In 1943 the people of a small English village were forced by the necessities of war to abandon their homes. They have never been allowed to return. CHRISTOPHER HURST visited the village recently, on one of its rare open days.
AMONG the countless disasters of the Second World War, the one which befell Imber must rate as not particularly momentous. Compared to the Holocaust, the slaughter before Stalingrad and the Allied bombing of Dresden, who can say that the forced evacuation from an English village of 100-150 people, who did not suffer any physical harm in the process, for a purpose which was supposed to help the war effort, should be regarded as a tragedy deserving to be commemorated year after year? What is Imber, and where is it? And what happened there that posterity is unwilling to forget? There is a large empty area of upland in the southern English county of Wiltshire called Salisbury Plain (its southern edge is some five miles north of the cathedral city of Salisbury). The ground is chalk, thinly covered by turf. The lower, more sheltered slopes are greener. Imber is a village nestling in a shallow, partly wooded valley in the centre of the western part of the Plain.
Human activity on the Plain can be traced back at least 4,000 years as ancient tracks, barrows (grave-mounds) and field systems testify. Imber village is thought to have evolved from a Roman-British settlement; it was well established before the Domesday Book (1086). It was always small, and the population reached its maximum of 400 in 1851; by the Second World War it had declined to 150. Its parish church, dedicated to St. Giles, was built in Norman times, and in its present form dates from the 13th Century.
The village lived entirely by farming: sheep were grazed on the surrounding uplands, and folded on the lower slopes, which were devoted to agriculture. Modern communications, especially the arrival of the railway in the nearest market town, Warminster, about 1850, led to the decline of the population, but Imber retained its traditional character for an unusually long time, due to a reason which is immediately clear to anyone who visits it today: its isolation. (This also saved it from the "Black Death" plague that swept England in 1386.) The approach roads are mostly about five miles long; in the densely populated south of England this is almost unique. The villagers are portrayed as content with their lot; few had seen a film or travelled by train. Between the World Wars a bus linking nearby towns passed through Imber once a week, and an outing once a year to a seaside resort was the greatest social highlight.
From early in the 20th Century, and especially from the First World War onwards, the army favoured Salisbury Plain for training, and gradually large areas were closed off. In earlier times this was on a small scale, but by the Second World War it was the scene of set-piece tank battles and air attacks. Imber survived precariously until, in November 1943, the War Office ordered a complete evacuation. The pretext was that American forces needed to train in house-to-house fighting in preparation for the invasion of France a few months later. All the farms in the area were closed down at the same time (after the war they were re-instated).
What was said at the time informally to the inhabitants remains disputed. No formal written undertaking that their farms and property would be returned to them was ever given, but many instances have been quoted of officials assuring individuals that they would be back in six months or, at the latest, after the war. But this has never happened. The Ministry of Defence remains adamant that the area is needed as much as ever for exercises, along with large parts of a much larger wilderness in the south-west of England, Dartmoor, and that if it agreed to return one part of this domain, its ability to hold on to the rest would be weakened. It seems that Imber will never be revived as a living community.
There was one well-organised campaign to reverse the tide of fate in 1961, led by a local school teacher and councillor, Austin Underwood, and this mobilised the support of local residents and of well-wishers farther afield. Not surprisingly this has never been repeated, but the "cause" of Imber remains alive, and its seeming hopelessness fuels it rather than damps it down. The one focus of hope is St. Giles church, which stands on an eminence behind the village street. This has always been preserved, and the churchyard is surrounded by a high and ugly metal fence. Access to it is allowed for those with local connections on a few days during the year, and what amounts to a "patronal festival" the "feast" of the church's patron saint, such as is held in every parish throughout the land takes place at the beginning of September. Nominally it celebrates St. Giles, but of course, given Imber's situation, it has an emotional charge not normally associated with these routine occasions. Last year, alerted by a small item in the national press, I attended it.
I managed to ascertain in advance that the programme would consist of Holy Communion at noon, and Evening Prayer at 3 p.m. I left London (a little over 100 miles away) in what I thought was ample time; and my large-scale maps of the area showed the route to Imber across the Downs as dotted lines, indicating the poorest kind of road. In the event the road was in good condition; at intervals along it were notices warning of "unexploded military debris". I was not sure I was going the right away until trees and the pinnacles of a medieval church tower appeared in a hollow ahead. I arrived in the church breathless, having sprinted up the path, just as the Communion service was about to begin St. Giles had performed a modest miracle.
The building was packed to capacity, but it was apparent that its state was dilapidated. The south aisle was closed off, presumably being unsafe. A few small memorials to past worthies remain fixed to the walls, but all other furnishings the pews and even the tombs of two Crusaders had long ago been removed. The seating for this service had been provided by the army. At the back of the church were a robed choir and musicians making a quartet of stringed instruments. As the vicar explained, there was no electricity for an organ for which I was not alone in being thankful, being presented with this unexpected evocation of Thomas Hardy's classic Under the Greenwood Tree.
The celebrant was the vicar of the nearby parish of Edington, which has charge of Imber and two other parishes which are no longer able to support a priest of their own now a common pattern in the Anglican church, especially in the countryside. When he came to deliver his address I began to feel unhappiness, not to say a rising surge of indignation. He started by disparaging St. Giles, of whose life and claim to sainthood almost nothing is known (the same is true of our national Saint George). He then offered his opinion on the reason for the popularity of these September festivals in Imber. Not many years ago, he said, there was only a trickle of attenders, but now it had grown to a "veritable flood". This he put down to quixotic feelings about the fate of Imber, based on insufficient knowledge fed by "media hype". It was this last phrase that angered me, and afterwards I approached him and said I thought it uncharitable to question the motives of people attending the service on that day; it was enough that they had come at all, and certainly no one today enters a church for a Communion service who does not want to be there.
He also said that it was planned to declare Imber "redundant", for which there were technical reasons: at present its upkeep is the responsibility of his parish, whereas if it became redundant this would pass to the diocese (of Salisbury). He told me afterwards that while Imber is one of the four churches he looks after, it takes up much more than 25 per cent of his time and there is no one living there. In pastoral terms, can this be right? He has a point.
It is well known that the church would need a lot of money spent on it if it were to be restored to a normal condition a problem for many ancient church buildings that serve small congregations. But I was surprised again disagreeably when the vicar announced that the proceeds of the collection would be devoted to the diocesan fund for historic churches. I also said to him afterwards that if the collection had been for the restoration of Imber church, the collection bags would have overflowed I, for one, would have put in much more. He said that there was no possibility of restoring Imber church, because it would require the presence of a gang of workmen, supervisors, architects and others, and this the army would never allow.
None of the old buildings in the village has survived; they have either crumbled away or been demolished, and in their place are rows of utterly hideous blockhouses used for military exercises. To the question whether, if Imber had been spared, it could have survived to the present in anything like its original form, the answer has to be "no". A viable community dependent on small-scale farming is an impossibility in England today. It would probably have become a "yuppie" village largely consisting of weekend and holiday homes for well-off commuters from London and elsewhere. But what would be so very wrong with that? The evening service, more than the Communion, followed exactly the 1662 Book of Common Prayer which to many older people, myself included, has more than linguistic significance; it is an aid to devotion, to which the simplified and sanitised liturgies that have largely replaced it in recent decades cannot hold a candle. This concretised for me the (possible) meaning of the day's events. When Imber ceased to exist as a living community, our country although it was in the midst of a great war and its national Church were both very different from what they have since become. Thus Imber church, although semi-ruinous, represents a cherished albeit somewhat romanticised way of life, now largely gone.
Throughout the day people almost all local came and went, and spent time in the churchyard, where some of the older graves are no more than heaps of rubble but others are quite new, and adorned with fresh flowers. An elderly lady said to me that, although she had not lived in the village, her close relatives had, and she wanted it to be her final resting-place. I heard that one old person who had actually lived there said (about the church) "I wish they would close it"; for her it brings back painful memories. Like the vicar and the Ministry of Defence, she has a prejudiced viewpoint (allowably so), but for many others Imber has become a place of pilgrimage, a fact which nothing the army or church bureaucrats can say will alter. It is as if a saint had lived or been buried there. The church authorities will be foolish if they do not give this their blessing.
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