must lament, too, the destruction of the ancient earth-works,
especially of the barrows, which is going on all over the downs, most
rapidly where the land is broken up by the plough. One wonders if the
ever-increasing curiosity of our day with regard to the history of the
human race in the land continues to grow, what our descendants of the
next half of the century, to go no farther, will say of us and our
incredible carelessness in the matter! So small a matter to us, but one
which will, perhaps, be immensely important to them! It is, perhaps,
better for our peace that we do not know; it would not be pleasant to
have our children's and children's children's contemptuous expressions
sounding in our prophetic ears. Perhaps we have no right to complain of
the obliteration of these memorials of antiquity by the plough; the
living are more than the dead, and in this case it may be said that we
are only following the Artemisian example in consuming (in our daily
bread) minute portions of the ashes of our old relations, albeit
untearfully, with a cheerful countenance. Still one cannot but
experience a shock on seeing the plough driven through an ancient,
smooth turf, curiously marked with barrows, lynchetts, and other
mysterious mounds and depressions, where sheep have been pastured for a
thousand years, without obscuring these chance hieroglyphs scored by men
on the surface of the hills.

It is not, however, only on the cultivated ground that the destruction
is going on; the rabbit, too, is an active agent in demolishing the
barrows and other earth-works. He burrows into the mound and throws out
bushels of chalk and clay, which is soon washed down by the rains; he
tunnels it through and through and sometimes makes it his village; then
one day the farmer or keeper, who is not an archaeologist, comes along
and puts his ferrets into the holes, and one of them, after drinking his
fill of blood, falls asleep by the side of his victim, and the keeper
sets to work with pick and shovel to dig him out, and demolishes half
the barrow to recover his vile little beast.

W. H. Hudson