Words and pics: Nigel Wynn
A half-day ride through some of the most stunning scenery in the south of England
Distance: 23 miles/37km
Climbing: 1,183 ft/360 metres
Big hills: 1
Cafe stops: 1
In an age when human settlements are constantly growing and sprawling outwards into the surrounding countryside, an abandoned village set in a vast wilderness in southern England seems like something of an oddity.
One such village is Imber, situated on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. For most of the year, it’s completely inaccessible to the public, as it’s used for military training. But on a selected few days each year, you can ride there and visit one of Britain’s most intriguing uninhabited settlements.
Once a thriving farm community with 150 inhabitants, Imber was cleared out during the Second World War in 1943 when the land was acquired by the Ministry of Defence for use by Allied troops training for the invasion of mainland Europe. The Imber villagers were given less than two months to pack their belongings and move out, not knowing when they could return. As it turned out, they never came back, and the village today lies largely ruined. Newer buildings have been added for the purpose of urban warfare training by the army.
Imber village and its access roads across the Imber Ranges military area are closed for all but a handful of days — namely, Christmas, Easter and late summer. Despite regular use by tanks and heavy army vehicles, most of the roads are in a decent state for cycling.
Having lived for the first part of my life in Bratton, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, it was always a high point of the year for me and my school friends to cycle through the Imber Ranges sentry barriers, past the ‘unexploded ordnance’ signs and onto the roads that for so much of the year lay forbidden. The appeal of exploring such a vast area normally closed to the public has not been lost in the three decades since my childhood in Wiltshire, and it was time to visit again, this time with my wife Sarah.
Our ride started in Westbury, a former market town now sprawling with new-build estates. Skirting around the base of the Plain’s scarp slope towards Bratton, you pass underneath the impressive Westbury White Horse carved into the chalk — although now given a skim of concrete and lick of paint to preserve its whiteness.
Passing the clear, bubbling stream of Stradbrook, the road rises steadily towards Imber Ranges and past a sign notifying the public that the road ahead is either closed or open for business. There’s an old car repair garage on the left part-way up the hill complete with enamel signs, and the piles of old car parts don’t seem to have changed for decades.
As you reach the top of the climb, through pretty grass-carpeted valleys, you reach the military checkpoint. The barrier stays open during daylight hours when the ranges are open, so it was straight through and immediately into the open grassland that is so characteristic of the Plain.
Signs all along the roads reminded us not to stray from the tarmac, as there are unexploded shells and other ammunition in the grassland. Ignore them at your own risk.
A spell of cold, windy weather leading up to Easter gave the scenery an almost sunburnt brown appearance — only the barely-above-zero temperature reminded us it was late winter and not late summer on a bright, sunny day. With little in the way of tree or hedge cover, the scenery is very open to the elements. Part of the road just past the checkpoint had broken up into gravel, and is perhaps better covered on a hybrid, cyclo-cross or mountain bike. We’d brought road bikes, and our pace slowed as thin tyres skipped through the loose stones.
A left-hand turn next to a frozen pond took us onto a wider, much smoother-surfaced road and on to the village of Imber. It’s one of the few areas with trees surrounding it, so you don’t see the buildings of the village until they are upon you.
The old village church of St Giles stands proudly on the hillside, the subject of a recent renovation project complete with new peal of bells installed in 2010. The tall metal fence and signs keep out soldiers on training exercises, and church services are now held here at Christmas and Easter, though sadly very few of the village’s original residents are still alive to attend them. The church looks down over the empty, never-lived-in training houses, windowless holes in the wall staring like empty eye sockets. It’s an eerie place.
It’s worth stopping to have a look at the church. It was open when we visited, with information boards telling the story of the village and a couple of stalls selling local produce and tea/coffee. Visits from the public help provide a reason to preserve the church, the only ‘living’ reminder of a once busy community.
Back to civilization
Back on the bikes, we were off up a hill and towards Heytesbury. The road rises sharply up onto a flat plateau, where we were able to look down on to stunning views of the surrounding wilderness. You’d be hard pressed to spot any sort of civilization among the wind-swept grass, rolling hills and beech coppices. It’s hard to imagine that we’re in the busy south of England, we could be somewhere as remote as the Russian steppes or Highlands of Scotland.
Riding off Salisbury Plain, and through the exit checkpoint at Heytesbury, we hit the busy A36 road for a short stretch before turning off into the bustling town of Warminster. Wafts of fresh coffee from the shop-lined main street ushered us through the town and out the other side. Then it was a thankfully wind-assisted blast along the road back to Westbury.
Imber had lost none of its appeal since my childhood. It’s still a haunting place: an abandoned but far-from-forgotten village situated in unique and stark surroundings that are best explored by bike.
Salisbury Plain: Nature reserve
In recent years, the Ministry of Defence has become more and more aware of the value of its land as a nature reserve. Thousands of hectares of land across the country lay undisturbed and, despite the gunfire, tanks and artillery, play host to some very rare creatures. Salisbury Plain is the only place in Britain where you’ll see the re-introduced great bustard, a metre-tall bird that spends much of its time living on the ground picking around for leaves and insects to eat. Small pools in the tank tracks come alive with tiny fairy shrimps in the warmer months, and rare butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy and marsh fritillary skip over the grass in search of nectar.
Starting from Westbury, take the B3098 Bratton Road east towards the village of Bratton. Not long after you leave the town you’ll pass Westbury White Horse. Continue on and through Bratton village and down Melbourne Street to a crossroads at the bottom of a dip. Take a left along Stradbrook and on past the stream on your left to Imber Road. This ascends for a mile to the Imber Ranges checkpoint. Go through the checkpoint and continue south until you hit a road junction.
Turn left to go to Imber village. Just past the church on your right, there’s a road also on the right. It’s unmarked, but it goes to Heytesbury. Go up here and onto the top of the Plain. Admire the view. Travel along the rough road until you drop down past another checkpoint. Continue to the A36 and turn left to Warminster. At the busy roundabout take the B3414 through Norton Bavant. Continue through East Street in Warminster and take a left on to Portway and then left on to Westbury Road. When you meet the A350 (traffic lights), turn right and continue on the A350 until you reach Westbury.
Pubs and grub
St Giles church, Imber
On our visit, the church was offering hot and cold drinks and a range of homemade snacks. The roads on Salisbury Plain are next scheduled to be open to the public in August 2013.
Lopes Arms Hotel, Westbury
2 Market Place, Westbury,
Wiltshire BA13 3DQ
Bar, restaurant and small hotel situated centrally in Westbury’s old
Tel: 01373 822500
The town of Warminster is packed with places to stay, eat and drink and is also handily placed to visit the nearby attraction of Longleat Safari Park with its Elizabethan stately home.
24 Market Place, Warminster,
Wiltshire BA12 9AN
Tel: 01985 213221
Opening times: Monday to Saturday, 9am to 5.30pm; Sunday (summer only), 10am to 4pm