Laid low by time: A tiny English village abandoned during WWII

Friday, Aug. 10, 2018 8:46 PM
Grass and nettles grow up around a row of abandoned, dilapidated cottages in the “ghost village” of Tyneham, in Dorset, England. The tiny settlement was evacuated in 1943 to provide more land for training ahead of D-Day in World War II. The people were never allowed to return, and it remains in military hands.
Two visitors pause close to an information board outside a row of ruined cottages in Tyneham, Dorset, in southwestern England. The residents of the tiny village were compulsorily evacuated in late 1943 to provide extra land for military training, ahead of D-Day, and were never allowed back. In the years since, their homes have fallen apart as weather has rotted the timbers and nature has reclaimed the land. Tyneham is still in military hands but it is open to visitors most weekends.
A British Ministry of Defense sign warns visitors that they are on a firing range near Dorset, England. The adjacent road leads to Tyneham, a village which was ordered evacuated in 1943 to provide extra land for military exercises ahead of D-Day. The village remains in the hands of the military and has become a tourist attraction, providing a poignant and unusual reminder of World War II.
The remains of a fireplace and a missing window, in a ruined cottage in Tyneham. The village was commandeered by the military in 1943 and the people evacuated. They were never allowed back and Tyneham remains in the hands of the Ministry of Defense. The village dwellings have slowly fallen apart, as weather rotted the roof beams and upper floors and nature reclaimed the interiors.
A row of ruined cottages at the entrance to Tyneham in southwestern England. The tiny village was taken over by the British military in late 1943 to provide more land for training ahead of D-Day. The people were never allowed to return and the houses have slowly fallen apart.
St Mary’s Church in Tyneham stands beneath a brilliant blue sky. The tiny settlement in Dorset, England, was taken over by the British military in late 1943 to provide more land for training ahead of D-Day. When the residents left, one of them pinned a note to the church door asking that the homes and buildings be treated with respect, as they fully expected to return. But they never did, and Tyneham remains in military hands. The church has been maintained, but time and nature have overwhelmed the dwellings, earning Tyneham the nickname of the “ghost village.”
Thistles grow beside a row of ruined cottages, in the English “ghost village” of Tyneham, near the Dorset coast. The military took it over in 1943, at the height of World War II to provide more land for training and has never given it back. The abandoned village is a striking and rare reminder of the sacrifices made by ordinary people during war.

TYNEHAM, England

Explore Britain’s southern coast carefully enough and you can still find relics of the dark years when the country awaited Nazi invasion: abandoned radar stations; tank-traps lost in farmers’ fields; half-hidden concrete bunkers overlooking wide, shingle beaches.

Then there’s Tyneham.

The first glimpse of this tiny Dorset village is from the long, steep road that takes you from sweeping views of the coast down into a small, wooded valley. At its bottom, Tyneham peeps out from behind a cloak of trees.

Or rather, what’s left of it.

“This is like Pompeii!” my young son exclaims, as we stand in front of what had once clearly been a row of cottages.

Light pours through the empty window frame of a ruined cottage, in Tyneham, England’s “ghost village.” All the homes in the tiny settlement have fallen apart since it was taken over by the military at the height of World War II to provide more land for D-Day training. Tyneham is still in the hands of the Ministry of Defense, but visitors are allowed in most weekends.
Jerry Harmer/Associated Press

But now only the shells remain. No doors. No windows. No roofs. He’s right. Baking in a Mediterranean-like heatwave, the ruins do have the feel of an archaeological site, an ancient settlement that had met an apocalyptic end.

And in a way, that’s exactly what happened to Tyneham.

Its roots stretch back before that great watershed of British history, the Norman Conquest of 1066. For more than 1,000 years, its residents had eked out a precarious living from land and nearby sea.

Then, one day, its long, unremarkable history stopped dead.

It was late 1943 and the tide of the Second World War was turning. D-Day was barely six months away. The British military urgently needed more land for tank training and maneuvers. With a large base nearby, already, its eyes quickly and easily fell on the quiet settlement by the sea.

In November, that year, residents received letters from the War Department ordering them to leave within a month. The note assured them this was “in the National Interest” and hoped they would make this “no small sacrifice” with “a good heart.”

Within weeks they had packed up and left their lush Dorset valley. They’d lived with the dread of German invasion for four years, but the army that actually made them refugees was their own.

A visitor inspects the interior of a ruined cottage in the abandoned village of Tyneham, England. The British War Department took over the tiny settlement in late 1943 to provide more land for training ahead of D-Day. The residents have never been allowed back. The ruined village remains in military hands but is opened to tourists most weekends.
Jerry Harmer/Associated Press

As they departed, one of them pinned a note to the church door:

“Please treat the church and houses with care ... We will return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”

Since then, the roofs and upper floors have collapsed; the doors and windows fallen out. Trees, grass and weeds reclaimed the land. But the people never did. What was said to be temporary became permanent. The land still belongs to the Ministry of Defense – signs on the approach road remind you of that – but most weekends the tanks and guns fall silent, and the public is allowed in.

It may be small – more hamlet than village – but a visit is utterly absorbing. As you pass down the rows of hollowed-out cottages, unobtrusive display boards show sepia photographs of how they used to look and who lived there, and tell you what they did – postmistress, farmer, gardener – allowing your mind to people the ruins with flesh and blood.

The remains of an iron fireplace in the wall of an upper floor, in a cottage in the abandoned “ghost village” of Tyneham, in southwestern England. Time and nature have overwhelmed the dwellings since the tiny settlement was taken over by the military during World War II to provide more land for training ahead of D-Day. Visitors are allowed access most weekends.
Jerry Harmer/Associated Press

We wander down shaded village tracks, from The Row to Rectory Cottages, then picnic beside a sun-bleached, stone skeleton that was once home to the Taylor family, who washed the village’s clothing till the fateful letter landed on their doormat. Butterflies flit from thistle to nettle and the blinding sunshine throws deep shadows across the ruins.

“It makes you realize how hard life was in those days,” says Dorset resident, Linda Bryan, 70, looking at Laundry Cottages. “How sad they had to move out. I wonder where they went?”

Her niece, Lesly-Anne Meader, 60, from nearby Hampshire, is on her first visit.

“It’s very evocative. You can see all the people living here,” she says. “I like ghost stories.”

If you go

TYNEHAM: Located about a three-hour drive from London, close to the southwestern coast, roughly between Lulworth and Corfe, in the county of Dorset. There is signposting close to the village but it is minimal and easily missed. Even a GPS will only put you in the general location. It is not served by public transport. Open most weekends and public holidays, though it is best to check by calling (44)-1929-404819 for a recorded message giving current information. Parking is free, though a donation of 2 pounds is suggested. There is no shop, toilets or visitor center.