It is a surprise to discover an unusual location – one whose existence you were previously unaware of – practically on your doorstep. That was my recent experience when I visited the lost village of Imber on Salisbury Plain. Normally hidden from public sight, the village is open to visitors just a few days a year, giving a chance to explore an almost forgotten piece of history.
Why Visit The Lost Village Of Imber?
There are a number of deserted villages in England, but Imber is atypical, having been abandoned in the 20th century rather than in the Middle Ages. A further curiosity is that it is normally inaccessible, being located in the military area of Salisbury Plain.
Visiting the village allows you to learn about its rather sad history. And you can look around a medieval church with some ancient wall paintings. Driving to Imber also gives an opportunity to see Salisbury Plain itself, a rare surviving example of ancient grassland.
However, you will need to plan your visit carefully, as opening times are very restricted (see below).
A Drive Across Salisbury Plain
The first thing you notice when you pass the checkpoint and enter the military zone is that you are surrounded by unspoilt countryside. Despite the name, this part of Salisbury Plain consists of gently rolling hills, with chalk grassland as far as the eye can see. Although some areas are grazed by cattle the terrain is mostly empty, meaning that it supports many species of animal and plant life.
The landscape might look inviting, but unfortunately you will have to resist the temptation to go for a walk. Notices by the roadside warn you not to leave the carriageway because there may be unexploded military debris underfoot. This – along with the frequent sight of burnt-out tanks – is a reminder that Salisbury Plain is owned by the Ministry of Defence, and that it has been used as a military training ground since the army first started buying land here at the end of the 19th century.
Why Was Imber Abandoned?
The village of Imber dates back to before the Norman Conquest, but the population fell after the army moved onto Salisbury Plain and started buying up land and property. In 1943 it was decided that the village should be evacuated so that American troops could use the area to prepare for the D-Day landings. The remaining 150 residents were given just 47 days’ notice to move out, with no arrangements made for alternative accommodation.
To make matters worse, although the residents were promised that they could return once the war was over, they were never in fact allowed back. In 1961 around 2,000 protesters broke into the military zone in an attempt to get the village returned to the former occupants. They were unsuccessful, but a compromise was reached whereby Imber would be opened for a few days each year.
There was just one way for a villager to return to Imber: anyone who was born there, or who had lived in the village, was entitled to be buried in the churchyard. The number of qualifying people has dwindled over the years: a recent burial in January 2023 may well be the last.
A Walk Around Imber Village
Walking round Imber is a rather unearthly experience. Old photographs show rows of thatched cottages, but these have all disappeared now. However you will see the shell of the pub and of the manor house, and a row of 1930s council houses that were only ever inhabited for a few years.
Where the cottages once stood you’ll now see rows of concrete houses. These were built in the 1970s for use in urban warfare training exercises.
St Giles Church
At the top of a small hill is the one building that has survived intact – the 13th century St Giles Church. There was at one time a proposal to move it brick by brick to the nearby town of Warminster, but – although it is now classed as redundant – the church was spared.
St Giles is remarkable for its fragments of medieval wall paintings, including two large pictures showing the Seven Deadly Sins and the Weighing of Souls. And there is lots of historic graffiti in the entrance porch and on the walls. A particular feature – almost unique in British churches – is the list of bell ringing changes dating back to 1692.
On open days the church becomes a hive of activity, with stalls selling books and souvenirs as well as coffee and biscuits.
How To Visit The Lost Village Of Imber
- The village is open a few days a year, generally around Easter and August Bank Holiday. As well as the open days there are occasional concerts and services in the church. Have a look at the St Giles website for details.
- The military approach roads from Warminster, Bratton and Heytesbury can be used on open days. (When I visited the Warminster road was in good condition but the Heytesbury road was rather potholed.)
- Imber is a short drive from Warminster. Warminster is just over 30 km from Bath or Salisbury.
- Once a year the Imberbus raises money for charity by running double-decker red buses from Warminster to Imber.
- A final reminder to stay on the path – even in the village there are “no entry” signs and fenced off areas. Don’t ignore them!
- If you do want to see more of Salisbury Plain then you could walk some or all of the Imber Range Perimeter Path, a 48 km mixed use trail around the edge of the military zone. It is also possible to visit parts of the Plain with an escorted off-road safari.