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Saturday 30 August 2014

Ghost Towns of the Old West (of England)

I wrote about the “ghost town” of Imber, deep in the heart of the British Army training grounds on Salisbury Plain, in a blog post three years ago. On that occasion I used a couple of photos taken by Paul Jackson (who has also written about Imber, and several other ghost towns, on his own blog). I finally got around to visiting the place myself a few days ago – the last week of August is one of the few times of year that it’s accessible to the general public – so here are a few of my own photos.

To recap what I said about Imber last time: “The Army took over the village during the Second World War, because its location and topography made it an ideal place for them to practice urban warfare in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. The residents were forcibly evacuated, with the assurance that they could return when the war was over. Unfortunately, the moment the war was over the Army had to start practicing for the next war... and then the one after that and so on. Seventy years later, Imber is still being used as a training ground for urban warfare!”

Imber is deep in the heart of Wiltshire, a few miles from the infamous 1960s UFO hotspot of Warminster. About fifty miles further south, on the coast of Dorset, there’s another village – Tyneham – that suffered a similar fate during WW2. The village and the whole surrounding area was commandeered in 1943 as an Army firing range. As in the case of Imber, this was originally pitched to the locals as a temporary measure for the duration of the war... but as with Imber, the site remains in Army hands to this day. They use it for live-firing tank training, and again public access is strictly limited. I managed a visit a few weeks ago, and a selection of my photos can be seen further down this post.

Although Imber and Tyneham have similar histories, the atmosphere of the two places couldn’t be more different. Approaching Imber along the access road from Warminster, the frequent warning notices leave you in no doubt that you’re a reluctantly tolerated visitor on government property. In the village of Imber itself there are strict limitations on where you can walk, and none of the buildings except the church is accessible to the public. Even on the “open” day when I went, there were far more trainee soldiers than tourists in evidence.

The atmosphere at Tyneham is completely different. On the days when it’s open to the public there are virtually no signs of army occupation at all, and you can go wherever you want within the village itself. Unlike the “urban warfare” site at Imber (where the buildings remain pretty much intact, apart from being windowless), the army had no particular interest in Tyneham’s houses and other buildings, so most of them have been allowed to fall into picturesque decay. The location of Tyneham is more scenic, too, being less than a mile from Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. You can walk along a footpath to Worbarrow Bay (see last photo below), which is also part of the Army ranges and has a small abandoned settlement of its own.

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