In a scenic spot on Salisbury Plain, sits a little church. The church, or at least parts of it, date back to the 12th century and its five-pinnacle tower can be seen from just about all points in the village that nestles around it.So far, so unremarkable. This is, after all, Wiltshire. The ground is thick with ancient villages, historic churches and sites of interest.
What makes this church , and the surrounding village, remarkable? It is the lost village of Salisbury Plain. Imber village has stood uninhabited since 1943, when all civilian residents were evicted with 47 days notice. The village was to be taken for use as a training area for soldiers preparing to fight in Europe during WW2. Residents were told they would be able to come home at the wars end. Despite their best efforts, they never did. Imber remains part of the Salisbury Plain Training Area, where access is strictly controlled and the general public is only allowed entry a few times each year.
Imber is not, as you might imagine, the easiest place to find. There is no postcode, the village was evacuated before postcodes were widely used. It took us a few wrong turns to find the road in. Confession: I felt a bit guilty for having my husband (serving soldier) driving around the Training Area (basically, work and a place he sees enough of) on his Christmas leave.
The village is pretty remote by today’s standards , and I guess it felt even more so back in the day. The question isn’t so much why the residents has to leave as much as; what were they doing up there is the first place? Rural and remote. I don’t imagine life was easy for them.
As with many rural communities, the church was the heart of the village. St Giles served the residents of Imber until the day they left and basic care was taken over by the War Office, and then the Ministry of Defence. In time, when it became apparent the village would never be welcoming back its community, care of the building fell to the Churches Conservation Trust.
Today the church and adjacent grave yard sit safely in its own compound, protected from any military training that might be going on. Access is granted only when the village is open to the public.Volunteers serve refreshments and St Giles acts as an information centre.
If the church is was the heart of the village, then the backbone came in the form of Imber Court. Once the manor house to the village, Imber Court and the adjoining farm formed the centre of the village social scene. During its lifetime the manor was a family home, an academy for young gentlemen and a billet for soldiers training for WW1. In the 1920’s the building was redesigned after a fire caused extensive damage, and although the Imber Court of today is reduced to two storeys, some of its former glory can still be seen. You can just imagine the servants, tennis on the lawn, shooting parties that must have gone on.
Wandering the area between and around St Giles and Imber Court you can see the blueprint of the village that was. Buildings that were once pubs, the school and housing now stand empty. Although you must stay to the marked paths when exploring, you can get close enough to some of the buildings for a peek inside. There isn’t a huge amount to see, but an empty stone fireplace here or a flagstone floor there hints at what these buildings might have held in former lives.
Set alongside the old village stands a new one, never built to be lived in. A mini community of housing has been built specifically for military training purposes to allow soldiers to train for fighting in a built up area. It’s not particularly pretty, but it is interesting. I said I supposed it might be fun blasting around the pretend village and doing a bit of soldiering? husband says not. I think he likes a bit of that, really.
Between the urban training area and the old village stands a large red brick building that doesn’t really fit into either landscape. This was the beginning of a future Imber that never came to be. Council housing. In 1938 the council built eight new homes to replace sub standard housing that made up part of the village high street. The new homes were typical of the day with features including bay windows and outside toilets. Although these features are long gone, the skeleton of the development remains.
Interest in the village doesn’t seem to be waning. It’s hard to imagine that such a small, rural community would have survived the social and economic change that came in the wake of WW2. Ironically, the fact that Imber was lost is the reason it has since be found by so many. The ending of its life as an inhabited community sealed its place in history.
Imber Village is only open to the public on a handful of days each year, generally when the military are on leave. So- Christmas, Easter and Summer. Details of when the village and church are open can be found here. The Church website also has a useful FAQ section and details of how to find the village. The unofficial Imber Village website has a wealth of information and pictures of Imber as was back in the day. I’d highly reccomend a browse before you visit,it really helps you ‘see’ the village if you have a sense of what was there before.
As long as there is an interest in the place and enough people willing to make a visit, the lost village doesn’t have to be a ghost village. If you liked this post, you might also enjoy…