Wiltshire is a county in the south west of England. It is an area of wide valleys, open plateaus and rolling countryside. Half of the area is designated an Area of Outstanding National Beauty and we couldn't agree more.
Photo credit: CC0, Pixabay
Within this beautiful county of extensive, sweeping countryside is Salisbury Plain, a 300 square mile area that has been used for military training for a long while.
And on Salisbury Plain is Imber, a village which has been uninhabited for 74 years.
This is the English setting for the novel and we are introduced to Violet and her family who, in 1943, are living there: her curate father, mother, and sister Freda.
In 1943 the population of Imber were given a scant 47 days notice to move from their homes to allow the village to be used for the military training of American troops preparing for the invasion of Europe. Evidence suggests this affected 110 people.
The Ministry of Defence had purchased the land and the buildings and so, not owning either their homes or any of the land, the tenants were evicted.
Photo credit: CC Nilfanion.
Even though the villagers were told that the evacuation was temporary, that after the war they could return to their homes, this did not happen. None of them were allowed to return and the area is considered too important to the military, even today, for it to be relinquished.
Because of the military usage since 1943, the village of Imber is still out of bounds to the general public. There are occasional open days when visitors are allowed entry to the village, but on these days the village is heavily patrolled by police, the military, and land wardens. Trespass onto fields and into buildings not designated as part of the open day is prohibited and is also dangerous because of the potential for unexploded ordnance.
On the approach to the village, the remnants of this military occupation are obvious.
There are warnings at each end of the village and, even though we knew it was an Open Day when we visited, and that permission had been given for the general public to enter the village, we were still nervous about proceeding. It seems, from the people we spoke to, that a few of the other visitors felt the same way, too.
For Cottage Tenants holding direct from W.D. [War Department]
W.D. Estate Office,
Imber Training Area
Arising out of the decision that increased training facilities are to be made available in the Imber area, I regret to inform you that it is necessary to evacuate the major part of the Department's Imber Estate, including your dwelling.
To this end I enclose you formal notice to quit. The area has to be evacuated and made available for training by Dec 17th. In this connection you will note that the formal notice to quit expires on and it is confirmed that there will be no objection, if it assists you, to your remaining in your dwelling as tenant on sufferance until a date not later than Dec 17th 1943.
It is appreciated that apart from the distress the move will cause you, it must inevitably occasion direct expense for which you have no legal redress against the Department. It is however, desired to assist you in this direction as far as is practicable and equitable, and I am directed to state that the Department is prepared in principle but without prejudice to refund to you reasonable expenses incurred by you in respect of the removal of your furniture to your new home, and the travelling expenses thereto of yourself and members of your family at present living with you. In addition, if you are so unfortunate as not to be able to find alternative accommodation, and it is necessary to remove your furniture to store, the Department will refund the cost of removal to store and reasonable storage charges until you can find another house, or until the Imber area is again open for occupation, whichever is the earlier.
Further the Department is prepared if you so desire to take over from you by valuation, any produce in your garden which you are unable to harvest and take with you, and I shall be glad if you will let me have as soon as possible any claim you wish to make under this head.
Command Land Agent
The eviction notice sent to the villagers.
By the side of the church, St Giles, is this notice explaining your responsibilities to be allowed access. Necessary, but with the pictures, it's very intimidating!
The church is the only building in the whole village that you allowed entry to. As such, it was very busy on the sunny August Open Day as seen in the photos below.
Courtesy of imberchurch.org.uk
The Ministry of Defence accepted the management and maintenance of the Grade I listed church (in a modest state of repair). It is now the responsibility of the Churches Conservation Trust and has undergone repair and conservation.
Most of the other original buildings fell into disrepair and have since been demolished. There are buildings which were built to facilitate the urban warfare training needs of the military and were not part of the original village. However, some buildings from the time of habitation are still remaining.
One of the highlights of a trip to the village on one of the Open days is the vintage buses that are laid on for visitors. Of course, you can also visit by car, but why would you with such a fantastic opportunity? The routes go from the town of Warminster directly to the village. In August, they ran 19 Routemasters and 5 modern buses which travelled to Imber and other surrounding areas. Yes, we already noticed one of the destinations and tried not to laugh.
Altogether, this was a fascinating day out! Joanna Rossiter certainly chose a wonderful place to set her book. If you ever get the chance to visit this abandoned village during one of the Open Days, we highly recommend it. And most certainly read the book!
Below, we've listed some reference sites for further information.
Discover more about the lost village of Imber on this dedicated page:
Website for the church, St Giles':
Joanna Rossiter speaking about the inspiration for the book:
The county of Wiltshire and the book, The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter, were the basis for our September 2017 Fernweh Fiction book subscription boxes.We filled this box with Wiltshire-based delights and book-related gifts!
Or subscribe to our monthly boxes to treat yourself or a loved one to a Great British reading experience!
We were delighted to read this novel, The Sea Change, from Joanna Rossiter and even more delighted to visit the setting of this book. We are pleased to share this with you here at The Travelling Reader.
Set in Wiltshire and India, this is a tale of two women - mother and daughter - and their own struggles in life and with each other. Alice, the daughter, wakes in India to the devastation of a tsunami and the disappearance of her recently-wedded husband, and Violet in Wiltshire, mourns the estrangement of her daughter, the loss of the man she once loved, and the ghost of a place she grew up in: the forgotten village of Imber.
We travelled to Wiltshire to find this village and were so glad to have the opportunity to visit such an intriguing place.
Come with us on our reading journey!