Amid the ancient earthworks and modern military manoeuvres on the Salisbury Plain, Admiral Lord Nelson’s fleet sails into battle. The assault of 1798 is perpetually re-enacted across the chalk Downs, as HMS Goliath exploits a gap in the French line at anchor on the Nile. Surrounded, all but four of the French ships will be destroyed, giving Nelson a famous victory and ensuring British naval supremacy against Napoleon.
Following Nelson’s death at Trafalgar in 1805, his mistress, Emma Hamilton, dedicated this remarkable memorial. Clusters of beech trees, each representing a war ship, were laid out to scale over an area nearly a mile long. They delineate the famous naval formation, recording the decisive moment of the battle and the ingenuity of Nelson’s strategy.
The intransigence of trees recalls a time when the speed and strategy of war at sea relied on the natural forces of wind and tide – attack under sail, destruction in slow motion. The complexity of the battle formation is difficult to grasp but, as we walk westwards, the trees align into three distinct bands, and the inevitability of the outcome becomes clear.
In its elegant simplicity, the landscape memorial operates far beyond its mnemonic obligation and engages us directly in the experience of the event. Bodies of trees curve against the wind like sails, ploughed earth and shivering grassland recall the undulation of water. We are transported from the footpath and are suddenly caught up amongst the tree-ships creaking in the tide of Aboukir Bay.