Friday, January 28, 2011

The Village that Time Forgot

You're probably well aware by now that I have an interest in the lost or the missing, such as disused stations and tunnels, anything to which the term 'ghost' can be applied. Then you can imagine my excitement when I heard for the first time about a 'ghost village' in the UK. I've come across abandoned communities before, and visited one, Dunwich in Suffolk. But the people moved from Dunwich because of coastal erosion and while it was fascinating it had little of the creepy, ghostly feel I want from my deserted places.

Then I read about Imber, an isolated village on Salisbury Plain, just another dot on the map in Wiltshire. It's there in the Doomsday book, with a population of 50, and probably because it was so remote, its inhabitants hardly increased over the centuries. In the mid-20th century it is estimated 150 people lived there, but it boasted a glorious 700-year-old church, as well as a pub, and it seems like it was close-knit and friendly community. Until the Second World War.

Over several decades, the Ministry of Defence had been buying up swathes of Salisbury Plain for training exercises for troops. The outbreak of war increased the need for such land, as did the presence of American soldiers, who needed to practice fighting in built-up areas. So the War Office effectively conscripted a village, and Imber it was. The residents were given 47 days notice to evacuate their homes. As there was a war on, and everyone was keen to do their bit, they left, after being told they would be able to return in six months. Some even left a few canned goods and provisions in their cupboards. That six months soon became the duration of the war, but still few complained and they were compensated moderately for the inconvenience.

When the war was over, the MoD intended to repair the properties damaged during manouevres and let the people back. Or so they said. Nothing happened. The villagers kept asking questions about when they could go home. Eventually the MoD said they would never be able to return: the land was going to be kept for training purposes.

This obviously went down like a bucket of cold sick. The villagers organised public rallies in support of their return. In 1961 a public inquiry was held which, unsurprisingly, found in favour of the army. The only sop thrown by those in power was a promise to maintain the church, and to open it to the public for services once a year, on the Sunday closest to St Giles' day (St Giles being the name of the church.) However, there was to be no homecoming for the residents, though one exiled Imberite was allowed his last wish of being buried in the church graveyard of his former home.

Since then, Imber stands frozen in time. The houses and pub are dilapidated, damaged by the various exercises carried out there, though the pub sign still hangs; elsewhere, there are ugly concrete facades erected for training purposes. The church is kept up, and it is possible to visit the village on various days of the year. Something I fully intend to do, because the opportunity to wander around is too good to miss. Those who have been say it has an atmosphere all of its own.

Plus I want to know what happened to those cans of food.


Dan - Friday


  1. What a terrible wrench it must have been for the residents :(

  2. Imber has to be one of the purest definitions of "ghost town" I've ever heard. I can't believe that ghosts a-plenty don't walk there!

  3. Dan, I could have done without one of the colloquial terms. The story is fascinating.

    The part that really intrigues me is the casual reference to the Doomsday Book, compiled over 400 years before Columbus bumped into the islands in the Caribbean.

    Would William have supported his designation as William I? It seems more likely that he was the source of the term "conqueror"; any old king can have a number attached to his name. "William the Conqueror", on the other hand, is not someone to be messed with.

  4. I can see the top photo is more idyllic than ghostly; still it appeals to me, and so does this post.

  5. Hi everyone. Thanks for the comments and kind words.

    Beth, sorry, I think the phrase you're referring to is quite a common one 'up north' and apologies if it jarred. As for the Doomsday book, I'm just waiting for all the comments telling me it should be spelled Domesday.

    And Dorte, I thought the same when I posted it - though if it was black and white it'd be different...

  6. There's a St Giles' day ? I really should start celebrating it.