During the first half of the twentieth century, a number of English villages were evacuated for the good of the wider population. Up in my part of the world, that happened mainly in order for new reservoirs to be constructed, while in the south of the country, villages were taken over by the military for WWII training exercises. One village falling into the latter category was Imber in Wiltshire, which I visited in August 2014.
The village of Imber was founded in Saxon times, if not earlier, probably on the remains of an older, Roman, settlement, and by the 19th Century was a thriving community of over 400 people living in village houses, at the manor house, Imber Court, and on surrounding farms. Towards the end of the 1920s, however, the War Office began buying land in and around Imber as part of a compulsory purchase of Salisbury Plain to use for future military training exercises. Villagers were initially allowed to stay on as tenants, but in 1943 as the Second World War raged, they were all given notice to quit by Christmas.
The villagers left their homes, most of them believing that they would be allowed to return once the war was over, but like the former inhabitants of Tyneham in Dorset, they were all forced to remain settled elsewhere even in peacetime. These days, little remains of the original houses, although a number of house-like shell buildings have been built on the site for urban warfare training exercises. The one building that has survived, and is still in occasional use, is the Parish Church of St Giles.
The church is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, and is open for visitors and services on specified days of the year, when the military allows civilians across Salisbury Plain to pay their respects. The day I visited was part of a block of visiting time, coinciding with the UK’s August Bank Holiday week. Driving across Salisbury Plain is an eerie experience, since the narrow roads are all but deserted and the land stretches out for seemingly miles on both sides, punctuated only by the rusting remains of derelict armoured vehicles and signs warning visitors not to stray from the carriageway due to the dangers posed by unexploded debris.
Once at the village, however, I caught up with a number of other visitors, milling around and slowly making their way to the church while stopping to peer at the other buildings along the way. Some had come under their own power, while others had caught a ride on one of the classic London buses laid on for the event.
The church stands at the top of a small hill, surrounded by its original graveyard, where former residents and their families can still request to be buried, and has a small war memorial by the main path commemorating villagers who died in the 1914-18 conflict. The church building itself dates from the late 13th Century, and replaced a mid 12th Century building. Inside medieval wall paintings are still visible in places, although a number of other earlier features, including pews, the font and the original altar have been taken to be used in other local churches. More recently, though, some features such as the altar (not the original one) and a full peal of bells have been reinstated as part of the restoration work that was completed in the last couple of years.
Although the church has no fixed power or water supply, the volunteers are able to organise refreshments for visitors (tea/coffee/squash and a biscuit), and also sell literature and souvenirs related to the church and village, as well as plants and locally produced honey. Everyone is very welcoming, and the displays and artefacts make for a very educational interlude prior to exploring the churchyard.
Imber is open to the public again in November for the annual Service of Remembrance, and in December for the Christmas Festival of Carols. It’s well worth a visit for anyone who happens to be in the area.
More photos and links are available here.