Mixing with the Big Boys.
A guided tour of Salisbury Plain.
Pausing for a break on Salisbury Plain last month a small group of us were thrilled to see a big military 6x6 M.A.N. truck at full chat! It stormed across a track tantalisingly close to us, the soldier at the wheel looked to be barely out of school, but what was impressive was the brevity of the moment. He must have been doing about 50 mph, one or two of the six wheels slightly off the ground as he wrestled with the steering and a ‘rooster tail’ of dust in his wake. The instructor at his side was presumably hanging on for dear life, whilst offering words of encouragement as they dived off into the woodland!
Our own meander around Wiltshire’s vast network of tracks was far less aggressive. A small group of us were being guided by Peter Girling, who readers may remember was guest editor of the February issue of LRW. The Land Rover presence was exotic with Carrick Smith driving his original 1997 Camel Trophy Defender and Isle of White couple, Tony and Hayley Delannoy in a very well equipped TD5 Defender that they intend to take to Morocco later this year on one of Peter’s Atlas Overland trips. I brought up the rear in my Carawagon, still full of sand from my recent Libya trip and slightly compromised by a few North African 'repairs'.
Helping with the navigation was Peter’s associate, Alex Smith, Army veteran and not only very familiar with Salisbury Plain, but also a fearsome geek with navigational aids! For every metre of the trip, Alex knew exactly where we were on a large screen sprouting out of his dashboard. Important when not wanting to stray into the paths of oncoming tanks etc., but essential when out in North Africa on one of Atlas Overland’s trips.
Most of Salisbury Plain has been in military ownership since 1898 and this gives the area a unique quality. Wide open spaces and clearly defined tracks make the Plain ideal for green lane driving and Wiltshire County Council are pro-active in supporting our hobby with up-to-date information on the routes driveable. At 300 square miles there is also little chance of bumping into too many other people.
Only on Salisbury Plain will you find this sign!
Our tour started with an easy run out of Tidworth, up high onto open plain, then along the edge of some woodland - the track rutted from military use and with a few water filled bits to remind us of what wet mud cooking on a hot exhaust smells like! Most of the tracks in the morning were quite easy and designed by Peter and Alex to assess the capabilities of both drivers and vehicles before the afternoons more challenging sections. Leaving the tracks we joined a rough gravel road heading south to a commanding view of Stonehenge, silhouetted against a grey sky, tourists queuing to take their Stonehenge picture, before climbing back into the coach to head off for Salisbury Cathedral, tea and cakes!
A noble trio, Tony and Hayley Delannoy in their 110 TD5, Toby’s Carawagon and Carrick Smith’s Camel Trophy Defender.
Whilst the tourists settled back into their armchair comfort we continued, the tracks becoming more challenging and the mud deeper. If anything looked really difficult we sent Carrick in first! His Camel Trophy Land Rover had survived the jungles of Tierra del Fuego, so anything Salisbury Plain could throw at it had to be a picnic! With muddy water coming up to bonnet level, Carrick judged his bow wave to perfection and sailed through a long section of rutted track, the 110 looking exactly as it would have done 13 years ago - covered in mud with steam coming from the hot bits! ‘It’s firm underneath’ was Carrick’s message to the rest of us as we eased our front wheels into the mire.
For Tony and Hayley it was a new experience in their Defender, having never done any ‘serious’ off road driving before, but one they greatly enjoyed, judging be the grins on their mud spattered faces! Having found our mud driving skills we continued through more mud, more ruts and, when we were not frantically steering, or slipping between one gear and another, enjoyed some great views across Salisbury Plain. For the climax of the run we visited Imber, the village purchased by the Army in 1943 in which to offer the Americans a real village to practice their skills prior to the Invasion of Europe. This uninhabited village has since reinvented itself as an urban environment in Northern Ireland in the 70’s, a Bosnian village in the 80’s, and is currently trying to resemble an Afghan settlement, though the 1930’s Semi’s struggle to resemble al-Quada strongholds! Following an interesting talk by Alex Smith on his experiences training there for service in Bosnia, it was time to head for the jet wash, remove the evidence of a days fun and head for home. Big smiles all round!
Copyright Toby Savage