Forget lost cities, Dorset has its very own lost village. It may not have the mystique of “Atlantis” or the opulence of Pompeii, but it has a simplicity and beauty that weaves a magic of its own.
Tyneham wasn’t part of the ancient world, nor was it overrun by the sea or volcanic ash. Instead, it succumbed to the tide of war.
Ironically, at a time when cities, towns and villages throughout Europe were being razed to the ground by the ravages of the Second World War, Tyneham was lost to the stroke of a pen and then overrun not by the enemy, but by allied forces under orders from the War Office.
The inhabitants of this tiny and remote Dorset village were given just days to pack their belongings and leave in the run-up to Christmas 1943. Their village-home and a swathe of the estate to which it belonged had been requisitioned as a military training area to prepare troops for D-day and the Battle of Normandy that followed. As they left, the displaced families are reported to have pinned a note to the Church door entreating those who came after to look after their village.
“Please treat the Church and houses with care. We have given up our homes, where many of us have lived for generations, to help win the war and keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”
Sadly for them, they were wrong. They were never to return as in 1948 the village and some 2800 hectares of land were compulsorily purchased and what was originally a temporary militarization of the area became permanent. It is still used for gunnery and other training today.
The result is one of the strangest ironies in Dorset. The village itself is derelict, but the Church which the MOD was required to maintain as part of the agreement to seize the land, is one of the best-kept you will find. While other Parishes must juggle the needs of dwindling income and rising costs of maintenance, St Mary’s Church Tyneham has an immaculate churchyard and building to match.
Some describe Tyneham as a ghost village, but whilst the derelict cottages and houses have a skeletal appearance with jagged roofless walls and empty doors and windows, the village is not the slightest bit eery. Quite the contrary. It has a warmth and beauty few modern-day villages can match.
Perhaps this is because the layout of the village is as it was in December 1943, a time before motorcars had had their overriding impact on house and village design, so that the houses and other buildings are scattered here and there, often with no apparent connection to other buildings in the village. Or perhaps it is because the village is now so rich with trees and other greenery that the remains of the settlement and nature seem to mingle in complete harmony.
Perhaps it is simply because, nestled in its valley so close to the sea, Tyneham is simply a beautiful setting. But it would be nice to think that if there is any sense in which Tyneham has ghosts, they are those of a small, close-knit, rural, Dorset community of the 1940s, where everyone knew everyone else, where doors were never locked and children played happily in the lanes and the fields.
Today, Tyneham is still under the control of the MOD. It is still used as part of gunnery ranges and for other military training. But it is also regularly opened to the public, as are the Lulworth Range Walks.
Tyneham is a beautiful and moving place to visit. Children love to explore the ruined houses and to play in the shade of the village’s trees and beside its ponds. The buildings have been made safe both in terms of the removal of any ordinance but also in an architectural sense with walls made stable. You are able to discern, both from labels and physical evidence who lived where and what different rooms were for. Some have the remains of fireplaces and the coppers used to heat water for washing and bathing. And there is a stark contrast between the comparative grandeur of the Rectory and the small, lowly cottages of other villagers.
If you have young children (or even if you don’t) seek out the “Shepherd’s Cottage” near the telephone box. Here you will find instructions for a game of “find the sheep”, that will fascinate and exhaust them...Just how many sheep can you find? And how many are there?
Today’s school-age children are also fascinated by the fully-restored schoolhouse, the only building in the village other than the Church to be complete with doors, windows and a roof. The school also has all the other things you would expect of a rural place of education of the day: rows of desks with inkwells; functional but elegantly curved metal coat pegs with the name of each pupil; bare wooden floors; a blackboard; and a piano. It is hard to enter the school and not see in your mind’s eye the children of the village sitting at their desks repeating their times tables or working from the teaching aids of the day still displayed around the single classroom.
Such is the beauty and fascination of Tyneham that you can visit just to walk through it and experience the village itself. Alternatively you can use it as a launch pad to explore the beautiful range walks through land that has been untouched by modern agriculture and is rich with wildlife. Or you can stroll from Tyneham the short distance down to the sea and Worbarrow Bay.
Entry to Tyneham is free, but you are asked to pay £2 for parking, but you can stay all day, as long as you are away before the wardens lock the gates (times are clearly displayed).
You also need to remember two more things.
First, whatever else Tyneham is, it is still a military area. When the guns are firing on the Lulworth ranges they rattle the windows of much of this part of Dorset and so you are only allowed access at certain times (which you can check here) and along prescribed routes. Don’t be tempted to wander off the marked pathways, partly due to risk of personal injury, but also because the Range Wardens will be understandably annoyed if you do.
Secondly, you should never forget that whilst Tyneham is a fascinating place and open for your exploration. Unlike some historical sites, the events at Tyneham took place within living memory and the village and its houses were home to real people. It is the ruins of their lives and homes you explore.
True, in the context of the Second World War and the carnage it brought to soldiers and civilians at home and abroad, the plight of a few hundred people from rural Dorset may seem so small as to be insignificant. Nonetheless, you wouldn’t want it to happen to you. And if it did, you’d probably hope that others who came after would tread lightly on your memories and dreams. You’d hope too that they would treat your home, your Church and the final resting place of your loved ones with respect, whether you were there to see it or not.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all, is that the things that destroyed Tyneham as it was, are the very things that have preserved it as it is and allow us, today, to imagine a world before every house had two cars and when neighbours were people your grandparents had lived next too, not someone who moved in two years ago, but you’ve never met.
Take your children and enjoy and respect this jewel of rural Dorset. It is a place you will take with you when you leave.
"Please treat the Church and houses with care. We have given up our homes, where many of us have lived for generations, to help win the war and keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly"..."