With its simple church, quaint houses and winding lanes, at first glance, Imber looks much like any other rural English village. However, you’d be mistaken: since 1943, the once sleepy village of Imber has been the UK’s largest military training area.
Situated on a rural part of Salisbury Plain, the 94,000-acre site was requisitioned by the War Office in 1943, on the promise that it would be returned to the residents six months later. However, despite multiple campaigns, in the 70 plus years since, the villagers have never been permitted to return.
What happened to the lost village of Imber?
The village is mentioned in the Domesday Book
There is evidence of Imber’s existence dating right back to the 11th-century Domesday Book, when 50 people were recorded as living there.
The population size then ebbed and flowed for hundreds of years, but experienced a decline in the second half of the 19th century as the village’s remoteness meant that it was increasingly disconnected from the wider world, and thus caused residents to leave.
Nonetheless, by 1943, Imber was a thriving village featuring two large houses, two churches, a school, a pub, a blacksmith and a farm that held social events.
The War Office purchased most of Imber
In the late 19th century, the War Office started buying up a lot of land around Imber for use as a military training ground. By the 1920s, they had bought several farms and properties, but leased them back to villagers at a favourable rate.
By 1939, they owned almost all of the properties in Imber, except for the church, vicarage, schoolroom and Bell Inn.
Residents were given 47 days’ notice to leave
In November 1943, Imber residents were given 47 days’ notice to pack up and leave their homes so that the village could be used to trained US military troops in street fighting, in preparation for the Allied Invasion of Europe. It was promised to the residents that they would be allowed to return in 6 months’ time, or when the war was over.
Albert Nash, who had been the village blacksmith for over 40 years, is said to have been found sobbing over his anvil. He was later the first resident to die and be brought back to Imber for burial. It is said that he died of a broken heart after being forced to leave.
Though residents were sad about being forced to leave, most put up no resistance, and even left canned provisions in their kitchens as they felt it was important to contribute to the war effort. Compensation for the move was limited; however, the residents were sure that they would return before long.
The villagers have petitioned to be allowed back
Following the end of the war, the Imber villagers petitioned the government to allow them to return. However, their requests were denied.
In 1961, a rally in Imber was organised to demand that the villagers be allowed to return, and over 2,000 people attended, including many former residents. A public inquiry was held, and ruled that Imber be maintained as a military training site. However, after the matter was raised in the House of Lords, it was stipulated that the church would be maintained and people would be allowed back on certain days of the year.
In the early 1970s, a further attempt was made to return Imber to the villagers when the Defence Lands Committee (DLC) was given the task of looking into the need for retaining military lands. Significant evidence in favour of the villagers was provided for the first time, such as written proof of a military promise to return Imber to them after the war.
A wartime fighter pilot and a soldier who helped evacuate the village also testified in their favour. In spite of this, the DLC recommended that the village be kept on for military use.
The village was significantly altered
Though the village suffered little damage during the training during World War Two, in the time since, many of the village’s buildings have suffered shell and explosion damage from military training, and, in addition to being eroded by the weather, has fallen into severe disrepair.
In the decades since the war, the village has been used extensively for training, in particular as preparation for soldiers for the urban environments of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In the 1970s, several empty house-like buildings were constructed to aid training.
The annual ‘Imberbus’ event is hugely popular
Today, access to the village is severely limited. However, since 2009, the annual summer opening of the village has been served by up to 25 vintage and new Routemaster and red double-decker buses, which depart from Warminster and stop at other points on the Salisbury Plain including Imber on a regular bus timetable.
The event normally takes place between the middle of August and early September, with the 2022 event taking place on 20 August. With tickets costing £10 for unlimited bus travel (and just £1 for children), the quirky event raises money for the Imber Church fund and the Royal British Legion, and has renewed interest in the lost village.
The annual church service is also popular: on 1 September (St Giles’ Day), the annual Imber church service is held, and has been attended by various former residents and their relatives, soldiers who used the village for training and the general public. More recently, there has been a carol service held there on the Saturday before Christmas.