In Gratitude for Service

by Gerry Lynch last modified 15 Sep, 2016 04:35 PM

Wilts man receives BEM for services in preserving Salisbury Plain church

A Wilton man has been honoured for his efforts in securing a unique church building on Salisbury Plain.

Neil Skelton, the head volunteer at St Giles’, Imber, was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to the unique church at a ceremony late last month, which was presented to him at the annual St Gilestide service.

The entire civilian population of Imber was evacuated in 1943 to provide a practice area for American troops preparing for the liberation of mainland Europe. After the war villages were not allowed to return to their homes.

The village, and St Giles’ Church, are only open to the public on a few occasions a year, and one of a small number of annual church services is a patronal festival on the Saturday nearest St Giles’ Day, which is on 1 September. In practice, this is usually on the August Bank Holiday Saturday. St Giles was transferred from the Diocese into the care of the Churches’ Conservation Trust, Neil’s former employer, in 2005.

Despite the infrequency of services, Neil’s efforts have really put the church on the map, attracting well over 10,000 visitors each year.

At the service the new lighting in the church, which had been installed the week before, was blessed by the Bishop of Ramsbury, immediately followed by the presentation of Neil’s BEM.

The Vice Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire, Lieutenant General Sir Roderick Cordy-Simpson, officiated, and the event concluded with a champagne and cake reception for the whole congregation which numbered about 120.

The funding for the lighting in the church was possible through the generosity of Sir Peter Hendy and his team of ‘Imberbus’ drivers who donate the takings from passengers when the vintage and modern buses operate over Salisbury Plain for a day in August.

“Neil Skelton has provided an environment at Imber which now raises about £10,000 from visitors, events and sales each year towards conservation of CCT churches and improvements in facilities at Imber church. He has sourced and found funding for a new set of 6 bells for the church (originals removed in the 1950s) and hosts many groups of bell ringers who wish to experience this unique setting. The MOD, which once considered the church an unwanted intrusion on their training area, now appreciates the benefits that ensue from its popularity.

In recent months, with help from the Commissioner of Transport and with co-operation from the MOD, Neil has organised and managed the building of a new access path and railings (estimated at £40,000) to the church, which removes many Health and Safety hazards and promotes accessibility for the disabled, all at no cost to CCT.

As a church still consecrated, Neil Skelton organises several services and formal events every year in conjunction with the local Benefice, including a Remembrance Service and an annual Carol Concert which attracts a ticketed full congregation of over 250 every year.   Visitor numbers continue to increase, and increasing revenue from Imber to CCT helps target more conservation to other historic churches at risk.

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