1968: The army reclaims a beautiful spot – for shelling

Letter to The Times

From Philip Howard – Tyneham, Dorset, Sept. 2

All today, holiday crowds lay on the beach at Worbarrow Bay, happily staring up at the craggy cliffs of the Dorset coast. Children screamed in the surf: other people sprawled on the strange grassy mound called the Tout, brooding over their transistor radios, and looking down to Lulworth Cove with the waves frothing in and out of the mysterious caves.

The only difference between this and a thousand other Bank holiday beaches is that it really is one of the most beautiful stretches of wild coast in Britain and nobody will be able to visit again until Christmas. From tomorrow morning the crump of big guns and the squeal of armoured cars and tanks will replace the picnickers and the bikinis.

The bay, the ghost village of Tyneham behind it and the whole valley will be beauty spots no longer. They will become again what they are for the rest of the year, except for Bank holidays and the month of August: part of the 10,000 acres of Royal Armoured Corps ranges, which stretch over nine miles of the coast here, strictly out of bounds to the general public, fenced off with barbed wire, with frequent notices about unexploded shells, and with a lurid placard of skulls and crossbones.

The Army pumps £4m. of shells into the area during an average year.  But never on Bank holidays.

A group of local residents spent the holiday here today in a demonstration to try to persuade the military to give back to the public this piece of the range. Hideous traffic jams built up on the narrow road through the bracken. Many hundreds of people made the pilgrimage between the barbed wire and the rusty skeletons of tanks to the beach.

The campaign did a brisk trade in leaflets and membership forms. There was a nostalgic display of pictures of what Tyneham looked like before it became a range. And all day there was a running dialogue between holidaymakers and the campaigners around their trestle table with their charts and placards.

“You’ve got to have gunnery ranges somewhere. Now, haven’t you?” barked a military-looking gentleman in a blazer.

Crowds peered at the derelict buildings of the village, which has been deserted for 25 years, and looked through the trees for the decaying Elizabethan manor house, which is being stripped of its Purbeck stone.

A 6ft. cross painted red, “marked the spot of a broken promise”, for, when the Government assumed responsibility for Tyneham House in 1943, it promised to return the house after the war.

In some ways, today’s demonstration was almost too successful. The fulmars, which are one of the rare attractions of these cliffs, might find such large, enthusiastic crowds every day around their lonely homes nearly as tiresome as bombardment by tanks.

The campaigners grew hoarse explaining why Tyneham is unique and must be recovered from the Army. The 500ft. cliffs apparently are happy hunting grounds for the geologist. They are thick with fossilized trees and are one of the best examples anywhere of marine erosion of rocks of varying hardness. For the ornithologist there are seabirds he can see nesting in few other parts of Britain. There is the only Iron age promontory fort on the South Coast, which suffers frequent bombardment of a king it was never built to withstand. There is the scenery and the coastal paths and the little beach set in the silver sea.

Whether these arguments will melt the heart of the Ministry of defence is perhaps doubtful. But they certainly sent today’s visitors home glowing with enthusiasm for English heritage.

The first tanks invented came to shoot along this stretch of Dorset in 1916. Gradually, as guns became bigger, Tyneham valley became vulnerable to overshooting, and it was taken over in 1943, with the assumption that it would be handed back after the war. Then , in 1948, and the cold war, the Army compulsorily purchased it. The overshoot area now stretches 14 miles out to sea. And a new line of targets for armoured cars has recently been put up along the line of the cliffs.

Until the next Bank holiday, the fulmars and the cliffs and the view will all be out of bounds again to everything except high explosives.

Published by The Times, Tuesday 3 September 1968

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