Car­ols ring out in aban­doned vil­lage

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: San­dra Lawrence

THE THIN MID­WIN­TER sun makes lit­tle im­pres­sion on what is usu­ally the loneli­est part of Sal­is­bury Plain. Here, the only road is long-barred, with seven miles of muddy track and just the crows for com­pany. Then, dip­ping into a val­ley, ex­cited chat­ter fills the air. Folk wrapped warmly in bright bob­ble hats and cosy scarves file up­hill to­wards a 13th cen­tury parish church which glows with can­dle­light in ev­ery win­dow. Its porch is a wel­come sparkle of tea lights, green­ery and good cheer, and the de­li­cious aroma of mulled wine hangs in the air like a fra­grant mist. In­side, a brass band is warm­ing up, and mem­bers of a choir are tak­ing their places be­tween jewel-bright flo­ral dis­plays, lights flick­er­ing in wall sconces and be­deck­ing a twin­kling Christ­mas tree. Ev­ery pew, chair and seat has been pressed into ser­vice, which may be con­sid­ered odd, given that this par­tic­u­lar parish has no con­gre­ga­tion. The ghost vil­lage of Im­ber, once a thriv­ing ru­ral com­mu­nity, has not seen a sin­gle res­i­dent for 75 years. On 17 De­cem­ber 1943, Im­ber’s en­tire pop­u­la­tion left, never to re­turn. Within only a few weeks of this de­par­ture, the vil­lage was shelled be­yond habi­ta­tion, used for pre-D-Day tar­get prac­tice by the Bri­tish Army and newly-ar­rived Al­lied troops.

“Peo­ple were given 47 days’ no­tice,” says Gor­don Lewis, author of Im­ber Then & Now. “They had nowhere to go and no com­pen­sa­tion. They had to find ac­com­mo­da­tion with fam­ily or friends; any­one who would take them in.” The vil­lagers might have been sent away, but they never for­got. They watched from afar, al­ways hop­ing they might re­turn. And re­turn peo­ple do, once a year, to take part in a carol ser­vice in their old church. Be­fore Im­ber’s an­nual rous­ing Christ­mas ser­vice, Gor­don and his wife, Ann, like to take a turn around its ghostly re­mains, to re­mem­ber the peo­ple who once called the place home. “My mum came from Im­ber,” says Ann. “She spent her child­hood in Church Street.” Once a ma­jor road in the vil­lage, now it is just a path. Al­though Ann’s mother, Dorothy Hol­lyoake, left to go into ser­vice be­fore the evac­u­a­tion, sev­eral other mem­bers of Ann’s fam­ily were dis­placed in 1943. Her cousin George was serv­ing in the Royal Navy. “He used to tell peo­ple he thought it was a bit much. He’d been fight­ing to save his home, only to come back and find out it had been taken from him.”

Out of bounds

De­spite promises, the in­hab­i­tants were never al­lowed to re­turn. The vil­lage re­mains MoD prop­erty, strictly out of bounds to the pub­lic. In­deed, it is still used. The con­flicts may have changed, but prac­tice fight­ing in a street sit­u­a­tion is still needed by to­day’s troops. Many of the pic­turesque, thatched cot­tages were bombed so badly that the army even built its own breeze block ver­sion of Lit­tle Im­ber on the Down, some­what less pic­turesque than its name­sake. At the time, no one pub­licly ques­tioned the sac­ri­fice they were be­ing asked to make: to refuse would have been un­pa­tri­otic. When they dis­cov­ered they were not to re­turn, how­ever, re­sent­ment grew. In 1961, Ann, her twin sis­ter, mother and fa­ther joined a protest rally that wound from nearby Gore Cross across the plain to Sal­is­bury. The rally made the na­tional pa­pers. While the demon­stra­tion it­self failed, the MoD did be­gin to al­low peo­ple to re­turn to Im­ber for one day each sum­mer. Ann’s mother never missed the op­por­tu­nity. “She was able to de­scribe the vil­lage with such de­tail that peo­ple who had never known Im­ber could see it al­most as clearly as she did,” says Gor­don, who joined the an­nual fam­ily pil­grim­age when he met Ann in 1984. “She re­mem­bered ev­ery­thing: the peo­ple who lived there; whether they were nice to her; if she was scared of them; where the fish and chip van used to stop once a week. She could see past the con­crete blocks and vi­su­alise Im­ber as it was.” Ev­ery year, more build­ings would crum­ble and fail. Ann’s mother’s home dis­ap­peared, as did many other cot­tages that might once have adorned the front of a choco­late box. The vicarage, Bap­tist chapel, even the post of­fice, run by Miss Ma­bel Carter from 1909-1943, cus­to­dian of the vil­lage’s only tele­phone line, are all gone, as is the lo­cal black­smith, home to Im­ber’s most tragic char­ac­ter. Al­bert Nash took the evic­tion no­tice very badly. “This is where his wife found him on 2 Novem­ber 1943, slumped over his anvil, cry­ing like a baby,” says Gor­don, stand­ing on a grassy patch by the path. “He died 20 Jan­uary 1944. His death cer­tifi­cate says bronchial pneu­mo­nia, but they say the doc­tor added in brack­ets that he died of a bro­ken heart.” Al­bert lies in Im­ber church­yard. Some build­ings do re­main, how­ever. The 1769 Bell Inn served beer to the very last day, and the ten­ants con­tin­ued

to re­new the li­cence well into the 1960s, hop­ing they would be al­lowed to re­turn. Sea­gram’s Farm, now re­duced in­ter­nally to a sin­gle storey, was pic­ture-post­card charm­ing, with its own bridge over a stream and an­cient mul­lioned win­dows. In 1839, it was home to Matthew Dean, who made lo­cal his­tory when, at al­most 60 years old, he suc­cess­fully chased four high­way­men. Two memo­ri­als, called rob­ber stones, com­mem­o­rate the in­ci­dent. One can be seen at Gore Cross on the A360, but the other is now out of bounds. Nag’s Head Cot­tages used to be a tav­ern. “Ap­par­ently, there was a pub at both ends of the vil­lage,” says Gor­don. “Pubs in those days were ba­si­cally your front room.” He in­di­cates a solid, brick-built row of homes, with army-is­sue cor­ru­gated iron roofs. “These houses are in rea­son­ably good con­di­tion,” he says. “They were the last built in Im­ber, by the coun­cil, circa 1938. They even had in­door bath­rooms.” How­ever, this new-found lux­ury did not stretch far, as the re­mains of com­mu­nal out­door toi­lets tes­tify. Across the way, Im­ber Court, the vil­lage’s manor house, also re­mains rel­a­tively un­scathed, though boast­ing its own MoD reg­u­la­tion roof and me­tal shut­ters, which lend it the solemn air of an aban­doned chateau.

The ‘big house’ has a strange con­nec­tion for Gor­don. “As soon as I ar­rived, I felt very drawn to the vil­lage,” he says. “Twenty years later, I was re­search­ing some fam­ily his­tory when the top of one of the memo­ri­als, which had been buried in the church­yard, was dug up and re­in­stated in the church. I thought: ‘I recog­nise that coat of arms’. The in­scrip­tion con­firmed it was a mem­ber of my fam­ily.” Thomas Ayliffe, Gor­don’s newly-dis­cov­ered an­ces­tor, had mar­ried the sole heiress of Im­ber Court and be­come lord of the manor. It is un­likely he was pop­u­lar. “Im­ber is no­to­ri­ous for flood­ing. It’s very muddy here,” ex­plains Gor­don. “My rel­a­tive di­verted the vil­lage stream to wa­ter his gar­dens.” Mys­te­ri­ously, Ayliffe’s me­mo­rial is of­ten wet to the touch when other mon­u­ments in the church re­main dry. By now, peo­ple are ar­riv­ing in num­bers at the an­cient church of St Giles. “It’s very fes­tive up there and very full,” says Gor­don. “Ev­ery­one has to sit fac­ing back­wards to­wards the bell tower: it’s the only way they can fit the band in. The al­tar is al­ways filled with can­dles. It looks re­ally mag­i­cal.”

Listed build­ing

Al­though St Giles’ foun­da­tions were laid in the 12th cen­tury, its nave is 13th cen­tury, and much of the rest dates from circa 1400. It is also Grade I listed, which pre­sented the Min­istry of De­fence with a prob­lem in 1943. Sol­diers were in­structed not to fire at the church, but it did not re­ceive much love ei­ther. “They were go­ing to take it down in the 1950s,” says Neil Skel­ton, who leads the team of vol­un­teers at the church. “Much of its in­te­rior was stripped.” Neil’s own in­volve­ment goes back to 1964 when, aged 16, he first heard about Im­ber. “On Whit Mon­day, 16 May 1964, I cy­cled here from Sal­is­bury. I’d begged my fa­ther to lend me his cam­era. He gave me an eight-ex­po­sure film, so I had to use it wisely. It was a lovely day, and the place cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion.” Neil be­came an an­nual vis­i­tor and, in 1980, started work­ing for the Churches Con­ser­va­tion Trust (CCT). In 2002, the MoD de­cided to dis­pose of the church. “The dio­cese had to take back full re­spon­si­bil­ity be­cause St Giles was still tech­ni­cally a parish church. They im­me­di­ately de­clared it re­dun­dant. I cam­paigned for it to go to the Trust, but they didn’t want it. They said no one would ever visit be­cause of the re­stricted ac­cess, and it wouldn’t make any money, but it did pass to them in 2005. “I re­tired 10 years ago and had al­ways had a pas­sion for churches. I felt very sorry for this one. On my last day, I said I’d like to take on Im­ber as a vol­un­teer. I did so in 2008, and we did as much work as the MoD would give us ac­cess for.” Along­side its un­usual, five-pin­na­cled tower, one of the most im­por­tant things saved at St Giles is its art­work. The nave and bell tower are filled with me­dieval mu­rals which are both use­ful, such as a ta­ble of bell changes dat­ing from 1692, and in­struc­tional. In a de­pic­tion of the Seven Deadly Sins, avarice re­mains in the ghostly form of a man hold­ing money bags, sur­rounded by a cou­ple of grotesque char­ac­ters who

do not ap­pear to have his wel­fare in mind. Much more ap­peal­ing is the weigh­ing of a soul, where an an­gel holds a set of bal­ances. The Vir­gin Mary is adding her rosary to in­flu­ence the good works of the per­son be­ing weighed. Per­haps even more cu­ri­ous is St Giles’ me­dieval graf­fiti, in­clud­ing ‘daisy-wheel’ marks, prob­a­bly cre­ated with a com­pass; com­ments scrawled by bored bell-ringers and porch-loi­ter­ers; and even the odd car­toon. One such etch­ing in the bell tower has been dated to be­tween 1430 and 1470 and may be a car­i­ca­ture of the lo­cal Baron Hunger­ford, MP and Sher­iff of Wilt­shire. The bell tower had been empty since 1950, but in 2010, Neil man­aged to re­turn a peal of six bells. “The CCT nor­mally wouldn’t al­low such things, but we still had the bell frame, and a friend of mine was a bell-hanger,” he says. The ea­gle lectern was re­turned to Im­ber in 2008, along with two pews, but sadly not ev­ery­thing has come home. St Giles’ font now lives at Brix­ton Dev­er­ill, its pul­pit at Win­ter­bourne Earls. A fine Royal Arms of Charles I and two cross-legged cru­sader tombs re­side at Ed­ing­ton. “It would be lovely to get the cru­saders back,” ad­mits Neil. “I’d like the font back too,” he adds, wist­fully Thanks to the vol­un­teers at Im­ber, St Giles is now very oc­ca­sion­ally open, usu­ally for ser­vices at Christ­mas and some­times at Easter too. Au­gust Bank Hol­i­day week­ends see Im­berBus Day, when a fleet of vin­tage Lon­don Trans­port buses wend their way from Warmin­ster to the vil­lage. It is al­ways very, very pop­u­lar. “We get ap­prox­i­mately 2,000 visi­tors a year,” says Neil.

Per­sonal con­nec­tions

Most of the 250-strong con­gre­ga­tion for Im­ber’s an­nual Christ­mas carol ser­vice, how­ever, is lo­cal. Many have a con­nec­tion with Im­ber. Hand­ing out mince pies at the door, Barry Mcna­mara is proud of his an­ces­tor Joel Cruse, skilled in cre­at­ing dew ponds. “There were vast num­bers of sheep on the downs, and wa­ter had to be got to them,” he says. “He con­structed clay dips that hard­ened and filled with wa­ter.” The late af­ter­noon sun be­gins to fade, and the can­dles ap­pear to glow even more brightly. As Brat­ton Sil­ver Band be­gins a se­lec­tion of sea­sonal mu­sic, the con­gre­ga­tion fin­ishes the last of the mulled wine, ready to join the West­bury & District Cho­ral So­ci­ety in singing the bright­est, jol­liest car­ols, tinged with poignancy, for the parish­ioners who never man­aged it again for them­selves. “One old lady I spoke with 20 years ago was eight or nine when the evac­u­a­tion took place,” re­mem­bers Gor­don. “She told me: ‘We weren’t even al­lowed to cel­e­brate Christ­mas’.” In De­cem­ber 2018, 75 years since that anx­ious lit­tle girl had to leave her home, lo­cal peo­ple will, as they have for many decades now, cel­e­brate Christ­mas for her.

Un­der the pale golden lime­stone arches of St Giles’ Church, wor­ship­pers con­gre­gate in re­mem­brance of a time when Im­ber was just a nor­mal com­mu­nity.

Gor­don Lewis at St Giles’ Church. The lancet win­dows were re­placed by Per­pen­dic­u­lar style ones dur­ing its 1849 restora­tion, at a cost of £630 and 10 shillings.

Sea­gram’s Farm, named for its owner, Ed­ward Sea­gram. He rented it out to the Dean fam­ily, who farmed an area of 1,000 acres.

A walk up­hill leads to St Giles’ Church. Its un­usual Per­pen­dic­u­lar style west tower was added in the 15th cen­tury.

Two semi-de­tached prop­er­ties form Nag’s Head Cot­tages, be­lieved to have housed a pub un­til the 19th cen­tury.

Im­ber Court was home to the Wad­man fam­ily dur­ing the 17th and 18th cen­turies be­fore a farm­ing fam­ily, the Deans, took it on.

Neil Skel­ton ad­dresses the carol singers. In 2016, he was awarded the Bri­tish Empire Medal for his ef­forts in tak­ing on the up­keep of Im­ber’s church, with fel­low vol­un­teers, so an­nual gath­er­ings could con­tinue.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.