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700-year-old church of St. Giles, Imber
Wiltshire's church on a firing range
Over Christmas and the New Year, Wiltshire's church in the ghost village of Imber opens up to the public....
Isolated in the middle of hundreds of acres of tank-track scarred Wiltshire countryside, surrounded by the battered shells of houses, stands the beautiful 700-year-old church of St. Giles.
This Grade I listed building, decorated with 15th century murals, would in normal circumstances have several authorities vying for its protection.
However this ill-fated church has, until recently, been in the thick of a legal process to declare it officially redundant.
The church of St. Giles
Surrounded by a 10ft chain fence, a locked gate and "out of bounds" notices the church opens for just two services a year.
So why has this church been, to all intents and purposes, abandoned for so many years?
Well the Church of St. Giles is the parish church for the ghost town of Imber, a village permanently out of bounds to the public.
Imber the Ghost Village
It was a week before Christmas, in 1943, that the isolated village of Imber tucked deep in the folds of Salisbury plain was requisitioned by the War Office. Villagers had been told at the beginning of November that they had to pack up everything and leave and, in just over a month, the area was not only evacuated but the village itself literally dropped off the map.
Imber - A ghost town
The villagers, praised for the sacrifice they were making towards the war effort, were promised that their village would be returned to them after the Second World War.
But it never happened and the villagers remained in exile.
Almost 60 years on and the pub, manor houses and cottages are little more than shells. The buildings that are still intact have concrete facades. Little is recognisable now except the ancient church of St. Giles.
The Church on the firing range
Although the army has never owned the church or graveyard it does control access to the site. So a twice a year, to celebrate St. Giles' Day in September, the guns fall silent, security is lifted and civilians are allowed in to visit relative's graves and attend a service.
But, up until the beginning of 2007, the issue of who should take responsibility for the maintenance of the church was in question and even those two services a year were in jeopardy.
Buildings still intact have concrete facades
In the 1950s the army had informally agreed to keep the church wind and watertight but, several years ago, that arrangement had come to an end. A lightning strike, at about the same time, hadn't helped matters by leaving a roof pinnacle leaning precariously and threatening to plummet into the nave.
With the burden of restoring the church falling squarely on the shoulders of the small congregation of Edington, which already has its own ancient church to look after, it was understandable that they were baulking at having to raise additional money for a church only used a couple of times a year.
With funding in doubt, the solution was to start the process of declaring the church redundant. But with closure looming, the church's cause was quickly taken up by The Friends of Imber Church, which dropping the lobby for the reinstatement of the entire village, fought instead to save the church.
After lengthy negotiations, the Government and the Church of England agreed to the facelift and at the beginning of 2007, under the control of the Churches Conservation Trust, the £200,000 restoration project began :
One of the buildings still standing in Imber
"I think that things are definitely changing in Imber," says Ruth Underwood, "in that the Church is being restored and the Ministry of Defence has contributed towards the funding of the restoration and they are allowing access at certain times of the year.
"I believe that within the MOD there are very positive signs."
Imber open to the public
Restoration work on the church of St. Giles is due to be complete, according to Rev Dr Graham Southgate (the Vicar of Bratton, Edington and Imber, Coultson and Earlstoke), by this summer in time for the church's annual service on the first Saturday in September to celebrate the feast of St Giles.
last updated: 24/07/2009 at 14:33
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Sheila Adlam Stewart
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