20-Aug-2003 -- I was fortunate to be invited to visit a couple of summits located in the Porton Down Range on the Wessex Downs. Porton Down started off as a chemical weapons development plant, and while now it is devoted to defence against what are now known as WMD, the surrounding hills are still heavily contaminated by shells containing God knows what... As a result for safety as well as national security it is one of the most controlled bits of land in Britain. But being Britain, if you ask nicely you can get in. Untouched for 80 years this is a wildlife spectacular, chalk grassland managed only by wild animal grazing, no agriculture since 1916. A fascinating evening and a glimpse of what this part of England looked like until the 20th century. (Sorry no photos - for obvious reasons)
However I had a whole day in Wessex to enjoy first, before being whisked around the ranges in the evening.. Obvious target, 51N 2W. A good idea as the harvest was just finished, and late summer is the only time that the spot could be visited without damage. Forget tramlines, you cannot walk in a corn field before harvest without damage. (This is England, Corn = Wheat - you want maize they grew that when I visited 52N 2 W)
The spot is a lovely one, and would have been something in the days when all the downs were like Porton, its an arable field surounded by the scarp slopes of chalk downs. To get into it I followed a green lane and then crossed a grass field to reach the stubble field with the confluence.
Chalk dominates the area, a band of this rock stretches diagonally across England from Yorkshire to Devon. It is common in France too, and the Channel Tunnel utilises a hard band of the rock between the island and the continent. It is a softish white limestone of the Cretaceous period, comprising of the calcium rich parts of diatoms, chalk is almost enirely made of fossils. Nodules of silicate rock in the chalk beds are used as building material and were the flints used by Stone Age men to make tools. The flints were widely traded over big distances.
Soils in chalk country are thin, but even so fertile, and most of the old grasslands grazed by sheep have been replaced by intensive arable agriculture. As a result, the old grassland plants have mostly gone too, only in a few places, like old mustard gas shelling ranges, does the old rich flora survive.