Fortean Times, November 2006
By Leigh Driver
England is full of deserted villages, but while the majority were abandoned in the mediæval period as a result of disease, climate, population pressures or economic factors, some have ‘vanished’ in more recent times. In an extract from her new book The Lost Villages of England, Leigh Driver tells the story of how the pretty Dorset village of Tyneham became one of the strangest casualties of World War II.
A row of rustic thatched cottages stands in the shadow of a square-
Depopulated at a time of national emergency, this once-
Our first glimpse of early Tyneham came in 1859, with the excavation of an Iron Age industrial site and settlement there. More than 2,000 years ago, the local Kimmeridgeshale stone was worked by people of the Dwr y Trges (Durotriges) tribe to create amulets, bracelets and necklaces, personal ornaments later admired by the Romans; in fact, both settlement and industry flourished during the occupation. Surrounded as it is by numerous relics of prehistory, this valley was clearly favoured long before the shale-
Those final Tyneham residents long maintained that assurances were given that their removal from the village was merely a temporary precaution and that once hostilities ceased they would be allowed to regain possession of their homes. As tenants of the Bond family, who held the Tyneham estate (and therefore much of the parish), the villagers did not actually own any of the properties. Consequently, when it became clear that the government intended to retain the land indefinitely, the ordinary folk of Tyneham merely received compensation for the produce of their gardens. Nevertheless, as far as the villagers were concerned, Tyneham, while not their property, was certainly their home, and had been for many years – in a number of cases, for generations.
Since the evacuation, a great deal has been written about Tyneham, much of it penned by former residents – memoirs often criticised, by both outsiders and former villagers, for painting too idyllic a picture of life there. For we are presented with an enchanting scene of a remote and peaceful valley blessed with a temperate climate, a pest-
Run along lines of almost feudal interdependence between the landowning employer and his tenant labourers, the estate and village were directed from Tyneham House. A gabled, three-
The village itself largely comprised a single street of scattered grey stone cottages and the mediæval church of St Mary. Refurbished in the late 18th century, the church interior contained the splendid monuments of the Bond family in Caen stone. At Harvest Festival, the church would be beautifully decorated with flowers and vegetables from the gardens of Tyneham House, and it was not an uncommon sight for wild and domestic animals to invade the services to which parishioners had been called by two modest bells hung in an exterior bell-
Close by stood the early 19th-
From the village, a small winding path lined with local fishermen’s cottages followed a small stream called the Gwyle as it dropped 0.8km (0.5 miles) through a narrow valley to the sea at Worbarrow Bay. Sharing only the church, schoolroom and Post Office with the rest of the village, the fisherfolk of Worbarrow were almost a self-
Above all, the Tyneham estate relied on mixed arable and livestock farming. The estate’s 700 sheep, each with its own bell, were watched over by a single shepherd and his dog. There was also abundant pasture for dairy cattle, the milk being sent to London by train from nearby Corfe. No fences prevented the animals from wandering onto the rough gravel tracks that passed for roads, but a multitude of gates would restrict their movements, while the fields around the village were lined with grey stone walls and separated by quick-
It was on the bitterly cold day of 17 November 1943, as the village began its traditional preparations for the forthcoming festive season, that the Creech village postmaster delivered to every household the letters that brought the unwelcome news of evacuation. The date set for the military takeover was 19 December. By that time, nearly half of the Isle of Purbeck had been requisitioned and the gunnery ranges at Lulworth expanded. In addition, an RAF radar station sat atop the lofty Tyneham Cap; women from the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) were billeted at Tyneham House, and airmen lodged in the village. Barbed wire had become a familiar sight in the landscape, as had the tank traps along the coast.
Villagers who had already given so much for their country (the parish had lost many young men in the Great War) patriotically did their duty and peacefully accepted the eviction, buoyed by the belief that they would be back before the hay was due to be harvested. Temporary accommodation and alternative employment were found, and gradually the village emptied.
Within weeks, this tight-
Though impassioned protests brought about a public enquiry, a government White Paper made it clear that, while some promises might have been made regarding the eventual return of Tyneham, it was necessary for all personal considerations to be overridden by what was in the best interests of the nation. As any last hope of returning home vanished for the villagers, many were offered the chance to be rehoused at Sandford, near Wareham, in a small estate of newly built council houses known as Tyneham Close. Light and modern, with electricity and indoor plumbing, these dwellings were a world away from the draughty old stone cottages of the village, with their antiquated sanitation. A number of former Tyneham folk were quite content in their new homes, but many others, broken-
Interest in the village never waned, however. The demise of the great Tyneham House, demolished by the Ministry of Works in the 1960s, brought renewed protests. Candlelit vigils were held by pressure groups intent on gaining greater access to the village, with the result that firing is now halted on certain specially designated days of the year, allowing visitors to the village. A special car park has been built, and picnic tables installed. Moreover, the old school has been set up as though the children have merely stepped outside for a moment, while the church, restored and now maintained by the Army, houses an exhibition chronicling both the history of the village and the current importance of the area as a protected natural habitat. In 1975, the graveyard was restored and used for burials once more.
With its gravestones scoured clean and its pond freshly dug out, many feel that the village has become sanitised, its unique character lost. And yet this ghost village still exerts a powerful attraction, having attained a mythical status in the public’s imagination. Visiting Tyneham today, one recalls the parting plea pinned to the church door by the villagers as they stoically vacated their homes for the national good. Their haunting words are now famous: “Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”
News from 2006