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Salisbury Plain

Alternate use: Salisbury Plain is also an area on South Georgia Island.

Salisbury Plain is a 300 sq mi (780 kmē) chalk plateau in central southern England. The plain is sparsely populated and the principal land uses are arable agriculture, chalk grassland, military institutions, and a few small areas of beach and coniferous woodland. The plain is the largest remaining area of calcareous grassland in northwest Europe. The plain is one of the Ministry of Defence and NATO's principal training grounds because of the sparse population. Because of the large training areas inaccessible to the public, the plain is also a wildlife haven, and home to two National Nature Reserves, but there is concern that the low level of grazing on the plain could allow scrub to encroach on the grassland. The plain is also home to DSTL Porton Down, a laboratory whose work is shrouded in secrecy.


Salisbury Plain is famous for its history. In Neolithic times there was an extensive population and much of the original vegetation had been cleared. The population was centred around the causeway camps of Whitesheet Hill and Robin Hood's Ball. By 2200 BCE, Stonehenge and Avebury had become a focus for building, including a large quantity of round barrows and long barrows. Around 600 BCE, large Bronze Age hill forts were constructed at Scratchbury and Battlesbury. Roman roads are visible features, probably serving a settlement near Old Sarum. Villas are sparse, however, and Anglo-Saxon place names suggest that the plain was mostly a grain producing imperial estate.

In the sixth century Anglo-Saxon incomers built planned settlements in the valleys surounded by strip lychetts, with the downland left as sheep walks. To the south is the city of Salisbury, whose 13 and 14th century cathedral is famous for having the tallest spire in the country, and the building was, for centuries, the tallest building in Britain. The cathedral is evidence of the prosperity the wool and cloth trade bought to the area. In the post-Medieval period, the system of floated flood meadows was developed, and large manors and estates developed around Salisbury. In the mid-19th century the wool and cloth industry began to decline, leading to a decline in the population and change in land use from sheep farming to agriculture and military use. Wiltshire became one of the poorest counties in England during this period of decline. There are a number of chalk carvings on the plain, of which the most famous is the Westbury White Horse. The Kennet and Avon Canal runs to the north of the plain, through the Vale of Pewsey.

The Wylye, Avon and Bourne valleys cut through the plain. They have narrow flood plains, steep sides, and relatively high population density. All three valleys flow down to Salisbury where the rivers meet. Durrington and Amesbury are the only towns on the plain, though there are a number of small villages and hamletss. The A303 cuts across the plain, and a tunnel is soon to be constructed to protect Stonehenge from the damage done by the huge volume of traffic which passes just metres from the stones.

The Hampshire Downs and the Berkshire and Marlborough Downs are chalk downland to the east and north of Salisbury Plain, and the Dorset Downs and Cranborne Chase are to the southwest. In the west and northwest the geology is mainly of the clays and limestones of the Blackmore Vale, Avon Vale and Vale of Wardour. To the south is the New Forest.

In 1896 George Kemp and Marconi experimented with wireless telegraphy on Salisbury Plain, and achieved good results over a distance of 1 3/4 miles.

Salisbury Plain has featured in the writings of William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, William Henry Hudson, and A.G. Street and in the paintings of Constable.

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