Tyneham after 75 years of the Army

The Great House at Tyneham in 1901. The north porch stone doorway on the right is now at Athelhampton House; the steps and the east porch to the left are at Bingham’s Melcombe, a private estate. Photo: Tyneham Archive

The world has changed more in the 75 years since anyone last lived in Tyneham than it had done for hundreds of years before. Even so, the village’s declining population following World War 1 had already seen the school close in 1932 and in the months before the evacuation, the introduction of tractors to Tyneham Farm had seen farmworkers laid off.

Nevertheless, under the cover of official secrecy 225 people from 102 properties were moved out of Tyneham in the 28 days before 19 December 1943 as the valley was requisitioned for military training ahead of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Among the last to leave was Evelyn Bond, wife of Ralph, lord of the manor. It is thought that it was she who pinned to the door of St Mary’s Church a note that read: ‘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.’

Nobody has made a home in the village since, but its story continues to captivate, agitate and absorb locals and visitors alike. In a narrative perhaps best encapsulated by a newspaper headline from the 1960s, ‘The village that died for D-Day’ has been cast many times as ‘lost’, ‘secret’, or ‘ghost’. Indeed, the direct forerunner of this magazine owes its genesis to the efforts of its founder editor, Rodney Legg, and the Tyneham Action Group he formed, to see those who lived there returned to their homes.

In fact, although its apparent demise makes a great story, Tyneham is not and was never ‘lost’. As the campaign factionalised and world events made the military need for the 7200-acre Lulworth Ranges clearer, the activists eventually had to settle for greater public access to the village and the valley, a situation that prevails to this day.

An Army warning notice posted in the north porch doorway and photographed before the house was dismantled in the mid-1960s. Photo: Rodney Legg Collection/Dorset History Centre

‘Lulworth Ranges remain a vital training facility, not only for the Army but also for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines,’ explains Lt Col Richard ‘Sid’ James, senior training safety officer, Bovington and Lulworth Ranges. The Army’s withdrawal from Germany, he adds, together with the upgrading of its Warrior armoured fighting vehicle and the replacement of the Scimitar reconnaissance (tracked) vehicle with the Ajax armoured vehicle is resulting in even greater demand on training facilities. ‘It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the atmosphere of Tyneham, and it is absolutely unique, but I think we have struck a balance between the needs of the military and the wishes of the public.’

The Army has a statutory obligation to provide at least 143 days of public access to Tyneham a year and Lt Col James estimates its annual footfall to be around 100,000 people. The village has become a major tourist attraction and holds a Certificate of Excellence from the ubiquitous TripAdvisor review website.

‘That’s quite astonishing when you consider there are no brown signs directing people to Tyneham, so it’s all as a result of word of mouth and what people have read,’ says Lynda Price, who since 1994 has worked for and with the Army to enhance, preserve and interpret what’s left of the village, in recent years with Dorset Countryside Volunteers and the Dry Stone Walling Association’s county branch, which has now based its training centre there. ‘The romanticised story about Tyneham still persists, but it starts to unravel as soon as you dig into it and what emerges is, if anything, even more interesting.’

There has been an Army presence in the area since the late 19th century when the East Holme rifle range and other training areas were established on land leased from the Weld estate. From its formation in 1917, the Tank Corps was based at Bovington and Lulworth Camps. As World War 2 broke out, the military took on lands around Arish Mell and Flower’s Barrow and in 1941 the RAF requisitioned Tyneham House as an administrative centre for the radar station at Brandy Bay and built a semi-permanent camp in the Great Wood.

The north porch doorway from Tyneham House now serves as an attraction setting for photo shoots at Athelhampton House. Photo: Tyneham Archive

Essentially, the civilian evacuation of the valley was an extension of existing military activity and, as during the Napoleonic Wars, the fear of invasion and bombardment by Britain’s enemies meant that at least some of the villagers welcomed a move inland. Furthermore, their new homes were modern homes with running water and electricity and were not tied to the estate.

In 1948, despite an attack by South Dorset MP Viscount Hinchingbrooke on the Army’s retention of the land, the Government announced that the Tyneham Valley was to be compulsorily purchased and for twenty years the former villagers went about their new lives. Meanwhile, Bournemouth-born Rodney Legg was growing into a charismatic and skilled agent provocateur. From 1968, his Tyneham Action Group very visibly garnered local support, and in 1971 the Government commissioned Lord Nugent to investigate military land holdings. Although his committee’s recommendation that Tyneham be released was ultimately rejected in the subsequent White Paper, a compromise was reached that enshrined public access.

‘It’s clear that decisions made in the 1960s, particularly the taking down of Tyneham House, inflamed opinions about the continued presence of the Army, but since then we’ve done very little beyond basic maintenance,’ says Lt Col James. ‘Quite possibly by accident, that has been the right thing for Tyneham and with bylaws prohibiting any kind of commercial activity there, we are left with this beautiful, unspoilt location that is quite unlike anywhere else.’

Tyneham’s story is not to be mourned, far from it. Instead of becoming another coastal tourist trap, it has developed differently and, spared the industrial intrusion of the modern world, its flora and fauna are as rich as they can be. When the firing stops, peace is able to reign in a way rarely permitted elsewhere on the Isle of Purbeck.

‘Remarkably, Tyneham feels very much the same whether there’s nobody there or a couple of thousand people – even on a busy bank holiday, visitors comment on how relaxing and peaceful it is,’ says Lynda Price. ‘I think that has to do with the fact that Tyneham isn’t slick, you can’t buy anything and there are no demands made for money; nothing is in your face. Some of that is quite deliberate and psychologically, it makes a difference.’

The steps from Tyneham House are now in service at Bingham’s Melcombe. Photo: Tyneham Archive

• Lulworth Range walks and Tyneham village open every weekend this year except 13/14 October 10/11 November and 8/9 December.

• Also open every day until 3 June; 27 July to 2 September and 22 December to  6 January 2019.
All dates are subject to change and latest information is available on  01929 404819.

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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