Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Imberbus 2017

Last Saturday (August 26th.) the military training ground on Salisbury Plain was invaded by a fleet of London buses, old and new in what has become an annual event to operate a service from the Wiltshire garrison town of Warminster deep into what is normally forbidden territory. Buses venture to the village of Imber – depopulated by the army in 1943 for use as target practice. From Imber buses run on to a quartet of Wiltshire villages that lie on the perimeter of the military land – Market Lavington, West Lavington, Tilshead and Chitterne.

Two Routemasters are manoeuvring after picking up passengers in the village of Imber.
Among the places passed en route are New Zealand Farm Camp and the splendidly named Brazen Bottom. The latter, no more than a rural crossroads, I suspect is included for its comedic value. Along the way there’s a distant view of Copehill Down where a Bavarian styled village was constructed in the 1980s to replicate the topography that might be contested in the event of a Soviet land invasion. In Imber, the 14th. and 15th. century church of St. Giles is the only significant building or structure that remains intact – prudently Grade I listed. Elsewhere in Imber the army has constructed a couple of residential cul-de-sacs that superficially resemble the sort of development that the likes of Bovis Homes might throw up. Tin roofs and empty spaces where doors and windows should be give the game away. Allegedly the aim was to prepare troops for street fighting in Belfast.

St, Giles's church at Imber - almost the last surviving structure in the village - the rest being destroyed by the army in training exercises. Imber has been unpopulated since 1943 when the residents were ordered out, never to return.
In the 15 years or so that I lived in London, the Routemaster bus dominated the services although a dwindling number of earlier models still hung around. Routes 14, 19, 22, 31 and 49 had most of my custom and while bus travel had its compensations in terms of people-watching and observing the city from above, I learned to resent the hours of wasted time that would accumulate each and every week at bus stops. The extended gaps between buses that could often to stretch to 30 minutes or more despite an advertised frequency of 4 – 8 minutes were bad enough but there were additional cruelties to endure. When a bus pulls up and the destination is some way short of the full journey, a wager must be struck. Logic might persuade you to take the bus as far as it goes and catch another one, even though in those days you could easily end up paying more for taking your journey in instalments. The drawback here is that your bus may well be overtaken en route by one that’s going the full distance leaving you watching its diminishing form with mounting fury as you face the prospect of yet another spell of waiting at an interim stop. Another great frustration was the tendency for convoys to form. What often happened then was the arrival of an almost full bus causing a mighty scramble to get aboard while an almost empty one would sail past without pausing, leaving in its wake a group of disgruntled passengers for whom there was no space on the first bus and the pleasure of another long wait stretching ahead of them. This is by no means an exhaustive account of potential frustrations and it must be said, many buses arrived in reasonable time and many journeys were untroubled, though never swift, other than very late at night or before 7am.

Growing up surrounded by the bucolic delights of Metroland in the Sixties, the sight of these short wheelbase London Country buses pootering through the lanes around Heronsgate, Loudwater, Chenies and Chorleywood was familiar and comforting - offering a modest connection to the world outside. Known as Guy Specials (GS) they were introduced in 1953 for use on low density routes. This example on display at Imber is from the collection of London Transport Museum. 
Riding on a Routemaster after so many years was an evocative experience – the roof contours on the upper deck, the relationship of seats to windows, the preference for an uninterrupted view and the distinctive engine note all recovered buried recollections of crawling along Putney High Street, racing south on Redcliffe Gardens when the lights were green, dog legging through Notting Hill Gate from Westbourne Grove into Kensington Church Street and others too many to mention. I’ve always admired London Transport as a pioneer in corporate identity and a committed supporter of excellence in design. The Frank Pick tradition is one that even outsourcing and privatisation has failed to obliterate and it was a pleasure to note how the Imberbus organisers followed the LT house style in their publicity. The map especially so – a perfect pastiche of the folded maps that used to be available to all.

Imber War Memorial.
It’s unusual to find an event that caters to two specialist audiences but here was one that offered public transport enthusiasts the chance to travel on much loved vintage vehicles plus providing access to forbidden places for the inquisitive and curious. The organisers coped with a high level of demand with commendable cheerfulness and the only occasional sour note came from a minority of the more fanatical photographers and their vocal intolerance of members of the public with the temerity to be visible in their viewfinders as they compose the perfect shot.

This photo opportunity at New Zealand Farm Camp to the north of Imber was too good to miss. An even better photo was available to the RM driver of the assembled multitude of bus fanatics. 

MoD Brutalism.

Tanks for target practice.

Two more Routemasters at Gore Cross - the Imberbus hub deep into the military land. Almost all journeys intersect here.

Preparations for the evacuation of Chitterne - a busy scene outside Chitterne Church as the 16.05 departures for Warminster are marshalled.

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