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.
Imber 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.
Yet 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.