I am not normally a lucky person when it comes to raffles. I’ve never won enough in the National Lottery to be able to retire––or even to pay the cost of a one-way ticket home from work; never find myself with cause for celebration at a summer fête tombola. So, shortly before Christmas, it came as something of a surprise to discover that I had won a raffle. The prize? To attend a carol concert at a church.
I know what you’re thinking. On the face of it, the prize does not sound that great. Carol concerts in churches are normally events I go out of my way to avoid. So, on a scale of prizes, it would appear to be right up there alongside the home-knit tea-cosy at the village bring-and-buy and the very cheap bottle of house white at the pub quiz evening. So, why was I so thrilled by my good fortune? Well, this was not just any carol service, and not just any church.
The church in question was in the village of Imber. Imber is popularly described as a ‘ghost village’. Always isolated––surrounded by the wide expanse of Salisbury Plain––its residents were evicted in 1943 so that the Army could use the surroundings as a military exercise area leading up to D-Day, and they were never permitted to return. Nowadays, the village and its church––St Giles––are only open to the public on a limited number of occasions each year, and I had been fortunate enough to secure a ticket to visit.
“Little Imber on the down. Seven miles from any town.” It is a succinctly spooky description, which sums up the isolation of the location. Slightly surreally, I am transported to this remote and rarely visited spot of the British Isles by an old fashioned, red, double-decker Routemaster Bus, organised by the Chairman of Network Rail, Sir Peter Hendy, who is on board to provide a glass of sherry to all travellers––if only my usual rail journey was so civilized!
Departing from Warminster Station, the bus reaches the military checkpoint of Vedette Post 2, before turning onto the Plain proper. Shattered hulks of target-practice tanks (early Chieftains, if I’m not mistaken?) are visible through the bus window. I wonder if the sherry is provided as a calming tranquilizer, to make passengers forget they are passing through a simulated warzone.
The Plain, itself, is a wild, desolate landscape, unusual in the densely populated south of England. I wonder at the lives of the old inhabitants of Imber; of the children who had to cross this bleak wilderness twice a day, simply to go to school.
The original village of Imber is now more conspicuously submerged by an Army-constructed model village, designed purely for the purpose of urban warfare, but it is no the less intriguing for that. But, St Giles’ Church remains intact and, in fact, has just benefitted from the addition of a new font––helpfully installed by Army manpower.
The entire site bristles with warning signs declaring “Keep Out” and “Keep to the Path”. I have no intention of disobeying them. And it is with considerable trepidation that I make a brief venture off-piste in order to reach the only available Portaloo, directly past a sign warning of unexploded ordnance.
© E. C. Glendenny
Not a natural church-goer, nevertheless E. C. Glendenny can often be found on the Down.