Monday, August 18, 2008

Putting the War in Warminster

At the weekend I decided to go for a pleasant bike ride in Warminster's surrounding countryside. After cycling for about an hour along lanes and paths, ignoring lots of red warning signs, and getting lost, I found myself in a, er, military firing range. When I heard gun shots, I decided to heed the warnings and go back.

Warminster, Wiltshire is renowned as a garrison town. It's not unusual to see army convoys and soldiers in town. My neighbour is a soldier, and seems a nice family guy. He recently had a great time in Basra, and likes guns. A large portion of Salisbury Plain is owned by the MoD – and out of bounds. Cycling and walking around the outskirts, there's a strange feeling as if I'm being watched – by snipers. Like in a Vietnam war film where everything's still – too still... then suddenly there are gun shots coming through the bushes. Nothing feels real – the grass, trees, even the birds – it all feels like an artificial training ground. There's an eerie, empty silence; the grass isn't whistling in the wind, the birds aren't singing. There's a crow following me and I'm sure it's got a CCTV camera built into its eyes. Seemingly innocuous objects take on sinister significance – like discarded farming equipment, old barns, hay stacks, even a dirty sock on the road, and, er, bullet shells, a training camp and tanks.

I eventually found myself in a garrison housing estate – MODern said the sign, but it seemed anything but. That too was empty – rather like the Nevada atomic bomb testing villages (there's one featured in the latest Indiana Jones film) – a discarded tricycle on the pavement, a dog barking – but on Saturday afternoon, completely deserted. Most bizarre for a housing estate was the lack of litter and dumped mattresses and TV sets. There was a ubiquitous Londis on the estate – selling bullets in the place of cigarettes and grenades instead of Pot Noodles. Only joking.

Imber village, seven miles east of Warminster on Salisbury Plain, can only be visited one week in the year. It was a real, functioning village until 1943 when the army requisitioned it for military training purposes and gave the residents 47 days to leave and very little compensation. They were meant to give it back after the war – but didn't. It's still used for training, and in the past was heavily used to prepare troops for combat in Northern Ireland. When I went I almost tripped over some teenage soldiers in camouflage gear with rifles. Imber still has its local pub (unfortunately not functioning), The Bell Inn, and a church. The army have a purpose-built 'German', and more recently an 'Iraqi' village, at nearby Copehill Down – also used for training. These somewhat sinister ghost villages, from a distance, look like quaint Wiltshire towns. Then you get close and a polite sign tells you will be shot if you try to enter.

Some people think the UFOs sightings (and sounds) in the 1960s and 70s may have been the army practicing on Salisbury Plain. This month locals may get to see more Unidentified Objects if they're lucky – in the form of surveillance robots taking part in a Grand Challenge on Copehill Down which sees 11 teams competing against each other.

It was somewhat depressing hearing recently Labour Minister for Trade and Investment, Digby Jones, proudly declaring that Britain is now the world's biggest arms exporter. In 1997 Labour had said they would not sell arms to countries that violated human rights. Surprise, surprise, they seem to have gone back on their word. In 2006, 19 of the 20 countries the UK exported arms to, such as China, Israel and Colombia, have a record for abusing human rights. Oh well, at least we're good at something.

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