A row of rustic thatched cottages stands in the shadow of a square-towered village church, while a ragged group of militant labourers dressed in early 19th-century garb – the founders of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Workers – gathers in earnest conversation beneath the tall elm on the green. Yet the year is not 1833 but 1985, and the place – not Tolpuddle but another well known Dorset village some miles distant: Tyneham.
Depopulated at a time of national emergency, this once-attractive yet hard-working village stands empty and ruinous amid a vast Army training area. So faithfully does Tyneham represent a centuries-old rural landscape that it has on occasion found itself dressed as a set for television or film productions. One such production was Comrades, Bill Douglas’s 1985 film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, for which a mature tree was planted on the green, and a fake church tower quickly constructed. Yet for most of the time, Tyneham is empty and silent, save for scurrying wildlife and the persistent crump of guns.
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-workers took up residence. Bounded by gently rolling hills in all landward directions, and to the south by the sea, the isolation of this compact coastal location is one factor that attracted the Army in 1942 when, in order to train British and American tank crews for the planned assault on Normandy’s beaches, it sought to expand its existing gunnery ranges at Lulworth. Unfortunately, the use of live ordnance made it imperative that the tiny village that lay at the heart of this new battle training ground should be evacuated.
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-free sanctuary for flora and fauna where snow rarely fell, and a village where the men still habitually dressed in traditional smocks made from home-grown flax and where iron-hooped wooden buckets were still carried on yokes. Wistful nostalgia aside, these first-hand stories provide a fascinating account of a virtually self-sufficient community that spoke a language almost of its own, and lived a now vanished way of life.
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-storey Elizabethan mansion of grey Purbeck ashlar built in 1523, it boasted grand mullioned windows that looked out upon colourful gardens, immaculate lawns and a majestic avenue of lime trees. One of the three great houses on the Isle of Purbeck, it had been home to the Bond family since 1683. Included within its complex of outbuildings was an even earlier manor house dating from the 14th century.
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-cote.
Close by stood the early 19th-century single-roomed National School, which, together with the rectory, was one of the few substantial buildings in the village. Further along, in a line of terraced cottages known locally as The Row, stood the village bakery, which eventually became the General Store, with the later addition of a Post Office, where Tyneham’s only telephone could be found (until a phone box was installed shortly before evacuation). There was no village inn, the nearest pub being the Ragged Cat, which was some distance away on the Lulworth Road. Entertainment came in the curious form of itinerant Italian organ grinders with their trained animals, performing bears and travelling thespians.
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-contained community. From the communal effort of hauling the nets full of mackerel onto the beach, to the making of crab and lobster pots, every man, woman and child played their part. It was said that none of the men ever learned to swim, their philosophy being that if you were destined to drown it was better to get it over with quickly. They were clearly not averse to taking risks, as smuggling formed a lucrative sideline.
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-set hedges, patched with small woods and coppices or belts of trees – formations essential to the success of the shooting parties regularly held at Tyneham House. Across this landscape, the horse provided the necessary motive force up until 1937, when tractors were introduced.
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-knit community had been scattered across the Isle of Purbeck, yet the people’s thoughts never strayed far from home, and most were simply marking time until the end of the war. But, sadly, the end of hostilities in 1945 did not bring about the end of their exile. Frustrated and concerned, Tyneham’s villagers wrote to the War Office, dismayed at the deteriorating condition of their cottages, the overgrown fields and shell-damaged church. As time went by, they intensified the pressure until finally, in 1947, the news broke that the parish of Tyneham-cum-Steeple was to be retained by compulsory purchase to become part of a 7,200-acre (2,880-hectare) gunnery range.
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-hearted, never really recovered from the shock. Yet even they were eventually forced to concede that there was by now little left of the old Tyneham to move back to.
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.”