Category Archives: Interpretation & Learning

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

Interpretation & Learning

Creating interpretation – some of the projects

Torbryan Holy Trinity 1450-70.Torbryan Holy Trinity 15th Century Church stands in a tiny Devon village, with its old church house inn still selling beers beyond the lych-gate. This is not a chance relationship. The pub is older than the present church, and built for the purpose of brewing church ales over the almighty hearth to raise money so that the villagers could pay for the upkeep of the nave and tower. Partying was the economic way of devotion and the beers were strong.

Open the weighty door of Holy Trinity and step down onto the stone flags of the church, and rows of 18th century box pews lead to a russet and gilded roodscreen still standing from the 1470s. Better still the screen is faced with painted saints that have mysteriously survived the ravages of the Protestant Reformation. In 2013 two saints were stolen by thieves, who discovered that selling rare medieval art is near impossible. After futile attempts, they put them on eBay to be instantly recognised, and now the Saints are back in the screen and the thieves prosecuted.

If I were inclined to think as a 15th century inhabitant of Torbryan, I would credit the panels’ miraculous recovery to St Margaret of Antioch, with her dragon, and St Vincent with his millstone.Torbryan right St. Vincent & St Margaret of AntiochThe CCT chose a new alarm system, and decided to stimulate support for the church by creating interpretation, schools projects and events through HLF funding.


Inside Holy Trinity, there is neither lighting nor heating. The  Georgians added box pews, building them over the oak medieval benches, and in the early 19th century a very careful restoration was undertaken, changing little.  Through the great doors, you really do step back in time.

Not intruding on that experience was crucial to the design of the interpretation. Chris Jones of Smith & Jones Design installed dark furniture echoing the square panels of the pews and the colour of the Jacobean font cover. He wrapped a free standing framework around the corners of the tower to minimise its impact in the nave.

We sourced illuminations from medieval manuscripts in the British and Bodleian Libraries, and from the Ranworth Antiphoner in Norfolk, to immerse visitors in the imagery of the time. The text is written in varied layers; and we created interactive elements, developed through local school projects to ensure a good fit for their interests and curriculum.

The history of a church is essentially an abstract account of changing ideas ferociously fought over the centuries. The material evidence is there in paint, wood and stone, but it was what people thought that created and damaged the fabric. Few of the public today have any grasp of its complexity. The exhibition in Holy Trinity church tells that story as it was acted out through Torbryan and South Devon.

Widger’s Dig

The story of the battle between old ideas and new, which is the theme of the interpretation at Holy Trinity, began with the medieval village and how the villagers used the roodscreen.  When Reformation took hold, and the burning of saints’ images began, someone there protected the roodscreen. But everything had changed. No more were painted pictures venerated and the words of the Bible alone became all. The next great upheaveal was when mammoths emerged from the permafrost and dinosaur mania took hold of everyone’s imagination in the 19th century. Again a local man in Torbryan was right in the heart of the debate, and his discoveries form the subject of Widger’s Dig.

Widger’s Dig