Original long-form nonfiction narrative writing
Salisbury Plain has long been known for its use in military exercises carried out by the British and American armed forces. Less has been heard about the settlements deserted when the army moved in. Anna Aslanyan visits the Wiltshire ghost village of Imber to learn more about compulsory evacuations, live fire exercises and ornithological curiosities.
‘So, once again: all we’re doing is just looking for those bustards. We’re ornithologists from London, here on a field study trip.’
Howard and I revised the legend in the car as if there would be no chance to talk openly after we got out. Then, every word would be heard, every move observed. It was our second visit to rural Wiltshire, a week after our first, thwarted attempt to sneak into the village of Imber, and we were starting to get into the genius loci, jumpily approaching ‘Stop’ signs and strategically-positioned guard posts in a manner imitative of a long tradition of paranoia. What we had managed to learn about the place so far, however, was enough to keep us going.
A settlement on this spot was first mentioned in a charter of 967AD. Over the following centuries, Imber changed hands several times, until the present-day military landlords finally took control in the early 1930s. The villagers had another decade of peace before being evacuated – or, some say, evicted– in 1943. It was then that Imber became a training ground for American troops in the run-up to the D-Day landings. Salisbury Plain, once an idyllic part of rural England, was first chosen by the army at the end of the 19th century mainly because of its landscape. Its vast expanses of flat land were to prove useful during the final years of World War II, when the British and Americans had to prepare to fight their way across the heaths of Europe. Once the German surrender had taken place, the next round of fighting seemed unavoidable and geographically predictable. The army stayed on in Imber, building some ersatz Eastern European houses to prepare for a WWIII which would start soon and take place in similar surroundings to the conflict that had recently ended.
Thus it was that solid brick shapes grew next to St Giles’ church, one of the few buildings that remains of the old village today, dating back to the 13th century. As Martin Blyth, who visited Imber in the 1970s, recalls:
The church looked in reasonable condition, but so can most churches – and most need at least superficial maintenance. If I am not too pessimistic, I would assume that the army, true to written orders, would not touch the church, nor give the building the occasional glance.
However, even fervent opponents of the army presence admit that the intruders have cared for the church over the years, doing what they could to preserve the structure.
St Giles’ wasn’t the only treasure the War Office acquired from local farmers as it gradually bought up Wiltshire’s swathes of steppe from the turn of the last century onwards: there was archaeological wealth in the form of ancient stone circles, mounds and barrows, and rich wildlife too.
The latter remains a subject of interest for nature lovers, conservationists and scientists. But not all of it is, strictly speaking, indigenous. A few years ago, a flock of globally-threatened great bustards were released on the plain – the fifth batch of young birds from Russia to have been brought there. It was hearing this news that inspired us to try and bluff our way into the village under an ornithological smokescreen.
Were the Cold War still going on, it would have been a piece of cake for hacks: silhouettes crossing the Iron Curtain to hover high above the English countryside, minatory, ready to swoop. The bustard, the heaviest flying bird in the world, became extinct in Britain thanks to overenthusiastic Victorian hunters, although it is still recognised as a symbol of Wiltshire and appears on the county’s crest. Were the modern military to look for a flying target they’d most likely find empty skies – the birds appear to have taken a dislike to the area they were reintroduced to so recently. We met a friendly land warden looking after the range: he should have detained us for trespassing, but instead advised us to visit another time and gave us a lift. He told us he had never seen the bustards, adding enigmatically that they had ‘gone to Bournemouth, all of ‘em.’ Our well-rehearsed cover story had become an irrelevance.
Little Imber on the Down remains deserted and quiet for those parts of the year when no exercises are taking place. The public are allowed entry on a handful of days, including Christmas and Easter; this year a special permission was granted by the MoD for what some still preferred to call the late May bank holiday. When the military finished buying up farmland around Imber, the residents were told that they could come back after the war – or, more precisely, as the land agent’s letter put it, ‘if and when the property is no longer required by the War Department.’ The villagers had been tenants of the military since the early 1930s, although many did not quite understand the implications. After a few weeks’ notice at the end of 1943, around 150 people left, without being offered any compensation, often travelling on cattle carts, unable to take many of their possessions with them. They hoped their plight, justified at the time, would soon end and they would be allowed to return. They never were.
The area is still actively used by its owners today. A special facility for fighting in built-up areas (FIBUA), the so-called ‘German village’, has been extended: next to its red-roofed houses there is now a cluster of white cubical buildings. This eclectic combination of Continental and faux-Middle Eastern architecture looms on the horizon when you approach from a public road. On the day of our first visit the range was a hive of activity and those prepared to ignore ‘Keep out’ notices could see a FIBUA exercise up close. The two clumps of houses next to each other, one a hangover from the Cold War, the other very 21st century, looked a perfect mésalliance; when the fire started it was hard to tell which ones were being aimed at.
Looking at the photos Howard took on the day of our fake field trip, it is tempting to make analogies. The landscape stretches before you as a canvas used for one of those party games, where two players draw independently on different sides of a partition, which is then removed to reveal some hilarious hybrid of ideas. On the left you can see something straight from a Le Carré novel, a place on the inner German border, perhaps, although less stark, more peaceful-looking. The remains of the East German village of Bardowiek, destroyed in the 1970s by the GDR, are apt as a visual counterpart to Imber. There are historical parallels, too: Bardowiek’s first mention in the records dates to 1292, which makes it some three centuries younger than the Wiltshire village. Just over a millennium after the earliest evidence of the Saxon settlement was recorded, the East Germans razed Bardowiek to increase the security of the improvised border; the conservation laws dictated that their capitalist counterforce in Britain did the opposite, recreating those squat houses in a similar spirit of national defence.
The symbolism of this is fascinating, but threatens to lead us too far from Salisbury Plain and our canvas. Next to the reddish structures, on the right, are toy blocks which, although supposed to represent an Iraqi village, look more like a contemporary art installation made of cardboard shoeboxes with black peepholes cut in them. When the two sides are considered together, the effect is disharmonious but not particularly sinister. The European zone is remarkably nondescript – if anything, it resembles a sterile development the likes of which have sprung up all over Britain in the last few decades and which wouldn’t be out of place in the Midlands or Surrey. As for its neighbour, an unfinished apartment block in the suburbs of Cairo is the most ‘Arabic’ visual association which comes to mind. Fighting in these built-up areas would take a considerable suspension of disbelief in addition to physical strength.
Nothing dates worse than new architecture – this rule applies to the Arab village, although for reasons which are not purely aesthetic. Keeping up with the times in other ways, the army is trying to become greener. One of their environmental initiatives is to issue soldiers training on Salisbury Plain with packs of playing cards on which various eco-warnings are printed. The messages range from the cheery – ‘If non tac – use a track’ – to the threateningly gnomic: ‘Own up to mistakes’. The MoD contributes to three conservation projects in the area, among them the Imber Conservation Group. It was in charge of the restoration of St Giles’, completed in 2010 in time for the annual saint’s day service.
According to the Group’s chairman, Lt Col (Retd) Mike Jelf, the organisation came about in 1977 following recommendations that each military training area should establish a conservation group. It is made up predominantly of civilian members and provides grass-roots support to Defence Estates in the management of the training area. They have a number of experts in specific fields and many enthusiasts with more limited knowledge. The group is not funded and only its chairman and secretary hold their jobs officially; the rest are volunteers. A team of them cleared the churchyard of nettles, dead trees and junk; they didn’t have to worry about the grass which was dealt with by forty sheep mobilised by a nearby farmer.
A campaign to open the village to the public, Forever Imber, was started in the late 1950s by Austin Underwood, a local teacher and a rural district councillor, and supported by the League Against Cruel Sports. At first the campaigners’ goal was to reclaim the village so that its former inhabitants could move back to their homes. The early days of the movement are recorded by the fascinating transcript of a public inquiry held in 1961. Underwood, a war veteran and a CND activist, had a lot of questions for the officers present at the hearing, and they for him: ‘And do you bear a grudge against the War Office?’ – ‘I certainly do not.’ The inquiry ended after two days, resulting in all the roads to Imber being closed despite the lengthy discussion about public right of way. The protesters were reminded that the long-forgotten promises, made on a handshake, were subject to the owners’ decision to no longer use the village.
The transcript reads in parts like early Pinter, gripping in its starkness. Take, for instance, the evidence given by Mrs Martha Nash, the widow of the village blacksmith who, some people suggested, was heartbroken after being forced to leave his home and thriving business. The 84-year-old witness had to spend the whole day at the hearing waiting for her turn and was eventually asked a number of questions about her late husband: ‘And he left the forge and the bellows?’ – ‘Yes, it was a blacksmith’s shop.’ – ‘What happened to your husband after he left Imber?’ – ‘Well, he died.’ – ‘Can you tell us something about the circumstances of his death?’ – ‘Do I have to?’ Mercifully, the old lady was allowed to withdraw shortly after this exchange, but not until her daughter intervened: ‘He was just thrown out, wasn’t he?’
Another witness, Captain Sidney Ward Turner, showed a great deal of determination when examined about his habit to ramble around the danger zone without permission. ‘Would it be true to say that if an Order [to close the roads to Imber] is made now, it will make no difference to you because you will still wander about?’ – ‘I should choose a suitable occasion. If it suited my purpose I should follow certain people.’ Sophia Volkov, a local resident who regularly exercised her dogs at the range, also kept her calm when told about unexploded missiles lurking in the area: ‘Do you think that perhaps you have walked across this land unwisely now?’ – ‘I think it has been worth it. It is lovely country.’
In our pragmatic times, the campaigners, who seem to be less active than their predecessors in the 1960s, have said that they would like to close down the firing range in order to open a centre for peace education. Inspired by a trip to her native Wiltshire, Austin Underwood’s daughter Ruth wrote her own Song of the Open Downs, and performed it at a gathering in Imber. Her motives – ‘it’s about loss, it’s about the potential for transformation’ – are certainly worthy, but the ambition to promote peace studies in the area seems to have had trouble escaping the drawing-board. The campaigners’ website doesn’t seem to have been updated for some time, suggesting that plans for a centre are stuck in limbo.
In nearby villages – still idyllic despite the proximity of tanks and Imber’s ugly barracks – locals are sceptical about the prospect of what they think of as hordes of New Age travellers descending upon the area. This isn’t the only concern some have about an MoD departure. If the military were to sell the land, other scenarios might include Imber being snatched by developers and turned into a commuter ghetto.
On hearing the story of Imber, people sometimes shrug: ‘Big deal.’ The Americans are, as usual, several steps ahead: they have quite a few simulations of entire Arab towns, complete with actors playing insurgents and locals. In Louisiana the US army has built a fake Afghan village, Marghoz, populated by phony suicide bombers, local elders and Afghan soldiers to stage fights with. The idea, they claim, is not just to practice fighting, but also to learn how to deal with culturally sensitive issues in situ. Training involves US troops and villagers haggling for goods, fending off attacks and serving each other tea. Another simulated village was created in Fort Irwin, California to represent a fake Iraq, at the time when it was still relevant; in 2008 they started using it as a tourist attraction. Punters, security-cleared and issued with earplugs, are taken there in groups on public tours. In the UK things seem to be run on a more modest scale, although Google Sightseeing website has a page on fake villages, containing a number of Street View pictures of mock places scattered across Britain, from Wales to Norfolk. Their styles have changed over years, from German to Northern Irish to Bosnian; who knows what makeover they might undergo next.
As for the little village of Imber, were it not for the documents that point to its intriguing past, it would be hard to imagine that it was ever of much importance to anyone. To quote Blyth, ‘It’s all very sad. The site of a peaceful village, turned out of villagers. Salisbury Plain, in this day and age, can surely do without Imber!’ Perhaps the moment is not ripe and it only has to wait for the next wave of the pacifist movement (which may be a while), another burst of residential construction or a theme park boom. This last possibility would have seemed the craziest folly of all to the early campaigners, but I suspect that someone, somewhere is already working on it: a project in the spirit of England, England, a powerful weapon with which to fight recession. However, we are drifting into a speculative domain here, and the only certainty is this: Imber, which symbolises different things for different people, has long stopped being an aim – if only in the peaceful sense of the word.
From talking to civilians who live near the Salisbury training area you get the impression that many would prefer no change to the present situation . The local farmers and the military have been cohabiting long enough to realise that the arrangement, while not ideal, works. It is also not clear if anyone really wants Imber back in its present state. The restored St Giles’ is still closed for most of the year, as is the village, but that doesn’t seem to upset many. It may well be that there is no one left who would want to come and settle there again, apart from, perhaps, a flock of rare birds – and even they, allegedly, prefer Bournemouth. Out of the surrounding fields and country roads, Imber emerges as a fake place occasionally visited by fake ornithologists, who never manage to capture more than a billow of smoke in the sky – a fake whiff of the Cold War.
Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. She writes for various publications – including 3:AM, the TLS, Eurozine, the Independent and the National – mainly on books and arts. Among her translations into Russian are works by Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, John Berger, Tom McCarthy, Jeffrey Eugenides and Zadie Smith. She has translated a number of essays and short stories from Russian into English, most recently for Best European Fiction 2013.