There’s a village right in the centre of Salisbury Plain that has become something of an enigma; it appears on few maps, is therefore difficult to locate, and more importantly, can only be accessed via a narrow road that the military opens up just a couple of times a year. The road leaves the main A360 at Gore Cross and heads west for several miles across the expanse of Salisbury Plain with little other than scrub covered hillsides to look at. The village is Imber and it’s history is fascinating……
A settlement was known to exist here in Roman times and there is evidence of old tracks that lead out from the village in many directions. Documented evidence begins in Saxon times and the village is mentioned in the Domeday Book when it’s population was thought to be around fifty. The village sits astride what used to be a through road from Gore Cross to Heytesbury, with it’s manor, church, post office, pub, farm and cottages. The road followed the course of Imber Dock, a stream whose source was way up on the Plain.
Back in the late 19th century, the War Office needed an area where it could practise manoeuvres with ground troops as well as a range for artillery firing. Obviously, this had to be well away from any existing towns or villages and so large expanses of Salisbury Plain began to be bought up, initially to the east of the village on the road to Gore Cross. As military hardware became more sophisticated and artillery became longer range, the existing land on the Plain became too small and, although the War Office had stopped purchasing land by the beginning of WWI, it soon started to grab whatever it could. Gradually, Imber became surrounded by ranges until local farms were purchased as well as land in the village itself.
The locals were only too pleased initially to sell up; the agricultural depression of the time plus the good prices the War Office offered, persuaded all but the most die-hard to sell their land and before long, the military owned just about every square yard available.
Life did still continue in the village until a shock announcement in November 1943 was to change the history of the village forever.
A meeting was called by the War Office and every villager was asked to attend. The military were preparing for the D-Day landings and required an area where they could recreate what we today would call urban warfare. They thought that once the beaches of Normandy had fallen, they would have to embark upon house-to-house fighting to force the Germans back and, with this in mind, they wanted to train both UK and US forces for the assault. The villagers were given 47 days to leave the village with a promise that they could return “when this all blew over”.
Most left peacefully, after all, they had no say in the matter and none wanted to be seen to be going against the war effort. Compensation was poor and a few stalwarts did refuse to give up their farms and businesses, most notably the local blacksmith who was forcibly evicted by the army whilst clinging to his anvil where he had made his living for 40 year. He had the dubious distinction of being the first evacuated villager to die and be brought back to Imber for burial.
The training commenced with the forces constructing their own “village” where the soldiers could practise what is now called FIBUA – fighting in built up areas. This has continued up to the present day with troops being trained for the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, the Falklands, Iraq and so on.
Needless to say, the villagers were never invited back – Imber had simply become too important to the military to relinquish, plus it now meant they effectively owned almost all of the Plain, an area equivalent to the Isle of Wight.
I drive down the main street today – all that’s left is the pub, the manor, the church of St Giles and a few farm buildings, all boarded up and all out-of-bounds to civilians. They used to let the villagers back every New Year’s Eve for a service in the church but years of repeated artillery and tank fire has weakened the structure beyond all repair and it is no longer deemed safe. There are more military-built buildings here than original ones and the place has a desolate, lost air about it, full of ghosts but not much else.
It’s now 65 years since the village was evacuated and the surviving villagers are numbering less and less with the passing of each year. Some make the trip out to Imber for the annual peace vigil that is now held in place of the church service and this year they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Rather sadly, they can’t even pay their respects to their loved ones who are buried just a few yards away in the grounds of St Giles.
One day soon, maybe a stray shell will explode in the village and wipe it from the map forever, whether that would be a good or bad thing, I’m not really sure…….