Monday, 7 January 2013

Imber - Ghost Village

The Court House
The Old Bell

Imber village lies in a valley of some three hundred square miles which make up Salisbury Plain, most of which is owned by the MoD. Imber, historians will tell you, was once home to the ancient Britons, the Romans and the Saxons. Imber appears in the Doomsday Book where an entry indicates a population of just fifty souls.

Today, Imber is a ghost village, requisitioned by the War Office in 1943, a move which saw a small community evicted from their homes on the grounds that the village was to be used for military manoeuvres by American troops in preparation for the D-Day landings of WWII.

Perhaps the villagers were a little naïve when they accepted a promise from the War Office ensuring they would be allowed to return to their homes after the war. I say naïve, with no disrespect intended, but it was no secret that the War Office had been buying up farms and other properties in the area for some years; since 1897 in fact. So it should have come as no great surprise to find them knocking at their doors with possession orders. It would seem, at least outwardly, that the good folk of Imber had been duped. The acquisition of properties and indeed entire villages were not uncommon during war times. The impact of the two world wars resulted in the government’s widespread requisitioning of land and buildings, mainly for military purposes to aid the war effort.

It was on the 1st November 1943 when the villagers were asked to attend a meeting at the schoolroom chaired by the War Office. They were expecting a meeting about the installation of piped water. Instead, they were told they had just 47 days to leave their homes. Many of the villagers showed little resistance, assured that they were supporting the war effort and furthermore it would be in their best interests and safety to leave, and as previously mentioned, they were given an assurance they would be allowed to return to their homes. There were however a few who did protest, none more so than Albert Nash, the village blacksmith who had plied his traded in the village for some 40 years. It is said he suffered a breakdown when told he was to be evicted. It is also rumoured that he openly wept whilst clinging tenaciously to his anvil as the army forcibly removed him. It is with some irony that Nash did manage to return to Imber albeit in death, for he is buried in the churchyard of the seven hundred year old church of St. Giles, the only building in Imber that was not part of the War Office requisition. It remains under the diocese of Salisbury and is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Many believed Nash died of a broken heart and even today, some claim to have heard strange metallic sounds similar to that of hammer striking anvil emanating from the area where he once worked. His cottage, one of just a handful of the original buildings still survives, albeit just an empty shell.

After the war the army attempted repairs to many of the properties which had suffered shell damage through manoeuvres. Many of the cottages were in a state of ruinous disrepair. The villagers were never given the opportunity to return, even though letters had been sent indicating they would be allowed back; letters incidentally that never came to light. You can imagine how angry the villagers must have felt, so much so that many organised rallies (one such rally attracted in excess of 2000 attendees) with family and friends and at one point they even took the army to court. The demonstrations lasted till 1961 whereupon a Public Enquiry awarded Imber to the army and that was that.

Today, Imber is still used by the MoD as an army training centre for urban warfare.

Nostalgia was the order of the day as I looked at old photographs which are on display in St. Giles church. Photographs of pretty little cottages, their residents standing outside smiling into camera. I think Imber, though small (a population of around 150 when it was requisitioned) was a close-knit community, a typical English village. Those cottages, some fifty or so, have since been demolished to make way for featureless dull-grey breeze block houses with tin roofs which the army have erected to replicate an urban environment. Although I never knew the people of Imber, I couldn’t help thinking how I would have felt to be told that I had to leave my home, it must have been awful.

The Ghosts of Imber
This was my first visit to a so-called ‘ghost village,’ inspired following a chat with a couple of ex-army friends who experienced first hand the “uncomfortable” atmosphere of Imber village. Their stories of night manoeuvres and their reluctance to leave the security of their vehicle struck me as amusing. Army types frightened of ghosts - surely not, but frightened they certain where. They both agreed that there was something about Imber that scared the pants off them. Especially in the area around the church and the abandoned Bell public house, a building that even today is said to exude a presence. Some have reported hearing the sounds of laughter coming from within and the smell and radiated warmth of log fires where none had been lit.

Walking the empty streets and entering the few remaining abandoned houses, one does get a feeling of desolate emptiness, especially in The Bell public house. I know it’s an overworked expression but there is a feeling of…oh I don’t - something. I am reluctant to say a ’presence’ because I did not feel that. Maybe that ‘something’ were the reflective manifestations of those who once met here, many of whom lay buried at St. Giles. It would have been the hub of the village where folk would have met to enjoy a tankard of ale, chew over the fat of the day, play games, speculate on the latest rumours, laugh and no doubt cry. Now, all that remains are the echoes of a past retained in its cold dark fabric.

Gordon Lewis, who is no stranger to Imber and author of Dolly’s Imber, kindly agreed to allow me to included his stories.

‘On 19th September 1999 I visited the village for the annual St. Giles' church service with my wife, mother-in-law and three children. I have always been inquisitive and was surprised to find the large gate to Imber Court was unchained (one of several original buildings). Needless to say, I walked across the courtyard to the front door. The door was open so I took the opportunity to explore the building, despite protests from my wife who was worried the Army might catch me. In one room there was the distinctive smell of a log fire burning. Yes, the soldiers do use old chimney fireplaces to light fires, but this fire was actually burning even though there was no real fire to be seen. Having grown up on a farm where open fires were common place, I was able to recognise the smell and even feel the warmth on what was a wet and damp September day.’

‘My other story concerns my 11x great uncle, Thomas Ayliffe (c1596-1644) who had coincidentally married the heiress of Imber Court, Elizabeth Gawen. Imber has a history of flooding and according to Rex Sawyer's book "Little Imber on the Down," the villagers had appealed to Thomas Ayliffe for help in overcoming this problem. The subsequent owner of Imber Court, Dr. Davenaumamt, claimed in the estate records that "Mr Ayliffe had dug two large trenches to further protect the highway and to water his meadow." Ayliffe is buried in the church and as you enter the building his memorial is on the opposite wall just to the left next to a large window, which in turn is next to the oval window put in so that there was greater light for the squire's pew. I am sure it is the type of stone used on this memorial which causes the following to happen, but often when I visit, there seems to be water coming out of the grey stone even though other memorials are dry to the touch. My wife always claims that it is because Ayliffe was probably more interested in watering his meadows rather than caring for the villages and, after all, his efforts failed to stop flooding in the roads.’

Paul Geering; formerly of The 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment, kindly allowed me to included his stories.

‘I have retold this story many times and rarely has the listener accepted what I say I saw, most are dismissive. I smile to myself because I know they can not disprove my story, but then I can’t prove it either, the only thing for sure is, I was there and they were not.’

‘It is a while ago now (1988) but I will try to recall what I can. I was a member of The 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment. We had left Aldershot that morning to join manoeuvres with the 82nd American Airborne. We arrived on Salisbury Plain and set up a tented camp. That evening we were ‘dicked’ (an army expression meaning to be volunteered to do to a task whether you liked it or not) to play enemy to the 82nd Airborne. The 82nd Airborne were flying in directly from America and were to parachute in to liberate ‘hostages’ we held at Imber. That same evening we moved on to Imber where four of us were stationed at what was Seagram’s Farm. As I looked out from the back of the house I could see the church tower of St. Giles at approximately 1 o’clock. We saw the Americans fly over before midnight, so hoped they would quickly engage us in a brief fire fight so we could get back to our pits.’

‘Around 2am we were still waiting, I had earlier gone for a wonder around in the hope of prompting an attack - but no such luck! We had a radio, so we decided to let three of us doss for a while whilst one stayed on the radio. We were on the 1st floor of Seagram’s Farm which had a very narrow stone staircase, so no one could have sneaked up on us. I remember sitting bolt up right, brought my weapon to my shoulder and followed a figure moving across the room, I decided not to shoot as it seemed pointless for what I was seeing was a ghost like figure moving diagonally from the left rear of the room to right front of the room then passing through the wall. That image remains vivid in my mind. I seem to remember he had a ruff, a pleated collar, so I guess he was quiet old. I lowered my rifle and accepted what I'd seen - no fuss!

‘Later, as we gathered around the big four tonners (vehicles used to carry men or supplies) stories were exchanged. Two of the lads had heard voices the other side of a wall, but no one was there. One lad attacked a bush which he said shook; nothing there. Smoke was smelt where no fire had been lit. No one dismissed our stories, just shrugged their shoulders and said, “it’s Imber, it's haunted!” The exercise had a number of incidents occur which still make me smile now.’

‘That was the only time I went to Imber. I heard Imber was opened to the public so I decided to try to get there. A friend sent me some photos of the buildings, none rang a bell. I returned at Easter 2013, where I walked down the road and found the building where I had been 25 years earlier.'

‘Imber is a remarkable story, I’ve since found out there were similar villages taken over by the army, and people being evicted then not being allowed to return. In 1988 I felt a sense of respect for the village and it's history, though at the time I did not really know much about it.’

Following the dissolution of the monasteries (1526-1541) much of the lands previously owned by the church were sold off. Beneficiaries included Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour, third wife to King Henry VIII and husband to Henrys sixth wife Catherine Parr. The parish of Bratton, which included Imber village was granted to Sir Thomas Seymour. It is not known whether he visited Imber, but you never know.

Another name of some notoriety associated with Imber, was that of John Wadman, who lived in comparative comfort at the old manor house, now Imber Court in the late 18th century. The manor was extensively rebuilt during his occupancy, burnt down in 1920 and was subsequently restored. Today the court is locked behind heavy gates, but there is still evidence of the old manor. Although the building is now reduced to two storeys, traces of its history can still be seen. There is a fine avenue of trees in the grounds leading to the kennels which are said to be haunted by hunting dogs. Sounds of howling and the rattle of restraining chains have been heard on several occasions. There is also the spectre of a woman holding a lighted candle who is said to appear at one of the manor’s windows, it is thought she is the ghost of a Wadman family member. There is also the rumour of a ghostly white rabbit that is said to scamper from the manor to where the village cricket pitch used to be.

I found Imber a melancholy experience, a poignant reminder of a community torn apart by war, maybe the army want it that way to deter you from returning - ‘nothing to see here people!’ If so they have succeeded with me. I suppose most people visit Imber for the church, whether they be descendants of those who once lived here, coming to pay their respects at Christmas and the New Year when the village is open to the public. Or maybe like me, they come because they are curious. I was disappointed when I visited Imber. I wasn’t aware that so much had gone. I guess I was expecting another Tyneham, a village on the Isle of Purbeck which was another casualty of World War II requisitioning. Much more has survived there, even down to desks and books in the schoolroom.

Imber is open for a few days a year. However the MoD can amended or cancel opening times at short notice, so check first. 

“Little Imber on the Downe,
Seven miles from any Towne,
Sheep bleats the only sound,
Life twer sweet with never a frown,
Oh let us bide on Imber Downe.”

My thanks to the following contributors:

Paul Geering formerly of
The 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment

Gordon Lewis - author of “
Dolly’s Imber.”

Rex Sawyer - author of
Little Imber on the Down.

Much of Salisbury Plain is undeveloped and is the preserve of the MoD who have taken great care to ensure it remains a haven for wildlife, plants and archaeology. There are many Neolithic burial barrows which are protected, unlike many others throughout Britain which have fallen foul of agriculture over the centuries. It is fair to say that some good was born of bad.


Unknown said...

I've studied Imber alot after dark especially the old bell pub I can 110% say that the regulars still visit here one night I had the big metal door slammed in my face as I went to enter it,another time me and 3 others had just reached the stairs to the second level-headed all of a sudden a very large bang came from the room next to us we entered to investigate but found nothing,that same night footsteps where heard in building 21 again on investigation we found nothing but coming down the stairs of there my friend was pushed by someone not any of us as he was the last person down the stairs also another night driving out of Imber just past the old farmhouse I saw the figure of a lady dressed in out of time clothing by the side of the road

Willow said...

Thank you for your comment 'Unknown.' Very interesting.