Hidden amidst Salisbury Plain, in the very heart of a Ministry of Defence training zone, sits the abandoned village of Imber. Only locals or people of a certain age will have heard of this village and there’s very little publicity to encourage new visitors!
SETTLEMENT: ABANDONED VILLAGE
REGION: SOUTH WEST ENGLAND
OS GRID REF: ST965485
ABOUT IMBER, the lost village of Wiltshire
Predominantly situated in Wiltshire is a chalk plateau covering over 300 square miles – The famous Salisbury Plain. It’s steeped in history spanning back millennia and is home to one of the most iconic prehistoric monuments in the world; none other than Stonehenge.
More than half of the Plain is owned by the Ministry of Defence and approximately 39 square miles of this area is permanently closed to the general public.
A number of other areas are restricted at certain times. Due to these restrictions, over the last century, the landscape has remained virtually unspoilt. It is, in fact, the largest remaining area of alkaline grassland in north-west Europe, and a haven to unique flora and fauna.
The ghostly village of Imber nestles in a valley alongside the Imber Dock Stream. Nowadays it falls within the Imber Live Firing Range and so public access is, unfortunately, restricted to just a few weeks per year.
All that remains of the original village are a handful of dilapidated buildings left to the ravages of the British climate, apart from the Church of St Giles. It’s the only property not owned by the Government and over the last ten years has been renovated to its former glory by The Churches Conservation Trust.
The early history of the ghost village of Imber
Imber had been populated since at least the early Iron Age; with numerous ancient burial sites in the vicinity and several ancient tracks passed through the village. Not to be missed is the impressive twenty-three acre Iron Age Battlesbury Hill fort perched high above, that can be seen as you drive over the Plain to Warminster.
It’s mentioned in a charter dated 967 AD when it formed part of an endowment to the Abbess of Romsey by King Edgar. 1086, in the Domesday book, it’s recorded as being held by Ralph of Mortimer with a population of about fifty residents.
The woolen export trade during the 13th and 14th centuries saw Imber prosper, at least, for the Lord of the Manor! St Giles Church, as seen today, was built during this period, possibly replacing an earlier Norman one. Throughout history, it remained a small village with a population peaking at 440 in the 1850’s during ‘the golden age of English agriculture’.
LATE 19th CENTURY – 1942 IN IMBER
By the late 19th century Imber was, as it always had been, a farming community, a mixture of both arable and livestock. Located in such a remote area of the Plain, some four miles from the closest village and accessible only along rough tracks, it needed to be totally self-sufficient.
It must have been a hard, arduous life and many of the inhabitants had to multitask, performing numerous jobs. Harry Meade was not only the village shoe and boot maker and sheep shearer, but, also church elder!
By the turn of the 20th century, the population had dwindled due to a number of factors, including The Great Depression of British Agriculture (1873-96). The mechanisation of farming equipment also played a role leading to fewer job opportunities.
In 1897 the War Office had started to purchase land east of Imber for use as an army cavalry training area and just five years later had acquired more than 40,000 acres of Salisbury Plain. During World War I an artillery school was also opened nearby and the officers and their batmen were billeted in the village, at Imber Court.
From the late 1920’s most of Imber and all the surrounding farms had been purchased by the War Office. The inhabitants were, by and large, happy to sell and then leaseback their property on an annual basis. They had been offered a fair price and the repercussions from the agricultural depression meant that life had not been sustainable. The census take in 1931 reveals a population of just 152.
By the outbreak of World War II only five buildings remained free holds. These were St Giles Church and Vicarage, the Baptist Chapel, Schoolroom and the Bell Inn.
1943 – 1945 IN IMBER
With the ongoing war it became clear more troops needed training on British shores before being sent on active duty abroad. Many villages around the country were requisitioned for this purpose by the War Office. Villages in the South Hams, Tyneham in Dorset and Stanford in Norfolk to name but a few.
On the 1st November 1943 Imber became the latest victim. The residents were given just 47 days’ notice to vacate their properties and by the 17th December the village and surrounding farms were abandoned. The villagers were just reimbursed for removal costs and the value of any crops not yet harvested. It was up to the individuals to find new housing for themselves.
Most of the tenants left willingly, believing their sacrifice was for the greater good of the war effort, and that they would be able to return after the war. There is just one account of the army having to forcibly evict one of the farmsteads. For Albert Nash, the village blacksmith of over forty years, the move proved too traumatic. Within a month he was back in his beloved village but, in the churchyard.
POST WAR – TO PRESENT IN IMBER
Contrary to agreements given to the villagers on vacating Imber, no one was ever permitted to return. Numerous applications for the right to return were made right up to the 1970’s, but, all to no avail.
There’s no doubt that the War Department Estate Office led the villagers to believe they would be able to return to Imber after the war. Here’s an excerpt from the original evacuation letter sent:
“… In addition, if you are so unfortunate as not to be able to find alternative accommodation, and it is necessary to remove your furniture to store, the Department will refund the cost of removal to store and reasonable storage charges until you can find another house, or until the Imber area is again open for occupation, whichever is the earlier.”
The Bell Inn was finally sold to the Ministry of Defence in the mid- 1950’s and the Baptist Chapel in the late 70’s. Like many other village buildings, this had been so badly damaged by post-war military exercises that it was demolished and a fence built around the last vestiges of the cemetery. Out of over one hundred graves approximately only ten headstones remain.
Dotted between the abandoned buildings are numerous concrete block built shells of houses constructed during the 1970’s specifically for military training. These were used for urban warfare exercises to prepare soldiers for conflict zones such as Northern Ireland.
There is a gentle irony that St Giles Church, the oldest remaining building will most probably be the last standing. It has long since been stripped of original fittings and furnishings but still stands majestically. There was talk, in the 1960’s, of moving the entire church to the Warminster Garrison. Fortunately, all that was taken was a single stone, to be used as a foundation stone for the aptly named St Giles Garrison Church!
ATTRACTIONS NEAR IMBER
Stonehenge: Visit the iconic Neolithic monument and learn how your ancestors would have lived.
Longleat House: a beautiful Elizabethan Stately Home with grounds landscaped by Capability Brown. There’s also a Wildlife and Safari Park.
Shearwater Lake: Take a stroll around the lake and immerse yourself in the tranquil surroundings. (Part of the Longleat Estate, plenty of parking with ‘honesty box’ – so take some change!)
City of Salisbury: Visit the Medieval Cathedral City of Salisbury and take a tour around the 13th century Cathedral.