Entrance to Imber village

The ghost villages of Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

There aren’t many places in this country where you can visit two empty villages just a few miles from each other. Yet Salisbury Plain is home to two military training villages. Usually closed to the public we took advantage of an open day at Imber church and combined it with a walk across the Plain to a fake German village.

Imber village

Imber stands in the centre of Salisbury Plain, a huge expanse of grassland that the army uses as a military training area.

Until 1943 it was a small agricultural village. The MoD requisitioned Imber for military training and gave the villagers 47 days notice to evacuate. Most villagers agreed readily as they saw it as part of the war effort.  They always assumed they’d be able to return but the army eventually decided to keep the village for military use, despite the protests of locals. It’s still off limits to the public although the MoD allows access for a few days each year, usually around Christmas, Easter and August.

Salisbury Plain warning signs
Salisbury Plain warning signs

Driving along the A360 Salisbury to Devizes road we initially missed the turn off for Imber village, sidetracked by the excitement of seeing road signs with tank pictures on. The road to Imber, which is usually closed to civilian traffic, isn’t signposted but there are plenty of clues to let you know you’re driving in the right direction. These include warnings every few hundred metres about the danger of unexploded military debris if you leave the road.

Entering Imber we drove past the shells of buildings that stand either side of the road, punctuated by more warning signs. It’s only a small village and before long we’d driven out the other side. I turned the car around in the deserted road whilst the kids excitedly pointed out a rusting tank on the hillside above us.

Imber church
St Giles church, Imber

St Giles church, Imber

Heading back in we parked in the small field next to St Giles church. Unlike the rest of Imber the church remains outside of army ownership and is the main destination for visitors. Surrounded by high wire fencing and an out of bounds sign it’s maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Inside we read information boards about the eviction. Volunteers provided refreshments; the bottled water and camping stove a reminder that this village has no utilities or concessions to visitors.

Outside I took a walk around the graveyard. Much of it has been reclaimed by nature with huge thistles attracting lots of butterflies. Some of the headstones are dated after the 1943 evacuation, including that of the village blacksmith, Albert Nash. Albert’s wife believes he died of a broken heart just a few weeks after the eviction.

Imber village, Salisbury Plain
Imber village, Salisbury Plain

After visiting the church we walked along the main road to see the other buildings. In addition to the original village buildings, most of which are in a poor state of repair, there are a number of newer house type structures built in the 1970s. These were to help soldiers prepare for the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Despite the many Keep Out warning signs I saw one man taking his young son up onto the first floor of the house shown above. The area is still used for live firing and it seemed mad to ignore the warnings.

Tilshead Down ,Salisbury Plain
Tilshead Down, Salisbury Plain

Copehill Down walk

From Imber we drove a short distance to the nearby village of Tilshead. Imber isn’t the only ghost village on Salisbury Plain and we were about to discover another one, this time purpose built by the military.

We set off on the 6 mile walk across the Plain towards the village on Copehill Down. From Tilshead Down we followed a path through an avenue of trees. These are noted for their tree graffiti, carved by soldiers in the Second World War. The kids tried to decipher some of the initials but most were unreadable as the trunks have grown and morphed the shapes of the letters.

Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down
Walking along Long Barrow, near Tilshead Down

Just off of the avenue we came across a small clearing with a sign warning us not to dig. What was there? Prehistoric skeletons or landmines? I didn’t want to find out!

FIBUA (Fighting in a Built-Up area), Copehill Down village

Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Mock German village, Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

Our second empty village of the day lay ahead of us. This village was built as an MoD training facility in the 1980s at the end of the Cold War. Originally created as an East German village it has been updated to include an Iraqi section but this wasn’t visible from outside.

East German village, Salisbury Plain
East German village, Salisbury Plain

It’s not possible to enter the village but the track runs close to the entrances so it’s easy to look in at the houses and crashed cars. Although there weren’t any training activities taking place we spotted lots of empty blank cartridges strewn across the ground.

Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain
Walking in the tracks, Salisbury Plain

Salisbury Plain

After leaving we walked up onto Copehill Down and followed a stretch of the Imber Range Perimeter Path. This 30 mile long distance walk skirts the edge of the military training firing area.

Although used by the military Copehill Down is undeveloped and hasn’t been farmed in many years. This is great news for wildlife as Salisbury Plain is now the largest area of chalk grassland in north west Europe. The whole area was full of flowers, insects, butterflies and birds. So different to intensively farmed fields.

Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain
Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain

On the brow of the down my partner was incredibly excited to see a great bustard in the grasslands. This large bird was reintroduced to Britain in 2004 after becoming nationally extinct in 1832. I had been looking in the opposite direction and, annoyingly, by the time I looked the bird had disappeared into the long grass.

Just outside of Tilshead we passed White Barrow, a Neolithic long barrow in National Trust ownership. It’s one of more than 2000 archaeological sites on Salisbury Plain, many of which lay within the military area. We didn’t visit as time was against us and we were keen to get started on our return journey. Although we did have to make time to pop into the garage for some much needed ice creams and drinks!

If you get the opportunity do visit Imber and Copehill Down. The combination of military usage, environment and prehistoric sites makes for a unique day out.

More info:

  • St Giles church and Imber village can only be visited on specific open days. These usually occur at Christmas, Easter and mid-late August but check the website for up to date information. It is not possible or safe to travel to Imber outside of these dates as it is used for military operations.
  • We followed the Discovering Britain Military Environmentalism walk from Tilshead to visit the mock village on Copehill Down. This walk is always open, even when military exercises are happening in the village. There is no access to the village.
  • The St Giles church volunteers offer tea and coffee for £1, squash for 50p, both come with a biscuit. There are a couple of basic Portaloo type toilets in one of the car parking lay-bys.
  • There are no facilities or refreshment opportunities on the walk but the garage at Tilshead has a small mini-mart and toilets.
  • There is no mobile phone reception in Imber.
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46 thoughts on “The ghost villages of Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire”

  1. So jealous! Imber is on my must visit list, in fact just the other day I was trying to talk my husband into a visit. They have caches there which can only be located at certain times obviously so they are quite popular. I know Imber draws a crowd, and I would imagine a lot of them are geocachers.
    Great photos – I’ll return to bugging the husband 😉

    1. I never thought of looking for caches. Although I think I’d be a little nervous poking around in the undergrowth there, not sure what I’d find!

  2. Such interesting places to visit although it’s a little sad that the villagers weren’t allowed to return to their homes after the war. It’s a slice of history I’d like to share with my children. #whwh

    1. I couldn’t begin to imagine not going home either, particularly given the era when it wasn’t usual to up sticks and move around as much.

    1. They’re fine, although I’d be a little hesitant of visiting the German village area when training is taking place (even though it’s allowed and not dangerous if you stick to permitted routes).

  3. Wow, how interesting! I absolutely love stuff like this and had no idea it even existed, we’re not too far from Salisbury either. Thanks for sharing, will definitely attempt a visit when they’re next open! #countrykids

    1. Ah yes, welcome to our world. It doesn’t help that I work in a school either although I do enjoy the long summer break.

  4. Absolutely fascinating! I lived reading about this. I’ve always fancied visiting a ghost town. The American ones look particularly good. Looks like a great day out. Thanks for sharing.

    Fellow linker from Coombe Mill.

    1. The American ghost towns would be amazing, as long as there is tumbleweed rolling in front of them. (I’ve watched too many Westerns).

  5. What a fascinating day out for you all, I bet it was quite spooky exploring the abandoned streets of Imber imagining what life would’ve been like when it inhabitants were there. It’s great that the opportunity to explore somewhere like this is available occasionally to really learn about the way people thought about the war effort. It’s amazing how many warning signs they had up around the area, I bet it put you a little on edge. Thanks for linking up with me on Country Kids.

    1. The warning signs contribute to the atmosphere, I guess they have to be ultra cautious and make sure that people have no chance of missing them.

  6. What an interesting outing! It would be eerie to think of all the people evacuated and what they had to leave behind. Sounds like it gave you a great opportunity to discuss military training with your kiddos.

    1. Thanks. I think the residents always assumed they were coming back so they’d left tins of food in the houses, very sad.

  7. What a really informative post! We don’t live too far away and saw photos of Imber on a friend’s Facebook page a while back and thought we must go there! The walk looks really good too. Will definitely check it out.

    1. Ah I didn’t get to see the great bustard so I’m rather jealous of my other half for seeing this. Evidently it was hard to miss but I did!

  8. I’ve visited Tyneham in Dorset which was evacuated for the same purpose in 1943. It’s an eery place but fascinating to see somewhere that has been frozen in time. The village is open most weekends and well worth a look if you want to see another ghost village. The church is beautiful #MondayEscapes

  9. Oooh, spooky! I absolutely love to find unique places to visit around the UK and this looks like one of them. We are currently taking part in our 50 counties challenge, and Salisbury is a place I have yet to visit, so aside from the Cathedral it is lovely to be able to add somewhere new to the list. Anything else we should do in Salisbury?
    Thanks
    Katrina #MondayEscapes

    1. Not sure about Sailsbury itself but we have also visited Boscombe Down Aviation Collection and Old Sarum which are just a couple of miles from the city and highly recommended (search my blog posts for it). I like the idea of the 50 counties challenge!

  10. Wow, I read this whole thing with great interest! It must have been so bizarre walking around and seeing this village, and peeking to a military training area as well… Glad you got to see that famous bird too! 🙂 #mondayescapes

  11. This sounds absolutely fascinating – and slightly spooky! Must have been such a memorable day out, I’d heard of ghost villages before but never really known much about them. Thanks for linking up to #mondayescapes

  12. How fun, although I do find some of those signs a little ominous. Where I come from in Washington State, there are a lot of old and forgotten military bunkers. When we were kids, it was the thing to do to run through them at night in the pitch black. I was always terrified of them, and still am a little. They are just so spooky!

  13. Funnily my older friend was telling me about these places just a couple of weeks back so absolutely amazing to see pictures of them. It’s quite far for us to get to Salisbury but I really want to go, have to do some planning as I absolutely want to visit. Great information, thank you.

  14. These villages look so interesting and spooky! Such an interesting history there…it’s cool that there is an opportunity to peek inside. I grew up near a “ghost town” in Pennsylvania called Centralia and it always fascinated me…

  15. Ooh, I have a fascination with Imber. We had planned to go on the Imber Bus tomorrow but I’m dog sitting instead. Trying to keep the date free for next year now. Great post x

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