A bus service to a deserted village in a danger zone in the middle of Salisbury Plain accessed by a fleet of Routemasters. Who wouldn't enjoy that?
Poor Imber. In 1943 the War Office needed a lot of space to practice D-Day manoeuvres, and spotted that they could seal off a huge area of Salisbury Plain so long as they evacuated one small village. Imber's residents were given a few weeks notice to quit, and were gone by Christmas, thinking they'd be back again after the war was over. No chance, the army liked its hilly playground too much, and the village continues to provide a census return of zero. But the road through the ghost village is still sometimes opened up, including for two weeks every August. and that's when route 23A arrives.
So popular has the event become that on most of the scheduled journeys two buses double up. On alighting from the train I was faced with one old and one new Routemaster, and a no-brainer of a decision. I recognised the New Routemaster as the LGBT rainbow bus from Bow Garage, which I can catch any day of the week by stepping out of my house. Plus it was a hot day, and my local knowledge told me not to ride the expensive bus with no opening windows if I could possibly avoid it. So I was delighted (and relieved) when I managed to secure a place on the open-topped proper Routemaster, which was a breezy win.
The route out of Warminster passes large amounts of army housing, and is also a relentless climb, which meant very slow (and highly-revved) progress up Sack Hill. After the vehicle depot and military checkpoint the road becomes thinner and the scenery changes, to a landscape of lush rolling chalk grassland and the occasional blasted tank. Anywhere else in southern England this land would be covered with crops, or at least sheep, but obviously there's none of that here, just long grass and the occasional patch of woodland. It may looks highly enticing but no! - regular signs remind civilian visitors "Danger Unexploded Military Debris - Do Not Leave The Carriageway". Various cross-country tracks are laid down for the benefit of armoured vehicles (we passed several signs announcing "Tank Crossing") while designated strategic areas are marked out by a series of white posts.
It takes about twenty minutes to get to Imber, now a shadow of its former self, where only a few original buildings exist. Most important of these is medieval St Giles Church, tucked safely behind a barbed wire fence, and now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. They open for a carol service and for St Giles Day every year, plus this August fortnight, with Imberbus Day the busiest of the lot. A generator is brought in to power a supply of hot drinks, jars of Imber honey are sold (heaven knows how they manage that), and a set of display boards reveal the living history of the village. Wandering the churchyard I spotted a couple of gravestones dated 1983, which shows just how much former residents must have loved the place.
The next stretch of road east across the plain is glorious, apart from the regular reminders of soldiers being trained to kill. These include watchtowers, masts and earthen humps that might be tumuli but are more likely (given the ring of warning signs surrounding them) merely unexploded. I thought I could see all the way down to Old Sarum, and maybe Devizes, as we descended another scenic track. After a couple of miles another checkpoint is passed and suddenly you're back on a civilian road, as you can tell because farming and livestock kick back in, and the occasional homeowner is out front tinkering with his car.
Gore Cross Interchange is a most unlikely bus station, essentially two farms and a pond at a crossroads, but it's here that the various branches of route 23A intersect. As such up to four vehicles are scheduled to meet here on the hour and half hour, which makes for some amazing photos of chains of rural Routemasters if the timing is right. It can also be hit or miss to attempt to switch to an alternative service, as there aren't always enough seats to go round, and at one point I had to stand all the way to the next village.
The most exciting destination is Brazen Bottom, whose name belies its elevation, a destination chosen I suspect purely because it looks comical on the bus's blind. What's best is the descent from the hilltop, down a particularly steep single track hill where you pray not to meet any vehicle coming the other way, and where those on the open-topped upper deck occasionally needed to duck. It's as close as you'll ever get to riding a Routemaster rollercoaster.
Meanwhile the other major branch leads to the proper village of Tilshead, linked to the world outside the danger zone only by the A360, and which boasts the cheesiest reimagining of the Rose and Crowninn sign I've ever seen. Then on past idyllic scenes of combine harvesting to Chitterne, whose good ladies were serving tea in the village hall so that alighting passengers had something to do for an hour. The return trip to Tilshead was another highlight, this time via a three mile road weaving through more of Army Manoeuvres country. Beautiful, and yet unnerving, at the same time.
And throughout all this time I was sharing the top decks with The Men Who Like Buses. Most clutched printed out timetables with planned schedules duly highlighted, while others perused Ordnance Survey maps or road atlases in an attempt to trace our route. Most were of retirement age, although several families had turned up, with the younger generation of bus aficionado making its way up in the ranks. And while most watched and smiled silently, or chatted quietly, there were also certain men intent on conversing loudly in Inner Monologue, and this became somewhat grating.
I left before 2015's rain came, having thoroughly enjoyed a bright sunny day somewhere I wouldn't normally be able to go. Huge thanks to the organisers, and to the volunteers, and to the top bus company (and Network Rail) bosses spotted driving us around. But if you fancy a trip to Imber you're too late, because the road was sealed again at 7am this morning and the red flags won't be coming down until Remembrance Sunday. Or just make a note to attend Imberbus next August. The exact date will be announced in the spring, but Ian always blogs the details in advance, and that's how I remembered to ride a Routemaster to a deserted village in a danger zone in the middle of Salisbury Plain.