Tyneham – Dorset’s Ghost Village

I was an accidental tourist again on Sunday – my son was coasteering with Scouts at Lulworth Cove (it was ‘awesome’ apparently, so maybe fuel for a future blog!), so with a couple of hours to kill I thought I’d go and visit Tyneham, the deserted village on the Lulworth Estate. To be perfectly honest, I was expecting to dutifully take a few photos, get a few details and slope off quickly, but I have to admit I found the whole thing strangely moving.

Tyneham was a fairly typical small estate village, nestled in a beautifully sheltered valley just inland from Worbarrow Bay, on the Lulworth Estate. With occupation dating back to the Iron Age, by the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a thriving rural community, but now is one of a handful of English parishes with a population of zero.

Just before Christmas, in 1943, the whole village and all its outlying settlements were requisitioned by the War Office for target practice and training troops, with 225 people being displaced. The last to leave left a note on the church door, reading: “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”. Sadly, what was supposed to be only a temporary measure was made permanent, and the families never returned.

The village obviously fell into disrepair, but after campaigning in the 1960s, the public were granted access, and you can now visit when the firing ranges are open to the public.

It is a strange place – accessed through some of the prettiest, quaintest villages England can offer, interspersed with army firing ranges full of tank tracks, targets on the hillside and very strict ‘Keep Out’ signs. The road to get there is one of the most spectacular I’ve seen; following the top of a ridge, I could see what must be several counties; a full panorama of the Jurassic Coast, over the Lulworth ranges and the castle, round over Poole Harbour to Poole and Bournemouth, and even glimpses of the white cliffs on the Isle of Wight and what may have been The Needles.

The village is small, with a few rows of ruined labourers cottages, a restored schoolroom, a still-used church, a ruined farm and other scattered ruins around the surrounding farmland. I started with the Farm, which has lost its once grand farmhouse, but the yard and stables remain, complete with farm machinery, harnesses and a reconstruction of the stage which was once the centrepiece of the barn, with the family giving theatrical shows and plays. This is one of the most poignant things – this was obviously such a happy, strong community, and it was all ended in a moment.

The ruins have the potential to be a bit dull, as there is not much more than walls and fireplaces in most, but what made it so moving is that each cottage has boards with photos of what they used to look like, with photos of the families, their daily lives and village life. The human aspect is quite heartbreaking; having grown up and raised my family in small communities, I know how important a sense of roots and belonging can be, and to see all the happy families and mundane daily lives which were so tied together and so quickly pulled apart  is really sad.

The school is interesting, especially for children, as it is a typical Victorian schoolhouse. Not a casualty of the evacuation, the school had already closed by then due to lack of numbers, and it has now been reconstructed to show how it would have been. This was quite funny for me, as I Went to a small, one-room Victorian-style school when I was little, and we even had a cane like the one on display at Tyneham (I remember it being used on some boys who swore at an old lady!) Surely I’m not old enough to be ‘living history’ yet?!

The village is still owned and managed by the army, and there is an active group managing Tyneham Farm and creating interpretive material, signboards etc. From a practical point of view, there are toilets, a car park and lots of well-designed signage, but don’t expect cafes or gift shops – this is a deserted village, and is totally cut off when the army are firing on the ranges. The village is only 20 mins walk from Worbarrow Bay, and is surrounded by walks on the Lulworth Ranges, but you must always check the opening times and dates to make sure it’s open to the public. You can walk there from Lulworth Cove; its a good couple of hours each way, and will be hard work, but I can imagine the views would be stunning, and because of the limited public access and the unimproved nature of the land, it is a haven for wildlife.

If you decide to visit Tyneham, see the parish website for directions; as it’s not inhabited, it’s not well signed, so it’s easy to miss. I would suggest going either early or late, as it’s such an atmospheric place it was lovely when I had it to myself. As I said, it was surprisingly moving, and the details of the people, their families and their everyday lives was very poignant.

I know that in this day and age there are still millions of people being displaced and having their homes and families ripped apart by war; people who are not so lucky as to walk away, with their family around them and another life ahead of them, and some of Tyneham’s inhabitants seem to have felt proud to have been giving up their homes to help keep their country free, but it’s still desperately sad to see a whole community brought to such an abrupt end. It is a beautiful valley, and the spirit of the place is really quite special.

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