I think most people would agree that the British Isles are pretty crowded. Annoyingly so at times. Sixty million of us live here, so as you can imagine, pockets of land untouched by humans are rare. Quiet areas are also becoming fewer and fewer, but then we do all live on a small central island and a few tiny ones. Although there are thought to be over 3000 lost settlements across our wonderous lands, there are very few abandoned villages left.
One area that, whilst certainly not human free, but a lot quieter than most, is Salisbury Plain. It’s a 25-mile by 10-mile area of rolling chalk downland given over to army manoeuvres and training exercises. It is in the middle of the plains, in a secret place, hidden away, miles from other habitations, sits the lost village of Imber. Because it is Ministry of Defence (MOD) land, public access is very limited.
As luck would have it, I happened to have a day off from working at the haunted pub (more on that in a future blog, I hope!), so I convinced the reluctant family that a day out was in order. I noticed that access to Imber was open over the Easter weekend, so we headed to the abandoned village up on Salisbury Plain.
The History of Imber
Medieval Imber to the 20th century
This is a place with a long history. Evidence of a settlement there has been found from 967 AD. It is recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as being a settlement of seven households with around 50 residents. By the 14th century, the population was around 250 and peaked in 1851 with 440 residents. Livelihoods were earnt in predominantly agricultural roles, with associated trades working in the village. By 1931 the population had fallen to 152, people having left the area in search of work in growing towns and cities and after losing their properties under MOD buy ups.
Little Imber on the Down by Rex Sawyer
I read with great interest a lovely local history book which plots the history of Imber and weaves in the families and properties and life there from it’s earliest days to the present time.
What I loved most about this book were some little individual stories about village life in rural Wiltshire in Victorian times. One that I would like to repeat is that of the outdoor privies. These were outdoor toilets, kept in good order and providing nourishment for the village allotments. Should one need a new privy seat, you could call on the village carpenter. He would make the owner sit on a piece of wood while he drew around their bum shape, allowing the owner to have a made to measure privy seat! It tickled me, I have to say!
Another really interesting titbit of history was about the dew pond makers. This was a skill much needed by sheep farmers located in dry areas. Dew pond makers used their technical skills and a lot of hard labour to dig out eight-foot deep hollows. They would compact the base with clay, straw and a layer of lime which would allow the hollow to fill with water and create a watering hole for the sheep herds. It was a hard life and the dew pond makers would travel around with their tools, it taking four weeks or so to dig out a pond. They worked through the autumn through to spring and returned to help with farm jobs in the hotter summer months. In the early 20th century four elderly dew pond makers of excellent reputation still remained at Imber.
As wind-driven water pumps began to be used, the arduous profession of dew pond makers died out. The last dewpond in Wiltshire was built in 1938 in nearby West Lavington.
The MOD take over
Starting in 1890, the MOD purchased the land bit by bit and rented properties on what was thought to be a permanent basis. The villagers had little fear of eviction and life in this quiet, rural Wiltshire village continued on as it had for many centuries before. However, as the Second World War raged on through the early 1940s, the MOD decided it needed new training grounds. When in November 1943, American troops arrived in England preparing for D-Day, the village was commandeered as a training exercise area. The 150 inhabitants, most of whom had been born in the village and had lived there all their lives, were given only 47 days to leave.
Leaving Imber in a hurry
They were told their upheaval was part of the war effort and were promised to be allowed to return when the war was over. I can’t imagine the shock at being told you must leave your home, your family and everyone and everything you have ever known to relocate a few miles away in another village. And all of this in the midst of such difficult times anyway, with the country at war. It was devastating for all the inhabitants of Imber and many personal stories are told of this terrible and difficult time.
The village blacksmith Albert Nash was so devastated to leave he was found ‘slumped over his anvil, crying like a child.’ It is recalled. Sadly, within a month of leaving, poor Albert had died. It is said, recorded on his death certificate, that he passed from a ‘broken heart.’ Thankfully he was allowed to be laid to rest in the village churchyard.
There were many other accounts of devastated villagers but it seems despite their reluctance and sadness at leaving Imber, they did so in order to be patriotic.
A Terrible Accident Cover-Up
Details are scant about this incident, but on 13th April 1942, in the middle of the war, an RAF Hawker Hurricane was involved in some accident while demonstrating firepower to a crowd instead of the dummy soldiers set out. Bad weather and inexperience and pilot error were blamed for this terrible event. where the pilot opened fire on the spectators, killing 25 and wounding 71 people. Within the horrors of war, this is just another event involving death and misery, hence why it was probably not so well reported. A few months after this tragic event. the Canadian pilot was shot down and killed somewhere over France.
Abandoned Imber 1948
A short film showing Imber in 1948, with all the old buildings remaining.
Imber from the 1960s
Fast forward to the 1960s and 70s and WW2 has long passed. The remaining villagers continue their fight with the MOD to be able to return to their houses. Their claim was that the War Department (as it was called back then) had verbally promised to allow the residents to return was the war was over. The WD, in exchange, said no such promise was made but should they not need the land in the future, it would be offered back to the villagers. Local government agencies and notable people in the community challenged this decision and protests were organised. This culminated in a huge gathering in 1961, where 2000 protestors breached security to get into the village and support the locals with their protest. However, the MOD claimed Imber was still needed for training soldiers. They said its proximity to the rest of the Salisbury Plains exercise areas meant it was too dangerous for civilians to live there. Injunctions were put in place by the courts of the land and the WD held fast. Ultimately, the villagers could only go so far with this fight and so, in the end they had to admit defeat. They couldn’t take on the might of the WD any further. Access to Imber was fort over for years after but as time has gone on and as the past residents of Imber have all now died, there is no one left to fight for the cause. The village remains a ghost town.
Over time, many of the old buildings, particularly the cottages, became too damaged to keep and were ripped down and replaced with modern shells of houses in a village style. Windowless and free of any amenities. They are used solely for war practice. The place has very little soul to it, yet it still has a sad and unloved atmosphere.
Although the villagers were not allowed to return, it was agreed by the MOD that occasional access be granted to the public, allowing them to visit the St. Gile’s Church and wander through the village. However, all the buildings remain off strictly off-limits.
The Last Funeral in the Village
It was only in December 2022 that (probably) the last ever burial in St Giles Church, Imber, took place. Kelvin Nash, known as Ray, was a retired mechanic who had lived in Devizes. He was born and christened in the village of Imber, allowing him the right to be buried there. While he recalled little of his very early years in Imber, Kelvin had always felt a calling to return to the village of his birth and wished to be buried alongside his father Jim, who had died when young Kelvin was only one year old.
The village blacksmith Albert Nash, who we heard of earlier and who died of a broken heart, was the great uncle of Kelvin.
On his death, at the age of 87, the Army escorted Kelvin’s funeral procession and he was laid to rest in the churchyard of St Giles. It is likely the very last funeral that will ever occur in Imber, as all the village residents have passed on.
The Ghosts of Imber
Given Imber’s sudden and enforced abandonment, and its many centuries of habitation, it may come as no surprise that it isn’t short of ghost stories and strange experiences. I honestly didn’t expect to come across many, given that access to the place is so very limited. However, ghost stories there are!
Druid Ghosts of Old
In 1880, Mr and Mrs Plank lived at New Zealand Farm on Imber Down. On Saturday morning, they would take their horse and trap to West Lavington to purchase their shopping. This one particular day, on their return, the fog was heavy and swirling and they somehow missed their way. Pulling up to consider where to go, a figure passed by them all. Their pony pricked his ears and they all watched as the white-robed figure glided by. They happened to be in the vicinity of two Bronze Age camps, and in fact, New Zealand Farm is home to a fragment of blue stone, the same as some of the Stonehenge sarsens. Did the couple witness an ancient Druid figure?
Creatures of the Fae
In 1976, a Mr Sharp of Beanacre told Kathleen Wiltshire (my favourite collector of ghostly titbits in the 60s and 70s) of his grandparent’s story. They told Mr Sharp they witnessed a white hare being chased across the downs by a white greyhound. Around the neck of the hare was a golden chain. What was the significance of the gold chain, I wonder?
In British witch lore, a witch could turn herself into a magical creature, such as a hare, trout, bee or mouse, when hunted by the Devil disguised as a greyhound, bitch otter, swallow-hen or white tib-cat.
‘Cunning and art he did not lack,
But aye, her whistle would fetch him back.’
In 1952 rumours of hauntings at Imber were rife amongst local troops. One set of soldiers was stationed up there one dark night when the windmill began to turn out of nowhere. Although, it does seem the windmill was damaged and subsequently demolished after the first world war so whether it was just the sound they heard, I don’t know. Either way, real windmill or ghostly sounds, what a terrifying noise. Sitting out the night, the soldiers packed up and left at first light.
I found another more current account from a soldier visiting the plain for manoeuvres in 1988 at Haunted Wiltshire. His name was Paul Gearing and he was part of the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment. The plan was that Paul would be part of the ‘enemy’ holding hostages at Imber village. The visiting US troops were to parachute into the area and then stage a rescue of the hostages. Paul and his fellow troops were holed up at Seagram’s House. They saw the forces ‘ land and waited. And waited. It was 2 am and Paul was sitting on the floor wishing for the whole exercise to be over soon so they could get to their beds.
Paul says of the event, ‘I have retold this story many times and rarely has the listener accepted what I say I saw, most are dismissive.’ He recounts he sat in the room and watched as a black figure moved from one side of the room to the other. He said he could see the figure was wearing what looked like a pleated collar—old clothing, very old.
Paul says he wasn’t scared of the event. He just watched as it continued through the room, straight through a brick wall.
At the end of the exercise, the troops got together. Paul wasn’t the only one to have a spooky experience. Other soldiers reported the smell of a fire burning in one of the rooms of the empty buildings. Voices were heard talking from adjoining empty rooms.
Interestingly, another visitor to Imber, a family man who came to see the church in 1999, says he walked over to Imber Court. By chance, the gate was open and he was able to go inside and look around, despite his wife’s protests. He said that in the house, the man got an overwhelming smell of a fire burning. Recognising the smell instantly, having been bought up with fire as part of daily life, he said he could feel the warmth coming from it. Could this have been the building the soldiers were in, and the residents of years gone by were trying to warm up their visitors and welcome them to their home?
The Phantom Coach and the Highwaymen
A ghostly highwayman is spotted on the old coaching road to Bath, which comes from Lavington and onto Imber. Highwaymen were certainly active in the area, with the ‘gentlemen highwaymen’ coming from more prosperous families owning farms and inns alongside their criminal side gigs. A man called Biss was a highwayman who met his demise at the end of a rope in Salisbury in 1695. He had a reputation for being something of a Robin Hood. He robbed the rich and shared with the poor. His deeds were not seen as wholesome by the courts of the time and he ended his days the same way as many of his fellow highwaymen.
There is another story of a three-hour chase one October night in 1839. It followed the robbery of Mr Dean of Imber who was attacked this night. The highwaymen stole a good stash of money from Mr Dean’s wallet before leaving him unhurt. He summoned help and members of two local farming families hunted the four highwaymen across this area. These men were more local thieves than gentlemen highwaymen and, to their misfortune, on foot. One is said to have collapsed and died up on the hill. The others were eventually captured, tried and transported to Australia for fifteen years. I presumed they would never have made it back but interestingly there is a postscript.
During the first world war, some Australian soldiers were based in the Imber area and chatted away to local farmer Sydney Dean about the incident in 1839. It seems it was their forebearers who had been transported to Australia where they had gone on to have families and make themselves a life!
Interestingly there is the Robber’s Stone up on Chitterne Down. It was made to warn any local robbers of the swift justice they will receive should they choose to terrorise any locals.
Could one of these criminal characters be one of the ghostly highwaymen? And the coach and horses also spotted on this road? Could they be one of the coaches held up by these violent characters?
It is also on this road that a headless man has been seen, but very few details can be found.
A galloping horseman comes down the High Street of Imber in the middle of the night. Keep up with him if you can, and he will lead you to treasure. Could this be another sighting of one of the highwaymen of the area?
The Bell Inn
In the village, the building shell of The Bell Inn remains. It was originally built in 1796 as a private house before becoming an inn sometime after 1838.
You’ll remember Albert Nash from earlier? His forge was located next to the pub, and whilst not known to be a big drinker, he would have had a close association with Inn. It is thought he still pops into the Inn from time to time. Dark shadows have been seen there, and voices, shadows and bangs have been heard in the empty building, along with metal clanging, like the sound of a forge in action.
The village’s manor house still stands, but with metal-covered windows, a shadow of its former grandeur. Imber Court was much larger and far more majestic back in the day and was the social centre for the village. There was a great divide between the rich and the poor back then, and the residents of Imber Court were very wealthy and able to enjoy the finer trappings of the Victorian era and beyond. But the villagers would have been invited to special events at the manor on occasion.
Looking at old photos, you get an idea of what life must have been like there. But, these days, the top floor of Imber Court has now been removed. It is said that a lady of the Wadman family, owners through the 17th and 18th centuries, appears at the window holding a candle.
One of the range wardens was patrolling the village one day and noticed a shutter on one of the windows was open. He went in to close it when he heard a voice say. ‘What gives you the right?’ It was right in his ear. No one was in the building and spooked; he made a hasty retreat.
The sounds of hunting dogs have also been said to have been heard, coming from the old kennel area, with howling, barking and straining at chains.
This little story is giving me the creeps a bit. I’ll explain why in a minute. In some of Imber’s buildings, a strange phenomenon occurs. Graffiti in large white letters appears overnight and randomly. It is impossible to remove. This strange graffiti mainly occurs at Imber Court but is seen elsewhere. Of course it could be humans, but it’s virtually impossible to get up there, it being MOD land. Now, here’s the weird thing, I only found this out this evening on my return home.
In one of the houses as we walked around the village, I spotted some white graffiti above one of the doorways inside one of the houses. You can’t get near the houses, but I did take a photo from the road. I remember thinking to myself that it was a bit strange as there was no other graffiti, rubbish or signs of inhabitation in any of the village.
What did it say? Well, annoyingly, I took a photo and therefore didn’t commit the phrase to absolute memory. And when I got home, the image failed to show any sign of this weird phrase I had seen. It said something like ‘Duck and Rise’ or ‘Rise and Shine’. I wish I could remember!
You can see the photo above.
The Lost Village
We stayed at Imber for a short time. It has a sad air, and even the open countryside around it, whilst beautifully open, is marked by signs of the Army with signs, tank tracks, rusting machinery and more. The village retains that depressing air and whilst I didn’t find it at all spooky on a fairly busy bank holiday Monday in the sunshine, I expect it takes on quite a different air on a dark and foggy late Autumn evening. There is little sign of the hardworking but happy community residing here before the sad reclamation by the MOD. It’s certainly a ghost village.
For the sake of past residents, if they wish to return to the Imber and live out their ghostly years recreating their happy times there, I hope they are allowed to do so in peace for many years to come.
“Little Imber on the Downe,
Seven miles from any Towne,
Sheep bleats the only sound,
Life twer sweet with never a frown,
Oh let us bide on Imber Downe.”
A group of village supporters and relatives of the residents of old, along with The Friends of St Giles Church, work tirelessly to maintain the church and keep it open for visitors when allowed. They make sure the story of the inhabitants and what happened to them as a result of the war is a story that is remembered and honoured for future generations.
If you want to visit Imber yourself, check here for opening dates or follow the St. Giles Church website for more information.
Have you got a story to share?
My favourite thing is to uncover new and untold ghost stories and interesting bits of history. If you have any stories you would like to share, I’d love to speak to you. Get in touch here.
Stay spooky my friends!
More Ghosts and Legends of Wiltshire Countryside by Kathleen Wiltshire
The Folklore of Wiltshire by Ralph Whitlock
Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside by Kathleen Wiltshire
Paranormal Wiltshire by Selena Wright
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