Preserved in Imber


Imber isn’t easy to see. Camouflaged like a curlew, the stone tower of St Giles’ Church emerges about half a mile from the village, as you approach from the south. This is about as deep into Salisbury Plain as it is possible to be: ‘Little Imber on the down; seven miles from any town’, ran the local rhyme, before civilian access to the village was blocked by the MoD during the War. Like its better-known counterpart in Dorset, Tyneham, Imber was evacuated in 1943, to provide a training area for US troops preparing for the allied invasion of Europe. A lane leading into the village, ‘American Road’, is one reminder of their residency, as are the railway tracks strengthening the curbs against Sherman tanks in nearby Shrewton.

fullsizeoutput_f71Imber is now open to the public for twenty days a year, during which the well-preserved parish church receives nigh on fifteen thousand visitors. Hearing this, I’m momentarily tempted to call for the evacuation and closure of all Wiltshire’s parishes, in order to spark their nostalgic revival, rather like the annexation of the Isle of Wight in Julian Barnes’ bright satire on national heritage, England, England. Next Saturday, scores more will rattle down the Imber Road from Warminster in specially chartered Routemaster (what else?) buses. But what draws them? Surely the myth of settlement and the irresistible thrill of decline: black-eyed homes, overgrown greenery and the uncanny thought that, when every other village is lit, Imber will remain dark.

result_imageYet whatever kind of place Imber is today: part stage set for army manoeuvres (ironically, these husks of houses are used for urban operations training), part pop-up museum or pilgrimage site, it is hardly a lost Eden and by no means abandoned. During the Afghanistan conflict, I learn, seven hundred Afghans were brought here in order to recreate a bustling oriental bazaar, around which troops patrolled, observed from above by incredulous buzzards.

Nature reigns in Imber and comes uncommonly close: roe deer lope over the road, a red kite takes flight, mere feet away, and the encircling fields jitter with butterflies. My guide, a conservation volunteer with a privileged red pass to visit these restricted areas, has spent twenty years mapping and logging them – butterflies, ponds (all 290 of them) and the winterbournes that vein this pulsing landscape. The detailed attention of such latter-day Gilbert Whites means that Salisbury Plain, while barely inhabited, remains deeply, devoutly known.

Ghosted by plastic sheeting, the altar in St Giles’ awaits the next service (like the buses, there are two or three a year) – a baptism, remarkably, although the incumbent informs me he will need to bring a salad bowl, the font having long since departed. Quite regularly, I come across furnishings from Imber that were scattered across the diocese when the future of the church was in question. Happily, the Churches Conservation Trust now cares for the building, which is already realising its singular potential as an emblem of persistent Anglican faith.

We aren’t to stray beyond the road: military debris is everywhere strewn in this mock battlefield. Passing carcasses of never-inhabited homes erected in the seventies for training, it can appear that everything here is a facade – with an emotional force highly-charged but, ultimately, blank. Then you realise Imber was dwelt in for nine hundred years, making its zero return in the national census (shown continually since 1951), deeply poignant – pregnant even. As we leave, a lone volunteer tugs the bells of St Giles into life. For us? Maybe, but as they ring across the unharvested fields, it feels as though the land could be rising to worship.




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The midst of May: nature’s parade. My son, mock-revising (and himself a biological marvel, inching ever upward to the sun), enthuses at the brilliance of plants – every leaf a factory at peak, puffing out its perfect equation of elements.


This photosynthetic month is ideal for discovering the Savernake – seven square miles of antique woodland and perhaps our most precious scrap of primeval forest. Hitherto, my encounters with this enchanted plateau have been limited to rushing through the verdant corridor of the A346 on my way to Salisbury: dodging cadavers of deer and the portly tangle of the Big Belly Oak, reputedly the nation’s oldest. This behemoth is thought to be eleven hundred years old, having cracked through its acorn when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms finally united under King Athelstan, in whose annals the forest is first recorded – as ‘Safernoc’. Like a snarling cyclops, restrained by a steel collar to prevent it collapsing (or running amok), the Big Belly is an icon of England, and roughly the same vintage. Its shock of leaves in spring brings to mind lines from George Herbert: ‘and now in age I bud again: who would have thought my shrivelled heart could have recovered greenness?’.

Today, though, I am drawn deeper in – through the trees to a chapel of ease. St Katherine’s Church, perched like a nesting box in the north-eastern branches of the forest. This pocket cathedral, consecrated in 1861, is a woodland glade in stone, sharing the Savernake’s spirit of stilled anticipation: as if before the starting pistol. When, at the end of the Second World War, an ammunition store hidden close by exploded, nearly every window was blasted out and the walls so badly weakened that a diocesan committee suggested St Katherine’s be demolished. Yet here she remains, unshattered.

Red-bricked relics in various stages of decay decorate the lanes IMG_5475hereabouts: the former Forest Hotel, whose last guests left in the late nineties, remnants of the high and low level rail stations (the platform of the former now a sunken garden) and corroded gateways to absent avenues. The Savernake has stayed privately-owned since 1548, when granted to the Seymour family of Wolfhall – favoured as a hunting lodge by Henry VIII when pursuing his dubious quarry. Although the original hall wasted away soon after that other obese oak, a sole stained window was recovered and illuminates Great Bedwyn Church, all Tudor flowers and faded feathers. Hilary Mantel’s dazzling novels have sparked such interest in the site that the current, crumbling pile at Wolfhall Farm now bristles with archaeologists. I watched them briefly: waist deep in the Seymour sewer system, brushing off the rock of ages.

At its largest extent in the thirteenth century, the Savernake Forest covered an area ten times its present patch – reaching to Hungerford in the east and south nearly as far as Salisbury Plain – becoming so large that, in order to prevent it merging with the other eight Wiltshire forests into one arboreal conurbation, two clauses in the Magna Carta were needed explicitly to limit its spread. By the time Capability Brown arranged his scheme of radial parades and pleasing bowers, the forest had been pollarded down to pretty much its present size.

A very human wilderness, then. Yet wild it is, nevertheless – and if men and women withdrew, an unbound Savernake would soon reclaim whatever ground has been lost. Its oldest oaks provoke an awe bordering on fear, certainly. Strolling up Long Harry – a path worth walking for the name alone – I approach the Cathedral Oak, a spreading millennial with a hide like Durer’s rhinoceros. Before its chancel of branches you can either stand, transfixed, or slowly retreat.




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Lively stones

To sit alone in a country church is companionable solitude: a volume of silence. I’m at St Michael’s, Tidcombe, prior to taking a service for its rededication next weekend: writing my sermon in the church seemed appropriate and ought, I thought, allow the place to permeate my words a little. Major repairs to these lively stones were being undertaken, following a heroic fundraising effort – then, as happens in so many similar cases, thieves arrived by night and used the scaffolding to remove lead from the roof, rolling it up in heavy carpets, carting it away through the graveyard.

Such ruinous seasons of metal theft – sometimes being inflicted multiple times on the same church – are almost beyond endurance for those already shouldering the massive cost of our built heritage. The Church of England looks after a startling forty-five percent of all Grade I listed buildings in the country, and each one has to be sustained by voluntary effort – often by tiny communities, as in Tidcombe. So it’s an amazing, praiseworthy feat that the majority of England’s 15,700 parish churches are in such good shape and a defiant sign of life that St Michael’s has a gleaming new roof (this time, in terne-coated stainless steel.

IMG_5278Church buildings run by subtle semiotics: they are always signifying something just out of sight. ‘Underneath‘, reads a tombstone – the word embellished for emphasis – ‘are deposited the mortal remains of Edward Tanner, many years an inhabitant of this parish’. Rustily caged, an enclosure for creatures long departed, the monument points to what is beyond and invites you to imagine it, grisly or glorious. Because they express investment in what cannot be seen (barely even articulated), these emblems are potent beyond belief. We are unable to grasp the thing signified, so the physical sign becomes a vital proxy. This instinct can, of course, be baneful (as any parish priest knows) but to suppress or ignore it is folly, for it can also point us to paradise.

The font in Tidcombe church is a fine example. Perhaps because it doesn’t belong to anyone in particular – but thousands of lives, fondly or briskly christened – its personal significance is both diffused and amplified. In buttery limestone, faintly striated, it is a deep and beautiful thing – thought to be Saxon and to date from around 850AD. Being so soaked in association – with bawling, aspirant life, and the Christ of this place – the St Michael’s font fairly pulses.

We can no more evacuate divine meaning from the material world as live in the clouds. This is why we shall continue to replace the church roof and thermometer our appeals to heaven. My sermon complete, I sketch the font in 6B, enjoy a silent sandwich, then leave.





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Super flumina

Sideburns of cow parsley bushing into the lane, you lean into the corners like Moss, Hawthorn or Hill: all those drivers with hedgerow names. Spring means motoring by faith, not by sight.

I’m due at Pewsey Wharf for the final leg of a fundraising walk, organised by Christian Aid. Over four days they have toured the Wiltshire white horses, finishing with the smallest – a modest pair of foals at Marlborough and Pewsey. Happily, it begins along the Kennet & Avon canal that veins west across the county from Reading. Blue on the map, brown on the land: a scratch or scar, unhurriedly scored into Wessex between 1724 and 1810. The notorious chain of locks at Caen Hill was the last stretch to be built – a staggering staircase of twenty-nine, over two miles. It takes a full day to fall 237 feet through their yawning doors, but this still made the Kennet and Avon – part canal, part navigable river – faster to Bath than the stagecoach. The age of acceleration was beginning: just yards from the towpath lance the dark green Hitachis of the Great Western Railway, following the line sketched by Brunel as he trudged these fields with his theodolite.


There is nothing you could call a current here – just a slight drift, reflecting the landscape in sepia. Symmetrical trees, seen through this silted filter; the rippling reply of your boots under each bridge: the canal is a constant commentary, a gloss on the usual paths. The dogged re-digging of our inland waterways – half a century of voluntary spadework – has been an immense unearthing, the purpose of which is interesting to ponder. Was it radical or reactionary? Alternative or conservative? Any such recovery is a social critique: seeking to reclaim something lost or denied. To abide by the water, like the rope-bound homes along this reach, involves a conscious step aside from progress.

fullsizeoutput_eb1The Vale of Pewsey embodies these views, these tensions. Parliamentarian in the English Civil War, Wiltshire was considered pivotal for the Royalist cause and the Battles of Marlborough and Roundway Down were fought nearby – the former being reclaimed for the king in 1642. The walls of St Mary’s Church in Marlborough are still musket-pocked from the conflict. William Cobbett, one of my co-walkers informs me, passed through Pewsey on his polemical tour of agricultural conditions, written up as Rural Rides. “In taking my leave of this beautiful vale”, commented Cobbett in 1826, “I have to express my deep shame, as an Englishman, at beholding the general extreme poverty of those who cause this vale to produce such quantities of food and raiment. This is, I verily believe it, the worst used labouring people upon the face of the earth. Dogs and hogs and horses are treated with more civility”. Unsurprising then, that, four years later, his simmering valley became the county’s flashpoint for the Swing riots – when farm workers, like Samson’s foxes, burned up the shocks, set torches to the hayricks and destroyed the threshing machines, loathed for their labour-saving innovation.

Looping away from the walk – and its riverine reverie – I pass back through Pewsey village, pausing to snoop in a collapsing barn often sighted from the road. Astonishingly, among the rusting seed drills stands an abandoned nineteenth-century haywain: parked like a protest against time.






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At Semington Base

Lemon and lime grit bins, vivid against the drive. Arriving at the headquarters of Wiltshire Air Ambulance, the same scheme adorns the Bell 429 now alighting on the helipad: flattening the field with its deafening blast. Helicopters are lethal miracles: something to do with all that vast force being employed to keep the thing suspended in one place. Setting torque against torque, they’re a strangely effective kind of civil war: flailing, yet contained – like The Kinks. Feuding guitarists in a teenage bedroom; jar-bound wasps, watched through glass.


I am here on a tour for faith leaders of the charity’s luminous new base, hived away near the village of Semington. Our interested circle hovers through reception, past promotional teddies and breakout space, upstairs to where an extraordinary fundraising dynamo generates the £10,000 needed each day to stay aloft. With operations constantly fanning past the window, the work offered up has an immediacy that mobilises everyone.

In the operations room, we see Wiltshire mapped by emergency, and the wit, skill and resilience of the paramedics, whose team attends, on average, three potentially lifesaving missions each day. Anywhere in the county can be reached within eleven minutes, they say, as an alert sends the crew out again. Every flight like a Johanine angel: ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

Away from the escalating din, an interactive simulation room reveals the hazards attending their arrival at an incident. Last summer, the Air Ambulance was grounded for tests, amid fears of contamination by Novichok, though everyday things can also become terrible in an instant. A sandpit, tarpaulin or half-opened window: all would be whisked up and into the blades by two tonnes of recirculated air. The pilots, many ex-military, say it is the reactive nature of the flying they enjoy, but it must be like landing a whirlwind.

Apparently, the helipad sits on the precise site of a Romano-British shrine – one of only four in the country – and on the way back via Devizes, I call in at some of its Christian successors, each making their own ‘wager on transcendence’, as George Steiner put it. Guided by Arthur Mee, I find in the porch of St George’s, Semington, a thirteenth century inscription in Norman French. The translation reads: “Whoever shall say a Pater Noster and an Ave-Maria for the souls, for Philippa de Salcest, and Christians, shall have 40 days of pardon”. An odd contract to bid for, and long expired.

Then, in the lofty atmospherics of Seend church, a small stone madonna, defaced in some brutal occurrence. Her ruffled sleeves, still vaguely blue, cradle an infant Christ, present at the scene.




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Five hundred hands high

A gauzy sky, veiling the sun, but the kind of April day when spring seems unstoppable: the countryside bridal in its beauty and promise. A giddy, elevating day, so I stray off the main road and up a thin strap of lane hung like a stirrup from Westbury Hill.

81FA784F-10B0-4F51-BD87-128AE55484ACAn emblematic white horse – oldest and largest of the Wiltshire hill figures – has grazed here for centuries, though no one knows quite how many. Like the charts of equine evolution I remember from childhood (mesohippus, merychipus, equus, ran the incantation, toes turning to hooves with every metrical foot), the Westbury horse has changed in size and appearance across time, though somewhat less imaginatively at each stage. While the current breed (‘a moderately correct, dispirited animal’ sniffs Pevsner, who has a point) has clearly been broken in, an engraving from the eighteenth century shows its eccentric predecessor facing the opposite direction. An animated mount, with a single, antic eye and unlikely swirling fishtail, this beast came from somewhere else entirely – perhaps the primeval sea that once covered the plain hereabouts. When the psalmist wrote ‘an horse is a vain thing for safety’ this, you feel, was closer to the spirit they had in mind.

Edington_White_HorsesWhere the Westbury horse impresses, however, is in sheer scale and landmark visibility: 180 feet tall and viewable from Bath. Concealed with scrub during the Second World War to confuse enemy bomb-aimers – then, in peacetime, periodically illuminated by army searchlights, just for the spectacle. ‘Art is the signature of man’, wrote G.K.Chesterton, weighing the human desire to reflect and depict their fellow creatures. Alone among animals, he continued, we have ‘a mind like a mirror … because in it all the other shapes can be seen like shining shadows in a vision’.

Soil erosion and rainfall mean that chalk horses soon become grey, dun and dappled, requiring a surprising amount of livery. Hence the pleasingly municipal postwar decision to concrete the Westbury horse in place (one wonders how many other challenges faced by the Council in the fifties met with a similar response), so that it would simply want occasional whitewashing. However sensible, this pan stick somehow renders it static: a stuccoed steed, needing to shake free a little.

And above, the intense, buffeting quiet of high places; a stony car park and skylark’s trilling signal. Bratton Camp embosses the ground here: a formidable Iron Age fort that may mark the site of King Alfred’s great victory at Ethandun, which the original chalk figure is thought to commemorate. Far beneath this tattoo, a pair of miniature white horses, displayed in the pasture like souvenirs.


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Rattle the locks


Descending into Potterne from Devizes you veer through the village, steered by an antique road sign, jewelled with reflector studs. The years here do not easily yield their treasures.  Among other gems, this former manor of the bishops of Salisbury retains along its high street Porch House, an extraordinary survivor from the fifteenth century: timber bones crutched with scaffold, mere inches from the rumbling Scanias along the A360.


I am on my way to visit another experiment in time and space, Erlestoke Prison. Situated along the northwestern rim of Salisbury Plain, within earshot of the guns’ deep thump, HMP Erlestoke is a Category C men’s prison, with a vacant chaplain’s post for the high proportion of inmates who identify as Anglican. The day is brisk and blue and, beside the looming perimeter, an honesty stall sells eggs and primroses.

I have made prison visits before, but the supervised movement, the litany of
locking and unlocking, makes each one an intense lesson in human geography. In his influential work Discipline and Punish, the philosopher Michel Foucault asserted that prisons (along with schools, factories and garrisons) epitomise the Modern idea of a ‘panoptic’ institution, where strict surveillance is the clue to power. At Erlestoke, it is not so much observation as controlled access to space that is most affecting. Marshalling men back into their cells in order that vulnerable prisoners may pass or fraternise is a constant source of tension: possession of social space – even temporary – is acutely felt and highly charged. It is quite remarkable what wire, walls and doors do to the human psyche.


In such a force field, the chapel holds peculiar attraction – for, despite being hemmed by the same boundaries, it is simply – the senior chaplain avers – ‘a different kind of space’. If the prison is one sort of ‘heterotopia’ (a term Foucault employed in his 1967 essay Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias) then the prison chapel is, palpably, another still. Heterotopias are described as places where time and space are extracted from their normal passage and heightened or preserved, as in a museum, or theatre.

Being a signpost to eternity (‘more and more, not on and on‘ as my doctrine tutor would insist), the prison chapel indicates freedom not from, but within confinement – the content, I recall, of St Paul’s biblical plea to Philemon. From his own incarceration, Paul, ‘a prisoner of Christ Jesus’, commends to his friend’s care the returning slave Onesimus, whose newfound faith brings liberation, even amid bondage. What the key of David opens, no one will shut.

Copies of Inside Time, the prisoners’ and detainees’ newspaper, litter the restroom at Erlestoke as I leave, relieved. Whether we battle to capture time or find ourselves captive to it, each of us is, Auden wrote, ‘in the cell of himself’. A rattle in the locks, one sharp turn and I’m away.


In the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountain start.

In the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise.

(W.H.Auden: In Memory of W.B.Yeats)



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