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.
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.
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.
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.”