Fancy a trip to Wiltshire 'ghost village' over the holiday?

Tony Gosling tony at
Wed Dec 18 00:25:54 GMT 2013

The church itself will be open to visitors from 
the Friday after Christmas until Sunday, January 5.

Remembering Imber: 70 years since Army took over village on Salisbury Plain

Daily Press  |  Posted: December 17, 2013
follow link for more pix

Today marks 70 years since the residents of Imber 
left their homes. Tristan Cork reports
Some of them, perhaps most, had already gone but 
on the morning of December 17, the 47 days' notice they had been given were up.
The final families packed what they could carry 
and climbed on board the back of a mud-splattered 
farm trailer and looked back as the village they 
had called home for their whole lives disappeared around the corner.
Imber, set in a remote valley on Salisbury Plain 
was an intimate place. Dominated by its church, 
its little cottages stood on the banks of a stream and along a country lane.
At either end of the village stood a pub, on the 
other side of the road from most of the cottages 
was a manor house, a red-brick grange known as Imber Court.


Farms and agriculture dominated the village, and 
the tiny school educated the village youngsters.
The biggest thing to happen in Imber in 1,000 
years was probably the invention of the motor 
engine – it brought the village much closer to 
the rest of the world, but even with a daily bus, 
it was still one of the most remote locations in 
the West – six miles from the nearest place, 
isolated in the middle of the western swathes of Salisbury Plain.
Even as early as the 1890s, the Army began buying 
up the vast grazing land of Salisbury Plain 
around Imber. Farmers did not really object to 
the terms of sale – they got a lump sum and were 
able to keep farming their land at a time of agricultural depression.
In late 1943, the Ministry of Defence began to 
exercise the power it gained without a minimum of 
fuss over the previous 50 years. D-Day was being 
planned, GIs were arriving in their thousands and 
military chiefs looked around for the kind of 
place to help them train to take those Normandy 
villages, one by one. On November 1, 1943, 
villagers were called to a meeting and given 47 days to leave.
What was said at that meeting was argued about 
for decades, and still rankles today. The 
military chiefs said that their homes, pubs, 
school and barns were being requisitioned, just 
as the fields had been. The residents said the 
army officers reassured them that they would be 
back as soon as the war was won, if not sooner. 
They could leave their furniture, and so soon 
would they be back that the only compensation 
they were therefore entitled to was the value of 
the winter veg planted in their gardens.
Imber's population – barely more than 100 on 
those grey December mornings – were a mere 
footnote in the ongoing story of the Second World 
War. After all, more people lost their homes in a 
couple of streets in the German bombing raids on 
English cities every night. They dispersed to 
relatives' homes, were put up in temporary 
housing that ended up being permanent.
The Imber diaspora had little opportunity to stay 
in touch. The once-close knit community was broken forever.
But it wasn't forgotten. After the war, some 
inquired about returning, but the Government 
decided that, with the Cold War now beginning, 
the opportunity to train across the whole of 
Salisbury Plain – without the problem of having 
people living in the middle of it meant their requests were turned down.
They weren't even allowed to return to see their 
homes – Imber, and Salisbury Plain were out of 
bounds. Those who sneaked into the village 
reported many of the homes had been damaged by 
live-firing exercises, windows blown out, the 
weather taking its toll and the church knocked about.
A campaign began in the late 1950s led, by 1961, 
to a mass illegal invasion by a convoy of cars to 
Imber, with former residents getting their first 
chance to see their old homes, 18 years later.
The matter was raised in Parliament, but the 
military stood firm. They agreed, eventually, to 
open up Imber for 50 days a year, unless they 
really did need it, to allow people to go back for day trips.
Decades passed and almost all of the old Imber 
residents passed away – many to be buried back in 
the churchyard. A couple of inquiries were held, 
but the military retained the right to the 
village, and Imber returned to a quirky footnote of history.
A dwindling number turned out for the annual 
church service, each time seeing fewer and fewer 
of the old homes still standing. Then they saw, 
incongruously, a cul-de-sac "estate" of modern 
1980s-style homes was built with double-thick walls but no windows.
Instead of a Normandy village, the new Imber 
mocked a Belfast estate with houses that no one had ever lived in.
But then the turn of the 21st century brought 
with it a wider awareness of Imber.
Local researcher Rex Sawyer produced a book two 
years earlier that remains the definitive history 
of the village, giving voice to those like Ken 
Mitchell, who was one of the last to leave that 
dark day 70 years ago at the age of 17. The story 
was told of Albie Nash, the blacksmith – Ken's 
uncle – for whom the eviction was too much to 
bear and he died, it is said, of a broken heart soon after.
So by the time the 60th anniversary arrived, the 
world was ready to take back Imber – if only for 50 days a year at most.
The church became the focus. Needing huge 
repairs, it was taken over by the Churches 
Conservation Trust, which embarked on an 
ambitious but ultimately highly successful 
restoration, re-establishing it as the heart of the transitory village.
When the roads to the village opened, people now 
had somewhere to go. Gradually dozens, then 
scores, then hundreds came to see each time, with 
the church the focus. Concerts and services, even 
special bus services, returned.
Today's anniversary will see the village still 
out of bounds. For the soldiers on Exercise Black 
Adder on the Imber Ranges this week, it is just 
another day. The guns will fall silent on 
Thursday. On Friday, at 4pm, the roads to Imber 
will once again be opened and on Saturday 
afternoon – in daylight with no electricity – St 
Giles' Church will be packed for the 70th anniversary carol service.
Such was the demand that the volunteers that run 
the church from afar nowadays had to issue tickets – and it sold out weeks ago.
The church itself will be open to visitors from 
the Friday after Christmas until Sunday, January 5.

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