Updated: Jan 2, 2020
By Paul Timlett
I feel a deep sadness every time I visit Imber. Over the 25 years that I’ve lived in the area I’ve been to this abandoned village many times. My most recent visit was on the last day of the year and the last day of another decade. My sadness will become apparent as I describe the history of this once beautiful village. I make no apology for the fact that my photographs are gritty and a little depressing but they reflect how I feel about this place.
My commentary on the history of Imber is largely drawn from the magnificent book by Rex Sawyer entitled Little Imber on the Down: Salisbury Plain’s Ghost Village.
Many will know the story of Imber but as the years go by and the MOD increasingly restrict the opening times I guess many will not have seen the village for themselves.
Imber lies in a deep wooded valley in the north west of Salisbury Plain. To the west is Warminster and its surrounding hills. To the east is the road between Tilshead and West Lavington. North lies villages such as Edington and Erlestoke, each with their own rich history. By any definition Imber is a remote and lonely place.
Imber was well established as a settlement in the 10th century. It is referred to as Imemerie in the Domesday Book. Physical evidence suggests it evolved as a Romano-British settlement long before that but the presence of Neolithic long barrows such as Bowls Barrow in the surrounding countryside point to significant human activity for at least 4,500 years.
Its very remoteness probably helped Imber survive the ravages of the Black Death in 1348 which decimated so many settlements in the area. Rural unemployment in the early 19th century had an impact and Imber suffered the deprivations experienced by so many rural communities. But it seems to have avoided any repercussions from the political events of the time, such as the Chartist riots in Devizes, and at its height in 1851 there were 440 residents.
Old photographs suggest Imber was a pretty and prosperous village. Imber Court is still a substantial edifice today despite what was to happen later. In 1909 a little post office was opened. Prior to that post was delivered by a mailman from Codford who walked the seven miles via Chitterne. Each way. He would arrive in Imber at 09:00 and deliver letters. He would then do odd jobs around the village before embarking on the return journey at 16:20. Later technological developments meant that he could undertake the journey by bicycle.
Apart from the Post Office, at its height Imber had a school, a smithy, a pub which incorporated a small shop (The Bell Inn), a magnificent church (which naturally came with a substantial vicarage) as well as a Baptist Chapel, and its own windmill. There were five farms from which much of its prosperity derived. It even managed to raise a cricket team. 19th and early 20th century photographs show happy smiling residents often dressed in their finery.
And of course there was Imber Court, a church owned property rented to various relatively prosperous farming families including several generations of the Deans. It was sold to the wealthy Holloway family from Lavington in 1920, a family that had made its money from a successful London building business.
Some time at the end of the 19th century the military began to carry out manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain. By 1902 the War Office had acquired 40,000 acres of land on the Plain, albeit further to the east. By the outbreak of the First World War Salisbury Plain had become one of the most important training areas in the country. The villagers would have been familiar with the increasing military activity in the area. An early predecessor of the tank was manufactured at nearby Bratton Iron Works and would have caused amazement to those villagers who encountered it on the surrounding tracks.
The military presence on Salisbury Plain was scaled down after the First World War. Life returned to a semblance of normality although Imber suffered the dreadful loss of young men to the war. My photograph of the war memorial, which now stands in the lane leading to the church having been moved from its previous location in front of the smithy, lists those who were killed together with those who served and survived. From descriptions in Sawyer’s book and my own research Imber appears not to have escaped the horrors of Spanish flu that killed so many at the end of and after the war.
Life continued through the 1920s and 30s. Improved communications meant that Imber became more accessible to the outside world. Then the events that led to the now infamous day in November 1943 that sadly will forever define Imber began. The outbreak of the Second World War once again saw an increase in military activity on the Plain. On 17 November 1940 a badly damaged German Junkers 88 flew low over the village before crash landing outside the village. One evening in 1941, attracted either by the lights of cars or by the nearby RAF landing strip at New Zealand Farm, incendiary bombs were dropped on and around the village. The war had come to Imber.
Meanwhile training by the British and its allies intensified on the Plain. The 3rd Armoured Division US Army arrived in Warminster as the Americans began their preparations for D Day. They required increasing amounts of land on which to practice their bombardments. Then, the fateful day arrived on 1 November 1943. The army called a village meeting. They were told that the military could no longer ensure their safety and the remaining 135 inhabitants were given 47 days’ notice to leave the village along with all their possessions. They were promised alternative accommodation but most preferred to make their own arrangements. In the meantime farm livestock had to be sold. Just one week before Christmas The Bell Inn closed for the final time and the remaining villagers forced to leave.
Various promises were made to the villagers that they would one day return once the war was won. These promises never materialised. Their lack of bitterness towards the authorities during the evacuation turned to a feeling of betrayal. In several villages on Salisbury Plain can be found elderly people who grew up in Imber as children. It is still spoken of fondly. The village now lies in a part of Salisbury Plain, the Imber Range, that is permanently off-limits to the public. For a reducing number of precious days in the year the main village street, the church and the Baptist church cemetery are open to the public. There are few original buildings remaining, so widespread has been the destruction by the military.
I make no apology for the bleak nature of my photographs. Black and white is my preferred medium and it seemed appropriate for what I saw yesterday. Even where I have shot in colour the tones are flat and subdued. As I walked around I spoke to several of the volunteers who make the open days possible. They were passionate about the history of Imber and about preserving access but their fear is that they are fighting a losing battle as the MOD increasingly seek to restrict access to parts of the Plain. But we, the public, don’t help ourselves. Despite the 63 notices warning people not to trespass beyond the designated areas the two security guys I spoke to were having to remove people from some of the block buildings used for urban warfare training. These were clearly signed and taped off with bright red and white tape. My pet hate, bagged up dog poo, littered the grass verges and children were allowed to run riot by parents who seemed to show little respect for the place. The bus day in the summer, when thousands of people visited Imber by a fleet of double decker buses, should be a beacon of hope but I fear the village will become little more than a tourist attraction like any other. That’s probably a little harsh but it didn’t help my mood of sadness and gloom as I thought about the destruction of this once happy community.
I left Imber via American Road which travels west towards Heytesbury. The final image looking from American Road towards Cley Hill I think captures the remoteness of this bleak but at the same time beautiful part of Salisbury Plain.
As I write this blog, on 1 January 2020, this is the final day of a six period that when Imber has been open. Who knows when the MOD will next allow access.
All text and images are copyright of Paul Timlett