Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2017/23 posted by hidden europe on

Next weekend, there's the chance to visit an extraordinary place in England - a village where the entire population was forcibly removed in 1943 in order to provide space on Salisbury Plain for American military manoeuvres. It's one of those places that are usually barred to the public and all the more intriguing for that.

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Dear fellow travellers

In the Lüneburg Heath area of western Germany, there is a fine collection of ancient graves, dating back some 5,000 years. The graves are in the middle of a large rural region reserved for military training. They can be reached via a 6-km-long road from Ostenholz, but that particular road is only open to the public during daylight hours at weekends. It's not a trip we've ever made, but we can imagine there must be a certain frisson as one sets out from Ostenholz across what would normally be barred territory.

In a world where everything is available - at a price - the notion of not being allowed to travel just where we wish and when we wish seems strange. At least to those of us privileged to live in countries where there is freedom of movement and borders barely matter. Refugees will of course take a very different view of space and place. For them, most places are barred most of the time.

But for us the very fact that the road to the ancient dolmen graves on that German heath is closed for most of the time makes the journey all the more attractive. It's not unique. Last month, much-needed repairs to a motorway that skirts the heath at Lüneburg threatened to play havoc with holiday traffic. So on July weekends, motorists on the A7 could leave the busy motorway and for twenty kilometres follow an alternative route through an area normally reserved exclusively for the military.

Nowadays, one can take escorted tours into "secret" bunkers below Berlin - which are surely therefore not so secret. There are tours of former Russian military bases and even an old Russian military hospital in the forests south-west of the German capital now occasionally opens its doors to the public.

In Denmark, a slip road off a motorway leads to the island of Sprogø, now barred to casual visitors, but still accessible on a group tour. Those who visit Sprogø on such a tour discover the oddball history of an island which was for over 30 years reserved as a place of exile for promiscuous women.

The popularity of off-grid tours which visit places otherwise barred to the public has created an entire new tourism sector. Tours to the site of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, for example, offer the chance to penetrate an exclusion zone where few could normally venture.

Next weekend, there's the chance to visit an extraordinary place in England - a village where the entire population was forcibly removed in 1943 in order to provide space on Salisbury Plain for American military manoeuvres. Imber lies in a gentle vale at the heart of a beautiful spread of chalk grassland well north of the main road from Stonehenge and Shrewton to Warminster. Rough Down rises up to the north of Imber while to the west of the village the land climbs slowly to Summer Down where ancient tumuli attest to the antiquity of settlement in this region.

To visit Imber is a chance to step back in time - all the more so next Saturday when a fleet of heritage buses will shuttle passengers to remote spots on Salisbury Plain which are rarely open to the public. Join the 23A bus from Warminster railway station for the half-hour run to Imber. There you can stop off and explore the abandoned village before continuing to Brazen Bottom and New Zealand. Yes, there really is a place called New Zealand. It is every bit as bizarre as its name. Those who alight from the 23A bus next Saturday will discover a fake refugee camp which is used by the British Army for military training.

Buses for Imber will leave Warminster station about every 10 minutes from 09.45 next Saturday.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.