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    Ch. 1: Salisbury Plain

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    Chapter 1
    A SHEPHERD'S LIFE

    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
    smiling.

    "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
    Salisbury.

    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
    dispossessed.

    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.
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