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The Road to Imber

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The single-lane road cuts through an almost empty grassland plateau. Every so often there are signs warning drivers not to wander, at risk of death from unexploded bombs. A burned-out tank punctuates the horizon, its gun raised in salute. The road continues like this for a good twenty minutes before reaching a small car park outside a village church. On the morning of New Year’s Day the car park was almost full. People were getting out of their cars and making their way up the hill to the church: families with children and elderly relatives, a dog-walker in a camouflage anorak, a young couple in quilted jackets and Union Jack wellies.

Several times a year, the church at Imber, a ghost village on Salisbury Plain, is opened to the public. In 1943 the Ministry of Defence, which owns much of the surrounding area, evicted Imber’s 150 or so residents so that the village could be used to train American troops preparing for the D-Day landings. The villagers thought they would be allowed back when the war ended, but the MoD kept them out, instead using Imber to train successive generations of soldiers in urban combat. Most of the original houses have been demolished and replaced with a replica of a 1980s Belfast housing estate. More recently, soldiers have been trained here before deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The church, built in the 14th and 15th centuries (the earliest recorded mention of a settlement at Imber is in the 10th century) has been preserved, its yard surrounded by a chain-link fence with signs that tell visitors not to stray out, and soldiers not to stray in. On 1 January there was the atmosphere of a fête inside. Tables with gingham cloths were set out for guests; a stall offered mulled wine and orange squash. Display boards told the history of the village, alongside black and white photos of thatched cottages. The visitors peered at the boards, or sat and chatted quietly. A set of 15th-century frescoes have been removed to a safer location, but I could make out what looks like a horned figure traced in red pigment where a painting of the Seven Deadly Sins once sat.

At first, nobody was allowed to visit Imber at all, but in January 1961 two thousand protesters forced their way past the security checkpoints that surround the MoD training ground, to demand that the community be allowed back. Today, the MoD permits access for up to 50 days a year, although this is often curtailed at short notice. ‘We were supposed to open for three weeks in summer, but they only let us open for three days,’ the woman pouring drinks said.

In The Village that Died for England, Patrick Wright explores Tyneham in Dorset, another settlement that was forced to make way for the war effort. Once abandoned, Tyneham was ‘reborn’ in media coverage ‘as a perfect English village of the mind’, with patriotic villagers who dutifully left their homes when the hour came; a fantasy of England as rural, pre-industrial, white, enduring. A number of Tyneham’s buildings have been meticulously restored and the village has been used as a film set. Imber is too diminished by use for that. Looking downhill from the church, you can see the ‘Belfast’ houses. They are made of brick, and have sloping metal roofs, but there are no windows, and scorch marks line the walls. As one version of England is briefly revived inside the church, another carries on outside.

In the churchyard, some gravestones are clearly postwar. They are memorials for former villagers – the Imber ‘diaspora’, as a local newspaper article puts it – who died in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the older stones are completely overgrown, covered by clumps of uncut grass, and starting to look like miniature Stone Age barrows – remnants of another culture that had its own ways of imagining the eternal, to which England now lays claim.

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