Tyneham, The Empty Village
Amongst numerous prejudices too irrelevant to detail, I hold an habitually hostile wariness of any guidebook which claims some settlement or other ‘nestles’ anywhere. I’m occasionally as susceptible to the lazily-wrought cliché as the next man, true, but I stand firm on this one. Settlements just don’t nestle. And yet Tyneham does seem to. Unsignposted, half-hidden in a cleft amongst the Purbeck hills on the south Dorset coast, this tiny settlement mentioned in the Domesday Book has stood empty since 19th December 1943. Empty and, yes, nestling.
To say the place was abandoned would be wrong, since that would suggest the villagers went willingly, and indeed permanently. They didn’t: they only left their homes temporarily. The tragedy was that they were never allowed back.
The War Office initially commandeered the village and the surrounding area for the duration of the war to be used for the training of troops to bash the Bosch, and some 250-odd residents were displaced with just a month’s notice. One of the last to leave pinned what is with hindsight a heartbreakingly sad note on the door of St Mary’s, the village church, before going:
“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.”
In 1948, however, having hung on to the area long after the Kaiser had been kiboshed, the War Office issued a compulsory purchase order for the village and surrounding land, since when it has been a part of the Lulworth Ranges. The villagers, not owning their homes, were compensated only to the value of the produce in their gardens, and many of them died without seeing their village again.
After much hectoring, the MoD (as the War Office, in a fit of characteristically British nominative obfuscation, became) granted limited access in 1975, since when the village has become a sort of nature reserve-cum-run-down rural idyll, albeit one with regular nearby tank fire. The school (which had actually been shut in 1932, though it is presented as having been left as it was in 1943) and the church have now been sympathetically restored as museums to the village’s past and its former inhabitants, but aside from them only a few shells of buildings now stand, the depredations of the elements, trigger-happy soldiery, and the greatest enemy of all, time, having reduced them to ruins.
Pevsner notes (as well as making the prissily typical proclamation that ’the chancel is Victorian, and so is the best feature of the church’) that ‘the loss to the public of a tract of lovely hill and coast is lamentable.’ The great irony is that the army unwittingly preserved this place much better than any other tract of land in the vicinity by not allowing development. Clouds Hill, TE Lawrence’s cottage, is nearby. (As, for that matter, is Monkey World, which proves that geographical proximity has no bearing on character.) It’s worth a day trip.