Interpreting Imber

Interpreting the lost village of Imber

Behind the wire and warning signs of the British Army training area on Salisbury Plain, lie the remains of a lost village. It is not alone; earthworks linger of eleven settlements vanished by the Middle Ages.

But Imber thrived in the medieval wool trade, survived centuries of thinly profitable sheep farming, and abruptly ended on 17th December 1943, when the village was evacuated during World War II. As the Allies prepared for the multi-national invasion of Europe, the MOD needed Imber for heavy armoured manoeuvres. Given forty-seven days to leave, the villagers thought to return but never regained their homes.

The evacuation of Imber is locally well-known, and told at the village church on the few open days permitted. When the rich collection of photographs and research by the Friends of St. Giles’ Church needed redisplaying, the task of interpretation became mine.

People feel deeply about the loss of the village, and the houses that no longer stand, but know less about the era when the church was built from 1280 to 1500, or about Imber’s rare living conservation today. I visited on a cold March noon, by special permission, when activity across the firing ranges was low. Driving over rutted tracks with Peter Lankester of the Friends group, it was hard to imagine the route had led to homes in the twentieth century; but for most of Imber’s existence it was like this, the road across the plain identified by chalk boulders in the turf.

The church of St. Giles is one of a handful of buildings still remaining, cared for by the CCT and the Friends. Outside, the wild waste extends from the hillside graveyard, inside, the medieval past was flowery. The nave arcades were painted in C13th with a chequerboard of flowers, once dark and bright red, and brilliant orange. It was built by Thomas le Rous, lord of the manor, a Coroner for Wiltshire investigating murders were they lay.

Around 1400, a furtive hand incised graffiti in the plaster in the tower. The figure, hunting with two hounds, wears a fancy chaperone hat with a liripipe dangling forward. His shoes are pointy, of the kind that bishops railed against for the long toes indicated licentiousness, and inhibited kneeling in church. Perhaps it is a portrait of William Rous who lost his Imber inheritance through problems with women and money. Of him contemporaries said he was ‘alwey occupied in lechery and avowtry and took no heed to sew’.1   One can only guess at the opinion of the person who scratched the image above the stair.

On the day I visited, the church was under wraps, awaiting the next seasonal open day – pandemic allowing. The public visit en masse, so the new interpretation had to be visible to a throng, yet well-spaced, back against the walls, and suitable for packing away during the many empty months.

Designers Motivation81 and I had previously collaborated on an exhibition for Hartley Wintney St. Mary’s Church, the size of a shoe box with rare medieval wall paintings. We devised a system of portable lecterns over the box pews, and free standing easels, so the boards would not touch the ancient plaster. You can read more about the medieval wall paintings in both churches.

At Imber, we continued the use of easels but chose large banners for the chancel. The photos and information were organised around the 1901 map of Imber, and the censuses of 1851-1911, to find out how the functions of the village interacted and who lived where.

The final banner echoes the Domesday name for Imber – Wild Imemerie, to describe its ancient past and wild present.  Richard Osgood, Senior Archaeologist MOD, wrote an expert account of the British Romano villages.

In their contribution, the Salisbury Plain Training Area Conservation Group made this astounding point – the wild turf and flowers from before 1943 still flourish at Imber; and because it lies within the military training area, the 40,000 ha of the Salisbury Plain Training Area is the largest tract of unimproved chalk grassland in NW Europe. Protected from intensive agriculture and new building, it supports a wonderfully rich diversity of species. The conservation team supplied fantastic photographs and text to tell of the wildlife of the Plain now.

Neither suburbs nor pesticides smother the lands of Imber.

Left: Stone Curlew. Right: Sainfoin flower with Sainfoin bee unique to Salisbury Plain.

If you would like to visit Imber, see current open days and events

  1.  VCH Wiltshire, Vol 7, 61, note 46.

Drawing Medieval Wall Paintings

Early thirteenth century medieval wall painting in Hartley Wintney St. Mary’s. Image lines heightened by Rowena Riley.

The walls of medieval churches were smothered in paintings. There were many schemes and many artists interpreting them. Parishioners took a pride in raising the cash to update them. They were changed roughly every twenty-five years, or when someone left money, or something happened. The pictures altered with fashions or changing ideology, but they were there to influence behaviour.

Early on, Christ the Creator of the World was joyfully painted on the chancel arch. Later centuries indulged in the horrors of the last judgement, with the snapping jaws of hell swallowing doomed little figures herded by demons with toasting forks. In 1547 the party came to an end with the banning of all images in English churches, at the Reformation. Out came the pails of whitewash and villagers breathed easy again.

Left: Hartley Wintney St. Mary’s chancel arch now with Ten Commandments. Top: Pickering church Harrowing of Hell. Bottom: Doom from South Leigh church.

When a rainstorm poured through the roof of tiny St. Mary’s in Hartley Wintney in 1842, it washed the white away. The churchwarden stood aghast at ‘figures under canopies in very brilliant colours’ and quickly hid them. He then punched through the wall to build the transepts, but slowly pictures remerged on the north wall, tantalising fragments lingering on.

Hartley Wintney St. Mary’s early 13th century wall painting.

This one is dated by conservators as early 13th century. St. Mary’s had been built by the local Cistercian nunnery around 1234 and so it may be one of the original schemes. At first, I struggled to recognise anything in it although assured by conservation reports that it depicts horses. The bands of coloured lines are their backs.

My problem was to help the visitor to see them and to care about their preservation. Working with the photographer Tim Earney, we developed a simple method. Printing his photographs onto archival paper I carefully picked out every suggestion of line or spot of paintwork, drawing in pencil to see what that might reveal. Once the harness appeared the anatomy of four horses emerged.

Hartley Wintney St Mary’s four horses, photo by Tim Earney, drawing by Rowena Riley

Stains, dust, particles of later paintings, patches of plaster repairs, all confuse what may be perceived. The marks are so enigmatic that even the precise position of the nostrils is in question. There appear to be a row of ovals like nostrils but when these are drawn in the horses’ heads are too long for their backs. What they are is a mystery.

The horses are good fast coursers or rouncies, not hacks, and are expensive like their harness. They appear to have no riders. Perhaps they are pulling something, but the window was installed in the 1800s and what followed is lost. There is no other painting like them. What could they be?

Four riderless horses were prophesied by Zachariah to foretell of John the Baptist, and the Song of Zachariah was sung by Cistercian nuns at Lauds to greet the Rising Sun of Christ, who was painted on the chancel wall. But the horses at Hartley Wintney have tack, so the jury is still out.


The nuns of Wintney Priory had their own church a mile away, down a path through open fields to their convent by the marsh, but the Mother Superior governed what was painted in St. Mary’s. By the 15th century, the north wall carried a glorious depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins to remind the parishioners what they should not do.

Deadly Sins paintings had little images of sinners arranged around a central figure, or sprouting from a tree. There were other designs, but the tree or large figure were the most popular. In nearly all of them, the sinners have dreadful devils waiting to cart them off to hell.

The nuns in their wisdom chose a large naked man to form the centre piece of their Seven Deadlies. A gallery, built in 1834, cuts across his body, but lovers cavort on the lower wall near his thighs, and gluttony guzzles on her knees above his shoulder. Unusually, St. Mary’s has no demons. There is not a single faded shadow of horn or leering monster.

Did the nuns have a healthier vision of the naked body representing the soul? Prioress Alice Fyshide 1385-1425 had full control of her convent but not always of herself. In 1405 the Bishop heard that Alice had a chamber in which she consorted day and night with lay brother Thomas Ferris. Ten years later the Diocese visited, and Alice resigned.

Sister Petronella Pigeon had an affair with a man called Pratt, but still became Prioress 1460-98. No doubt these were momentary aberrations in the convent’s 400 years of prayer. They do however coincide with the date of the Seven Deadly Sins painting in St. Mary’s Hartley Wintney.


photo by Peter Lankester of Imber St Giles Seven Deadly Sins

The purpose of a Sins painting was to help parishioners confess. At Imber’s St. Giles red devils leered around Gluttony, Lust, Slot, Envy, Anger, Avarice and Pride. It was a new addition from lord of the manor, Sir Walter Hungerford freshly promoted on the battlefield of Bosworth 1485, and just returned from a diplomatic visit to Rome in 1487, where he might see works of the new Renaissance.

Now you may struggle to make any sense of these hotchpotch blotches, as I did in the dim north aisle, but aided with a photograph by Peter Lankester, I took to drawing again. It helps to know what should be there. This design appears to be based on a tree, with strong brown branches and tendrils.

The upper portion only remains of the scheme. As well as scraps of pigment, there are many patches of grey and pink plaster disfiguring the image. Sorting it out is not simple, and still a best guess.

The conservators identified Avarice with his money bags, top left. Avarice appears to be riding a lion. He has a label floating like a ribbon above his head, and a horned demon awaiting him.

Imber St. Giles Seven Deadly Sins. Photo by Peter Lankester, heightened drawing of lines by Rowena Riley

By drawing, more can be identified. To the right, a shiny patch with blue is the breastplate of Anger, probably stabbing himself in the head – which was a recognised act of rage in the 15th century. He seems to be riding a horse or mule.

Curiously, the demon to the left of Anger faces away from his tormented sinner, to the centre of the painting. I puzzled for hours over the strange Mickey Mouse ears of a devil that I had never before seen depicted. What could it be? What should be there? The answer is Pride, the worst sin of all, riding high on the tree and usually depicted as a woman. Then she rode into view.

It was not an eared demon, but the space left where the beautiful woman of Pride had once been. Revealed by the line of her throat, her neck, and shoulders, wearing a trim belt and fine sleeves. Above her head are lines which may be a label, or an ornate headdress like these Butterfly Hennin c 1470-1485 made by Kat’s Hats. The Yorkist Queen Elizabeth Woodville wore such a hat.

The Yorkist reign ended with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, where Sir Walter Hungerford of Imber ensured his fortune by fighting on the Tudor side.

Imber St. Giles medieval wall paintings. Photo by Peter Martindale Conservation

The Wrecking of the San Francisco, Duneen, 1867

On 7 January 1867, after violent storms, Captain Garibaldi ran his brig ashore at Duneen Cove, Ardfield to conduct repairs. It was Monday afternoon, the light was clear, and Coastguard Carr watched her sail two points before the wind straight through the rocks and onto the sands. In fifteen minutes Carr was on the beach, and within the hour, so were two hundred others. A game began. Every time the tide rose, the people retreated, for the ship could not be reached; every time it fell, they swarmed forward. They entered the icy water, lifting each other on board and throwing down everything they could steal. For twenty-four hours, six coast guard and five police battled, night and day, to keep at bay a growing crowd of four hundred. The coastguard Captain Synge was sick in bed, and it was down to Chief Boatman Bridle to control matters, but he was late arriving.

Instead, Denis McCarthy Gallwey, arriving from Greenfield House shortly after Carr, hired a boat and with RIC Constable Shields rescued the crew. The Italian Captain barely spoke English, and could not understand that he must pay for the coastguard and police to protect his vessel. So Miss Annie Gallwey came from Greenfield to speak with him in French. As a result, the unfortunate man went up to Muckruss House and signed his entire ship and its cargo of coal over to Henry Baldwin Beamish Esq., landlord and magistrate. By now it was Tuesday afternoon. Henry’s first action was to dismiss the police. He appointed his four gentlemen sons and his elderly father-in-law to protect the vessel. The crowd swelled to five hundred. The ship began to ring as if attacked by fifty caulkers (Coastguard Carr’s statement). Even after 7 pm, ‘as high as the tide is they are still rapping at her’ (Cornelius Donovan’s words). By Wednesday, five hundred-weight (40 stone) of the sheet copper covering the hull had disappeared into the Muckruss mist.

Wreck Auction of San FranciscoConfusion arose as Captain Garibaldi changed his mind and handed the ship’s papers to the official agents Cummins of Queenstown. They arranged for its auction at Duneen on Monday 14th. Henry purchased the coals. The ship was bought by the surveyor who had been contracted to value her; but he reconsidered on the way home, and Henry got her at a knockdown price.

The Board of Trade ordered an Inquiry, partly because on Thursday night the people had taken to stoning the coast guards from the cliff, and in response John Dooley (Dirk Cove Coastguard) and boatmen John Warren and his son fired their pistols at them in the dark (no-one was hurt). Mostly, it was because the coastguard had still not been paid. The ship made £154 5s 6d at the auction; but after the shipping agents, the auctioneer, Beamish and Gallwey had submitted their claims, all that was left to her Captain was four shillings. The largest claim – at £37 8s –  had been made by Henry Baldwin Beamish.

The investigators were a lawyer John Hughes, and young Captain Henry Duncan Grant RN, who had risen through the ranks, fighting his way through India when Lieutenant on HM Pearl, and captaining anti-slavery missions in the Caribbean. They came fresh from the Elizabeth Buckram, sunk off the Wirral, Liverpool. Their brief: to inquire into the chaos that arose when her cargo of raw rum washed ashore. One hundred and fifty people fought over the barrels. A house painter emptied his paint can, wiped it with grass, filled it with rum and fell face down into a puddle. He had to have his stomach pumped. A lady, tempted to a tot, was found insensible in the dunes, having been abused. Women were seen drinking from their boots. The scenes of debauchery were unspeakable. A gentleman and a hotel boot boy disappeared into the waves never to surface again. Grant became a teetotaller.

Now here he was in Clonakilty and clear in his sights was Henry Baldwin Beamish, dodgy Irish magistrate with a bunch of pampered sons. Captain Grant asked why Beamish had dismissed the police. To save money, said Henry. Did he think that the expenses of those men would have amounted to what he had claimed for his sons? “I do not know what you do in England,” said Henry “but here we do not expect gentlemen’s sons to be paid at the same rate as labourers.”

Henry was not helped by the intervention of his younger son Tom, who accused the police of drunkenness at two earlier wrecks on his father’s land; and turning a blind eye to plundering if offered little glasses of whiskey. Tom insisted that Cornelius Driscoll should be brought in as a witness. Faced with the formality of the Court, Cornelius said he could only tell his story in Irish; the interpreter was a policeman, and Tom’s case was lost. Henry quickly established that the earlier wrecks would not fall within the scope of the current investigation.

The Inquiry lasted five days. By the Third Day, Grant and Hughes had stripped away every veneer and had Beamish wriggling on a pin. Then Henry Baldwin Beamish rose to read his formal statement to the Clonakilty Court. With flamboyant elegance and little flourishes of language, he made five points. He had been appointed agent for the ship by the Captain, and had he not been ‘overruled and supplanted’ by Messrs. Cummins, things would have gone on nicely. This was his property, his land, his country and he was the magistrate in charge. His dismissal of the police demonstrated the profound moral influence he had over the people, perfectly sufficient to protect the ship. The police had better things to do as they were a military force, directed of course by him as magistrate. Further,

“I would wish to impress upon you that if you think by inverting society, by putting common officers in the place of gentlemen of proper intelligence and worth … and that if the magistrates of this country are degraded by imposing over them stipendiaries – I say that the glory of old England is set for ever! and her sister island will perish in the sea!

“I fear not your utmost! Do your business! I am here to set you at defiance! I know the rectitude of my conduct. I care as little about that petty business of the San Francisco and her value of £200 as I care for 200 pence! My son will be here, and we defy you!”

These were no idle threats. It was Saturday 6 April 1867 –  exactly one month since the Fenian Rising – and Irish courts everywhere were arresting and prosecuting the patriotic rebels. The British government was in no mood to upset local magistrates, especially now Lord Naas, Chief Secretary for Ireland, had extended the ‘Fenian Pay’ to all the magistracy – as well as the constabulary, railway and telegraph workers – to keep them ‘loyal’.

From that moment the Court was in Beamish’s hands. Grant made his acid report to the British House of Commons, and nothing further was done. Business as usual re-established around the Galley Head. What did that mean? Grant could not decide. Close examination of witness statements suggests a pact between Beamish and his locals: they got some, he got some. In this, Denis Gallwey and his sister Annie colluded. On 9 January Denis sent a telegram from Greenfield house to the London Standard falsely stating that the San Francisco’s back was broken. But what about their side of the Galley Head?

Greenfields Clonakilty Jan 9th 1867

Denis was baronial high constable for Ibane and Barryroe, recommended by his uncles, lawyers for the Crown Prosecution. His was an immensely respectable family with a long history of smuggling. Grandfather Michael and sons controlled tenancies across Kilkerran, Ballylibert, Lisduff, Donoure, & Dundeady. Their published family history relates that Michael, a brewer, was nearly convicted in 1821 but for Lord Longueville’s intervention. Professor Frank Hodnett from Clonakilty quotes O’Donaghue’s words on the Gallweys, “Smugglers, all of them.”(3)

  1. The San Francisco was one of four wrecks around the Galley Head on 6 & 7 January 1867. The other three mentioned in the Cork Examiner and Skibbereen and West Carbery Eagle, no survivors, only one identified: the St. Helena researched by the author.
  2. The eleven crew took up residence in Cornelius Donovan’s ‘small house on the cliff’ (BOTW).
  3. The Galweys & Gallweys of Munster by Sir Henry Blackall, revised by A Galwey & T Gallwey 2015.

Galley Head west creek

Wieniawski, Ravel and the Chicken God

Synaesthesia is not much a part of Western culture, unlike 17th C India where modal music – the Ragas – were expressed through paintings – the Ragamalas. The modes carry associated colours, hours, seasons and verses. Indian musicians sit before these pictures and literally play them.

Classical Hindustani musician Sadhana has a website to explain the basic concepts of Indian Music. Without hesitation she begins by comparing a palette of colours in painting to describe both the playing and the construction of ragas.


It is difficult to see why in the West it is thought strange, when singers talk of ‘colour’ although they do not mean anything one can see. Presumably, without becoming involved in what is meant by the western medical definition of an identified condition, presumably synaesthesia is a cultural development in the wiring of the mind.

Wieniawski Legende Op 17 sketch RRDuring many hours of painting in the studio, I used to listen to music until at one point the music took over, demanding that I draw the sounds. The images are not intended to communicate the experience of listening to the music, nor to provide a musical text, but they arise from it.

The Legende in G minor Op.17 by the virtuoso violinist composer Henryk Wieniawski has an undercurrent of bassoons. He wrote it to win his fiancée Isabella Hampton, and succeeded, so they say. It is romantic but precarious too, like Wieniawski’s life that ended at 45.

Wieniawski's Legende in G minor Op. 17 RR

Just listen to the music.

Wieniawski’s Legende Op.17 Anne-Sophie Mutter

(If you can’t access this on the ipad then you can use a free youtube converter to convert it to an MP4 file, then it will play. This is the URL to paste into the converter.)

I have heard critics describe Maurice Ravel’s music as unemotional, mathematical. This surprises me. Perhaps they mean that it does not follow a single emotional trajectory, but slides in the spaces in between, which I find truer of relationships. Sometimes tantalising and so nearly something, that becomes something else, and on again.It is no less feeling to go through these changes although they cannot be pinned and boxed for convenience.

Anyway the dance is at the heart of it, and drawing Ravel lead me on again to a series that I can only call the chicken gods. They are all masked, which for a painter of portraits is a strange release – allowing the dancers to say what no-one wishes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Widger’s Dig

James Lyon Widger was born in Broadhempston village, Devon and spent 20 years excavating the karst limestone caves in Torbryan. He dug alone in the dark to discover a sequence of British wildlife stretching back for 200,000 years. He began in 1865 just as the debate over the age of the world intensified.

His finds tell a story that he himself could not have imagined. His own story is part of the long battle between old ideas and new that are evidenced in the church of Holy Trinity in Torbryan. Working for The Churches Conservation Trust, I developed interpretation to tell that story of change from medieval devotion through Reformation iconoclasm, and we also created this cabinet about Widger’s Dig. It is the next stage in the tale.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


We needed something that would not take over the view from the altar to the tower, as some religious services are still held in Holy Trinity. That something had to convey a sense of mystery to encourage visitors to discover the story for themselves.  Smith & Jones Design created this cube cabinet, and we layered in information and activities for adults and children. I ran a project with Denbury Primary School for six weeks and the children got to grips with the Ice Age and spotted hyenas through studying Widger’s dig. They gave ideas for the cabinet.

The pull-up panels tell James Lyon Widger’s story in brief. The top drawer is about the caves and how far the Ice Age glacial sheet extended over Europe. Then the drawers open as the dig, going downwards and back through time.

Second drawer – shows animals Widger found back to 11,700 BP The Holocene Epoch

Third drawer – Into the Ice Age – to 70,000 BP The Devensian Glacial, included woolly rhinos, cave lions and hyenas.

Fourth drawer – Warming Up – to 128,000 BP The Ipswichian Interglacial, when hippos, hyenas and straight-tusked elephants all lived around Torbryan.

Fifth drawer – Freezing – to 200,000 BP The Wolstonian Glacial, more woolly rhinos, mammoths, cave lions, and lots of brown bears, clawless otters and wolverines. The layers of bones had different little lemmings, each a specialist herbivore, revealing the plants and the habitats.

Sixth Drawer – Spotted Hyenas. Widger found the remains of 600 hyenas in the caves. The school children studied their behaviour and habitats in Tanzania, to understand how the climate had changed around Torbryan, before visiting Torbay Museum and learning about the Ice Age.

NB No access to the caves, a protected SSSI, on private land, dangerous.

Artist / Writer author, illustrator, research and interpretation