The sleepy medieval city at the heart of the Russia spy attack is a UK military hub

Not your run-of-the-mill town.
Not your run-of-the-mill town.
Image: Reuters/Peter Nicholls
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When the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found slumped on a bench in the center of the British city of Salisbury on March. 4, it sparked national security concerns.

UK prime minister Theresa May confirmed this week that the poison used in the attack was the military-grade nerve agent Novichok, developed by Russia—and it was delivered in an area where hundreds of people could have been affected (pdf).

The official inquiry by the police into alleged Russian state involvement in a number of deaths in Britain as well as those who are possibly affected by the nerve agent also raised questions about how the Skripals came to be in Salisbury in the first place, which remains unclear, and surprise that this sleepy medieval city, with only 45,000 residents, came to be the site of such a dramatic spy drama.

On the surface, Salisbury looks like a regular, run-of-the-mill city, famed for its cathedral—the tallest in England, with its crooked spire—and its proximity to the bigger tourist attraction of Stonehenge. It has a range of the usual shops and pubs you’d see on a UK high street, including the restaurant, Zizzi, where the Skripals were allegedly attacked, and a nightclub called the Chapel that has been a local hotspot for decades.

Less obvious is the fact that it’s a favored location for current and former military personnel, as well as those with ties to the armed forces, including ex-special operatives now living as civilians.

A huge chunk of Salisbury Plain, in the country of Wiltshire, is owned by the British military, with a training area that’s closed off to the public taking up around half of the area. Bulford Camp, a large UK military base, is a 20-minute drive from Salisbury station. The garrison town of Larkhill is less than half an hour away from Salisbury city center, with main garrisons in Bulford Camp, Tidworth Camp, and Warminster.

And Salisbury is set to grow as a hub for military personnel and their families. Back in 2013, the UK government aimed to spend £1 billion ($1.38 billion) to build new housing for servicemen, making Salisbury Plain the largest base for army troops in the UK.

In 2016, the local authority approved plans to build more than 900 new army homes across Larkhill, Bulford, and Ludgershall, as part of the wider blueprint (pdf) to accommodate 4,000 extra troops and their families, who will be based in the county by 2020.