Forever Imber

Forever Imber    Home | Map | Open Days | Articles | Links | Comments | Books | Music | Pictures & Film | Past Events | Other Lost Villages


These are articles that provide some useful background information about Imber:

There is a four-page article by John Hannavy, entitled Restoring Imber Church, in the April/May 2009 issue of Wiltshire magazine. It can be viewed online by following this link: or by going to and finding April/May edition, pages 24-27.

An interesting article by Christopher Hurst
appeared in The Hindu Online edition of India's National Newspaper on 2 March 2003. It can be read here

Ghost Village Visited for a Day

by Cedric Pulford

[First published June 2005 by the Observer News Service. Copyright Pulford Media Ltd. This article may not be reprinted or distributed either electronically or on hard copy without permission]

The village of Imber in the heart of a huge military training area and firing range in the south of England was evacuated in 1943. The villagers never came back. CEDRIC PULFORD reports on his visit to the 'ghost village of the plain'

It is stranded in the middle of a high explosive 'impact area' in the UK's Salisbury Plain military training zone, but Imber church is a good example of the continuities of English life, of how villages never really die.

More than 60 years ago, at the height of the Second World War, Imber was evacuated when the area was turned over to the Allied military in the build-up to the Normandy Landings and the invasion of Europe. The villagers never came back, but the medieval church of St Giles remains a place of worship and the graveyard is still in use.

England has other abandoned villages � Tyneham in Dorset was also claimed by the military and Dunwich in Suffolk lies mostly under the sea � but few, if any, have the atmosphere of Imber .

Surviving villagers, or their sons and daughters, as well as the simply curious like to visit on the up to 50 days a year that the army allows access. The biggest event is at St Giles' for the annual saint's day service in September.

There is little else at Imber now, a ghost village tucked into a fold of the plain, which lies in southern central England. Most of the original houses have gone although those two former staples of village life, the pub and the manor house, are standing. Their emptiness amid the silence of the plain, on a day when the guns aren't firing, adds to the slightly surreal feel of the place.

'There are still many loyalties attached to Imber ,' said Richard Trahair, property secretary for the Church of England's Salisbury diocese, which has responsibility for St Giles' church. 'Over the years it has come to be seen as a romantic place.

'Some people feel the villagers were misled by the army about being able to return after the war, but I've never seen any document to prove that.'

Lieut Col Roger Fellowes, commandant of the UK military's Salisbury Plain training estate, acknowledges that even now there are feelings about the 1943 evacuation and its aftermath. 'Inevitably though, they aren't coming back,' he said of surviving villagers or their descendants.

Imber was never a substantial place. With a population of 440 at its peak in 1851, it had about 150 inhabitants in the 1930s. Between 1927 and 1932 the authorities bought up tracts of land in the area, and most villagers became tenants of the military.

The UK Ministry of Defence has built new houses at Imber , windowless and empty, to create a replica village for mock battles and target practice. But the church is strictly out of bounds. Mr Trahair praises the army for the way it has cared for the church.

'They've looked after it since the war and they've done a good job keeping it going,' he said.

The church has been one of many conservation interests for the military. The 38,000 hectares of the Salisbury Plain training estate include more than 2,400 archaeological sites and more than 500 protected monuments. The plain is home to numerous vulnerable wildlife species including Fairy Shrimp, a tiny crustacean that lives in pools of water.

Lieut Col Fellowes said the army took conservation seriously and to prove it, he produces a 'green pack' of cards given to troops coming for training. This is a standard pack of playing cards with illustrations bearing conservation messages. These include: 'Do not disturb nesting barn owls' (queen of hearts); 'Best UK site for bumble bees' (nine of hearts); 'do not knock or cut down trees' (10 of spades); 'palisades mark nationally important, legally protected sites' (five of clubs).

By 2001, however, the church had become a problem. With major expenditure ahead the Ministry of Defence indicated it could not continue its support. St Giles' is to be taken over by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT). This body, financed mainly by the Church of England and the British government, cares for redundant churches.

'It's the best outcome for all who care about St Giles because it ensures the church's future indefinitely,' said Mr Trahair.

Ironically for a church stuck in a war zone, St Giles' turns out to have more 'hidden treasures', in Mr Trahair's words, than had been supposed. It has been uprated to the Grade 1 in the British government's conservation categories.

Exposed 15th century wall paintings include a Doom (showing Christ sitting in judgment) and chequered patterns in the arches of the nave. More paintings lie underneath later plaster. There are bell ringers' tables painted on the wall in 1692 while letters carved into the stone of the porch are understood to be the initials of four 17th century church wardens.

All these rarities will make Imber even more popular as a place to visit, although visitors to the church will probably have to wait three years while repairs are carried out. A refurbishment estimated to cost GBP200,000 has been started already.

It's a twist that would please the villagers of 1943. Imber and its church are set to live again as they haven't for years.


Imber hope
The Guardian; Manchester (UK); Jan 2, 2002; Ruth Underwood ;
Thank you for giving coverage yet again to Imber (Sad end for ghost village's ancient church, December 31). Your evocative picture of the 13th-century church, out of bounds in the snow behind barbed wire, may appear to represent a "sad end", but a number of us enjoyed a New Year's Eve "joyful beginning" at Imber.
The Association for the Restoration of Imber is now resurrected. On Easter Sunday, March 31 2002, we are looking forward to further celebrations of Imber's rebirth, remembering my late father, Austin Underwood, who led a great protest movement from the 1960s onward against the military occupation. He died on Easter Day 1993, and never gave up hope for the restoration of Imber.
Ruth Underwood

Sad end for ghost village's ancient church: Surrounding communities apply to cut links with 700-year-old listed building in army training area
The Guardian; Manchester (UK); Dec 31, 2001; Maev Kennedy Arts and heritage correspondent;

While thousands of village bellringers practised their changes, preparing to ring in the new year, the most redundant church in England was locked yesterday, behind its chained gate and 10ft high wire fence.

For at least 700 years, the church was the heart of its community; now the nearby villages want to be rid of responsibility for it. The legal process is under way to declare St Giles, the beautiful Grade II* listed parish church of Imber, officially redundant - but as the vicar, the Rev David Belcher, said: "The church is absolutely redundant; it's been redundant since 1943."

The army owns the village and hundreds of acres of tank track- scarred Wiltshire countryside around it. In 1943 it requisitioned the entire area for military training, emptied it of residents, and the village vanished off the map.

Yesterday Imber briefly returned to the land of the living. Once a year the security barriers lift and for a few days former residents, local people and the curious can come in to wander around the battered shells of houses and the ruins of the pub and manor house. Children in balaclavas played soldiers among the gutted houses, throwing snowballs, and what seemed like half the four-wheel-drivers in Wiltshire came to skid and race around the icy roads.

The army, however has never owned the church. Despite this, the building - with the graves of generations of former villagers - remains locked and fenced off. The army controls the only access to it, and permits the church to open for services only on one day in September, as close as possible to the feast of St Giles. Mr Belcher says about 100 people usually come, although he thinks only half a dozen of the former parishioners are still alive.

A notice by the church path praises the "sacrifice" of the villagers "who gave up their homes in December 1943 in order that the military training area could be extended".

It took some time for the villagers and the diocesan authorities to realise that the sacrifice was permanent: the parish remained officially in existence until 1991.

The lovely inaccessible building has become a millstone around the neck of the surrounding parishes responsible for its upkeep. There was already a backlog of years of repairs when lightning hit the tower three years ago. The pinnacle now leans like the Ches terfield spire: if it comes down through the roof of the nave, repairs will cost a fortune.

No maintenance at all was done until the 1950s, when an informal agreement was reached that the army would keep the church weatherproof. That agreement ended some years ago, and once again no maintenance is being done.

If the diocesan board of finance decides it can be disposed of, there is a possibility that the church could be taken over by a charity, such as the churches conservation trust - although the lack of access would be a major difficulty.

Mr Belcher is the vicar of a string of small villages: Bratton, Eddington, Imber, Erlestoke and Coulston. Eddington, population 700, has primary responsibility, but has its own maintenance problems with a superb 14th century Grade I listed priory church.

"It might sound cynical, but the parish has decided we are not going to make any attempt to raise funds for Imber," Mr Belcher said. "Grants would be available, but we would still have to raise the matching funding. Imber is a very interesting church - with zero population and one day of services. I have to say it takes up an entirely disproportionate amount of my time and energies."

Burden on the Church's coffers
The Times; London (UK); Jul 28, 2001;
(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 2001)

From the Archdeacon of Wilts-

Sir, You report (July 23) that St Giles Church, Imber, is to be closed because parishioners no longer have the money to repair it. There are, in fact, no parishioners, since the MoD evacuated the village in 1943. Since then the Army has voluntarily kept the building wind and weather-tight and has allowed an annual service to take place in the church. Now, however, this Grade II* building needs rather more attention -particularly if the fine 15th-century wall paintings are to be preserved. The Army feels that it can no longer maintain it.

Legal responsibility, by a quirk of history, rests at present with the neighbouring parish of Edington. They already have a magnificent Grade I church to maintain, and rightly feel that they cannot be expected to pay for repairs to a building to which they have no regular access.

Our small rural communities struggle to find the money to maintain their church buildings to the increasingly high standards demanded by the State. Here is a church building whose future rests squarely on the shoulders of the State.

Yours faithfully,

B. J. HOPKINSON, Sarum House, High Street, Urchfont, Devizes, Wiltshire SN10 4QH. (July 23).

It is Christmas and the gates open to a village the army never gave back: Imber residents mourn the day in December 1943 when the US army took their homes
The Guardian; Manchester (UK); Dec 21, 2000; Audrey Gillan;
Copyright Guardian Newspapers, Limited Dec 21, 2000

It is no longer on the map, its parish status was withdrawn years ago and you can only take the road there on certain dates. The village of Imber in Wiltshire is all but a spectre of rural life. For on December 17, 1943, its tenants were evicted for D-Day manoeuvres - the few hundred residents were told they had to make way for the American army. They were led to believe that when the war ended they could move back to their homes, but it never happened and Imber stayed in the midst of a huge firing range.

On November 1 1943, the people of Imber were summoned to the local school. They were shocked to learn that their village had been requisitioned under crown prerogative, which effectively allowed the War Office to evacuate the place without consultation or compensation. The villagers were told they were leaving their homes for king and country, but only until the war was over. They never returned.

For two weeks over Christmas (and on other days over the year), you can drive to this desolate place in the middle of Salisbury Plain and marvel at the ruins of buildings that locals will tell you were stolen from the people of Imber.

The road up over the downs has a warning sign: Live Firing Range Closed To Public: Keep Out. On most days of the year, the Imber ranges are used for military manoeuvres. In the new year it will be host to a massive display of firepower.

Tank tracks scar the rolling hills and bollards, fences and barbed wire line the side of the road.

When the villagers left in the days before Christmas 1943, they were, they felt, cruelly deprived of their usual celebrations in the Bell Inn. The village had a church, four farms, a blacksmith, two big houses, and about 40 cottages and newly built council houses. Now, these buildings are little more than shells.

The church of St Giles has an out-of- bounds sign and a perimeter fence of barbed wire. In front of it is a notice say ing: "This plaque was erected by Wiltshire county council to commemorate VE and VJ days in tribute to the considerable sacrifice to the war effort made by the people of Imber, who gave up their home in December 1943 in order that the military training area could be extended. Imber has remained under military control and the parish was abolished in 1991."

The once grand Imber Court has been stripped bare, the oak staircase has gone, along with the ornate plasterwork, and the first battalion of the Royal Hampshire regiment have left their mark, saying they "Were 'ere 1986", while other soldiers have noted "Any women welcome". The word "Freedom!" has been scrawled across the top of the bullet-riddled building.

Down the hill, the council houses - built less than 18 months before the villagers were asked to leave - are carcasses.

Imber has always been remote. The local rhyme had it right when it said: "Lit tle Imber on the down, five miles from any town." But its people loved their distance and never imagined it would become remote in their memories as well as reality.

Perhaps because of its isolation, the war department started buying up the land around Imber at the turn of the century. In 1932, it bought the freehold from the farmers, leaving just the Bell Inn, the blacksmith and the church. But the villagers did not think they would be forced to leave.

Richard Hooper, whose family came from Imber, said: "They were given six weeks to clear everything out of the village and the floods were up like they are now. It was typical MoD: they broke their promises.They said after the war, when the Americans had finished with it, they promised they would give it back. The Americans cleaned up all the ranges and filled up the trenches in the fields, but the day the Americans walked out the British army walked in. It was still inhabitable until the British walked in."

In 1961, the Defence of the Realm Act, which sanctioned the taking of Imber, expired and the villagers joined together in the hope that they might get their homes back. The Association for the Restoration of Imber called for a mass invasion on January 22 and 2,000 people turned up, including more than 200 old villagers. A message read from Sir John Betjeman said: "Success to your campaign! Wiltshire and the rolling downs for ever! God save Imber!"

After two more demonstrations, a further rally on March 26 was obstructed by an MoD announcement that the ranges would be in use that day. The people said they would fight on, but an injunction was served that they could not afford to break. The government called for a public inquiry which would look at stopping up the right of way through Imber forever.

Ultimately, the villagers were to be given access to Imber for up to 50 days a year; the church would be kept up and the people would have the right to hold a service there every September. It was also promised that should the need for the range ever disappear, the village would, as had been originally said, be given back to the people.

Walk through the village today and you can see the road built by US troops. All around lies evidence that this place is the site of secret military activity: there are empty ration tins, silver sachets of Instant Dried Skimmed Milk, a Pepsi can, a wrapper for a safety light.

Once a year the army will go in and clear up their mess around the church and put some pews in so that those remote from Imber can return to the graves of their dead.

Yet the ranges, in spite of their purpose, are also places of remarkable ecological interest on this, the largest chalk downland in Europe. All around Imber the scent of fox is intense and the fairy shrimp, one of the rarest crustaceans, is thriving in the puddles and pools created by tank ruts. There has also been an increase in the number of barn owls because of barn boxes put in barns used for military training: five years ago there were only two breeding pairs and now there is in excess of 150.

But for those that remember Imber, this is a bitter consolation.

Lionel Daniels, whose father Fred was a farm labourer, left the village when he was seven. "It must have been heartbreaking for most of the older people, because they had never been out of the village. Most of them had to find a house and a job, all within about a month or so.

"I don't think they gave them any compensation. They promised they could go back. It's lost now forever, isn't it?

"If they were ever to let it go back, property developers would move in. It wouldn't be what it was. It would turn into a yuppie village."

Mollie's lament
The Daily Telegraph; London (UK); Nov 7, 2000; Edited by Sam Leith;
Copyright Daily Telegraph Nov 7, 2000

Now that the 5,000 Chagos islanders have won a court battle for the right to return to their Indian Ocean archipelago, isn't it time an injustice closer to home was addressed?

In 1943, the villagers of Imber, on Salisbury Plain, were turfed out so that troops could train for D-Day. "We were given only six weeks to get out," says Mollie Archer-Smith, at 86 the last survivor of the 161 villagers.

"The general gave his word we could come back in six months, but it was only a handshake between gentlemen. When the Army went back on its word, it broke father's heart."

Despite protests by the Association for the Restoration of Imber, the village was never handed back. "No one had a thought about compensation," adds Mollie. "Not like now."

Justice for the Imber One!

Military manoeuvres for nature lovers;Imber Range on Salisbury Plain
The Times; London (UK); Nov 28, 1992; Candy and Dennis Atherton;
(Copyright 1992)

One of the army's best-kept secrets the beauty of Salisbury Plain can be enjoyed with caution and a good map. For half a century the army's vast Imber Range on Salisbury Plain has been closed to the public, and more than 16,000 acres of magnificent countryside lost to walkers and nature-lovers. Imber has become a secret place unless you know where to look.

Imber is one of the last great undeveloped areas in southern England, where it is still possible to explore and to feel lost and lonely in the great rolling downs that spread like oceans to either side. And, despite the restrictions, there are ways to penetrate the secrets of this often desolate place. For a few days each year from December 18 to January 4, and on selected bank holidays throughout the year the roads that cross the plain and pass through the deserted village of Imber are opened to the public, although even on these rare days access is confined to the metalled roads.

The Imber Range is a region of poachers and gunfire; of army tanks and abundant wildlife; of descending paratroopers in their hundreds, and butterflies so numerous the visitor is seldom out of sight of several at any one time. There is plenty to see, even on days when the army is knocking seven bells out of the landscape.

Finding the half-hidden paths that lead to the plain is the problem, and a good map is essential (especially Pathfinder maps 1200, 1220 and 1221) if you are to thread your way through the labyrinth of signs and warnings. Once found, these tiny roads can lead you to vantage points and to the 20-mile long perimeter path that circles the range. The path's frequent high points offer breathtaking panoramic views taking in most of the restricted area.

In fact you can, with care, see the Imber Ranges at almost any time without ever setting foot on the forbidden bits. But the army does not make the task easy. Strident notices of gunfire and explosives are set up everywhere warning of what not to do. None explains in simple terms what the explorer can, and is legally permitted to, enjoy. Only tiny finger signs point out the path-ways, and these often appear to conflict with the danger notices.

A couple of miles outside Westbury on the A350, at the village of Upton Scudamore, is a narrow turning on the left signposted to Halfway House Farm. This lane leads a few hundred yards to a stile marked Imber Range Footpath. Right alongside the stile and its tiny footpath sign, a large yellow and red poster states: "Danger. This is a live firing area and is closed to the public. Keep out." The natural reaction is to stay in the lane and give the barely visible footpath a miss. In fact, the sign refers to the land behind the notice, not to the footpath alongside. This applies wherever these notices occur.

Several starting places can be reached by car. One of the best is Bratton camp, an Iron-Age hill fort just above the White Horse that dominates both the village of Bratton and the nearby town of Westbury. From here, the views across Wiltshire and Somerset are stunning. The path leads off alongside a giant chalk quarry and follows the western edge of the plain to Warminster and Cradle Hill, famous for UFO sightings and crop circles.

Two more giant hills, Battlesbury and Scratchbury, are skirted. The path here is in places narrow and steep on its way to the isolated village of Chitterne.

The next leg to Tilshead village, with a welcome pub and some shops, can be done either along the more recently cut C22 road or by means of the original path past the army's German village training ground. This is the most isolated and open area of the plain.

For those who cannot manage the whole 20 miles, the hike can easily be split into much more manageable sections. Make sure at all times to stick to the made-up roads. Never set out across open country, even on the few open days. Tourist information centres at Warminster (central car-park, 0985 218548) and Westbury (The Library, Edward St, 0373 827158) carry comprehensive lists of campsites, bed and breakfast, hotel, self-catering and local farmhouse accommodation. They often also have maps and guides to the area. Car-parks are detailed on the Imber Range Perimeter Path map (available from tourist information centres).

Last rites for a village time would not forget
The Sunday Telegraph; London (UK); Aug 25, 1991; Greg Neale Environment Correspondent;
Copyright Daily Telegraph Aug 25, 1991

THE BLACKSMITH died of a broken heart, everybody says. "When the time came to evacuate the village they found him slumped over his anvil, crying like a child," a local historian recalled. "Within a month he was dead."

The blacksmith, Albert Nash, and others will be remembered next month, as they are each year, in a service at St Giles's church in the Wiltshire village of Imber, nestling in a valley high on Salisbury Plain. But this year Imber is a village without its parish, just as for nearly half a century it has in effect been without a congregation.

Thirty years ago Imber made national headlines when villagers who had been abruptly evacuated in 1943, so that American troops could train there, briefly revolted against their exile. Two thousand villagers and supporters marched to Imber along roads that had been closed to the public for nearly two decades.

Though the villagers never won the right to return, they did win some concessions, and the roads to Imber are open this holiday weekend, as they are for 50 days a year. The number attending the annual service is expected to be higher than ever. But for the faithful who gather next month, something will be missing.

This year Mr Heseltine, the Environment Secretary, approved a recommendation from the Boundaries Commission that the parish of Imber should be abolished. With its passing, the veteran campaigners concede that their fight is almost over.

"I'm afraid it's all a dead dodo now," said Betty Hooper, 77, whose late husband's family farmed at Imber for generations and who has become the chronicler of a village thought by some to have been a settlement for 4,000 years.

It was in the 1930s that the War Office began to buy land in and around the village, leasing back farms and homes. Local farmers had previously resisted the offers that helped to transform much of Salisbury Plain into military ranges. The years of war softened that resistance until the only buildings not owned by the War Office were the church, the school, a Baptist hall and the village pub, The Bell.

On November 1, 1943, the villagers were summoned to a meeting and told that Imber was required for training troops. "The area has to be evacuated and available for training by December 17," announced Lt-Col Thorne of Southern Command. He added that the authorities "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."

Many of the 180-odd villagers assumed their evacuation would be temporary. "Time" was called at The Bell, and Army lorries carried villagers off to new homes, in some cases local almshouses. But the only villagers who returned were those who died and were buried there, such as Mr Nash.

To Austin Underwood, a soldier returning from a war in which he won the BEM for his D-Day work in Signals, "this was not what we had been fighting for; this was what we had been fighting against".

Mr Underwood, a teacher and fervent socialist who as a boy regularly cycled to Imber from his home in nearby Amesbury, took up the issue when he was elected to the local council. The case had already been raised at Westminster, where an MP had unwittingly given Mr Underwood his campaign slogan - "Forever Imber", recalling Kathleen Winsor's novel Forever Amber.

When the Defence of the Realm Act expired at the end of 1960, Mr Underwood opposed the War Office's application for the roads to Imber to be closed permanently. He announced his intention to drive to the village without permission. On January 22, 1961, the protest went ahead.

"It was a bit like the tanks sent against the people in Moscow," Mr Underwood said yesterday. "The Army had scout cars which were designed to stop us, but when they saw how many of us there were they decided discretion was the better part of valour." The exultant demonstrators defiantly rehung the sign of The Bell and looked forward to the re-opening of the village.

It was not to be. A court injunction prevented the newly formed Association for the Restoration of Imber from organising further incursions, and though a public inquiry later in the same year decided that the church should be maintained and the roads regularly opened, the Army retained control of the village.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s some of the remaining houses were bulldozed and replaced by brick shells to replicate the urban battlefields of Northern Ireland. "It is an invaluable resource for training in modern warfare," the Army said yesterday.

St Giles's church is locked, and the churchyard surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. Bill Ogden, Ministry of Defence land warden for the area, expects a large turnout for this year's service. "When I first came here in 1968 there might be just 20 people. Now it's often nearly 200," he said. "It's not just the descendants of the people who used to live here that come; it's also ex-soldiers who trained here."

On November 28, 1943, just before the evacuation, the last marriage was held at the church. Mrs Phyllis Wright, now widowed, recalls the village well, though she prefers to be left with her memories. "They are very happy ones," she said last week.