Carols ring out in abandoned village
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.”
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.
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.