On visiting the lost village of Imber

On 1 November 1943, the residents of Imber on Salisbury Plain were given just 47 days to leave their homes. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would never return. Today, the village continues to serve the same purpose for which it was requisitioned: it’s used by the Army as an urban warfare training ground. The Army only opens the roads to Imber on a handful of days each year, and visiting is a surreal experience.

Salisbury Plain is the largest military training area in the UK, and has been for a long time. Before the war had even begun, the Army had bought the majority of the buildings in Imber and made their residents tenants to facilitate their easy removal should the time come. And the time did come: in 1943, the villagers were turfed out to make way for American soldiers preparing for the liberation of Europe.

The only building still in a usable condition is the church, which obviously only opens when the village does. The church bells that were sounding when I was there are so eerily incongruous in a village full of the empty shells of buildings.

Miles from any other settlement, Imber is an isolated village that had only 150 residents at the time of its forced abandonment. The Army has subsequently demolished most of the original buildings, leaving a tantalising few to hint at what the village was once like. This pair of cottages is among them.

Known as the Nagshead Cottages, a sign tells the visitor that they were once a pub.

There are lots of signs everywhere warning of the dangers of leaving the road due to unexploded munitions.

The structures you can see in the next few photos do not form part of the original village; they were constructed in the 1970s to train soldiers for Northern Ireland.

This is – or was – Imber Court, the original manor house. How I should have liked to explore that!

This was the Bell Inn from 1840 to 1943, but, dating to 1769, it had previously been a house belonging to a Philip Flower – “overseer of the poor”.

Originally the plan had been for the villagers to move back after the war, and the buildings you can see in the background here are council houses built for that purpose. However, the village was deemed too useful and the villagers were never allowed back.

Which just leaves the church, marooned in barbed wire, the only element of continuity in this strange, cut-off place. In fact, the only villagers allowed back were dead: burials in the church yard were permitted.

Clues as to the village’s long history are to be found in the porch, where centuries-old graffiti is carved deep into the stone. Inside, traces of medieval wall paintings can still be seen on the walls.

The porch now looks out over the training ground, a slightly depressing view made better by this handsome Labrador.

On the way out of the village is another survivor, Seagram’s Farm, the plaque on the side of which reads 1880. There are some interesting old photographs of it here.

Finding the village was a bit of a mission because the roads to it aren’t marked on Google Maps. My sat nav took me on a (scenic) wild goose chase across Salisbury Plain trying to take me to the point closest to the village. I should have followed the directions here.

If you want to visit Imber, keep an eye on the Imber Church website for details of when the Army opens the roads to the village (this can change at short notice). There are lots of interesting old photographs here should you wish to find out more about this fascinating place.

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