Parish Clerks Network

The Independent, Friday 10 March 1995

The Village that died for England

By Michael Hofmann

PATRICK WRIGHT tells the story of a few square miles of Dorset countryside between Weymouth and Swanage, just inland from "the English Bay of Naples," including Bindon Hill and Bovington Camp and the villages of Tyneham and Lulworth. He begins with George III's adoption of Weymouth as a summer place - his son the Prince of Wales having already laid claim to Brighton - and the consequent discovery of the Dorset coast for tourism. The hacking apart of beauty and utility, "the modern cult of the picturesque as `a giant worm trailing its slime over the counties of England' " (H J Massing-ham) deepened through two centuries and becomes one of the themes of the book, with visitors standing about "in threes gazing out at the sea, as if it had been placed there on purpose to interest them" (Donald Maxwell), or "toast racks of people rushing hither and thither through the secluded ways and leafy lanes of our lost Arcadia" (1920s novelist Mary Butts).

But then the real menace to Arcadia - or is it? - arrives in the form of that "uniquely British invention, the tank". In 1923, the War Office bought Bindon Hill for a gunnery range, and - the pivotal event of the story - just before Christmas in 1943, 225 people were evacuated from the Tyneham Valley, on the orders of Churchill's War Cabinet, to give the tanks more room. The in-habitants were promised they could return "when the War Department has no further use for the property", something which has yet to happen. One of them pinned a note to the church door: "Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our homes, where many of us have 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."

Patrick Wright rehearses the subsequent arguments between military and civilian, tourism and arrested development, landowner and entrepreneur, newspapermen down from London and quiet-lifers in Whitehall, incoming agitators and local politicos, archaeologists and "simple patriots", as they battle over a dilapidated ghost village. If the book were merely this, it would be merely good. What makes it sensational is Wright's understanding that this unreal battle over "a perfect English village of the mind" is a symbolic affair; that even something as palpable and no-nonsense as a hill or a tank in a palpable, no-nonsense country like England is an ideological construct.

It is a Madison Avenue fight, with brilliant slogans like "even the Huns never did a thing like this", "the village captured from England by its own army" or "Britain's domestic Iron Curtain" and, on the other side, "let the iron men who train on the sites of iron age forts long defend their country from commercial spoliation and destruction quite beyond repair", and with faked-up imagery like "an ammunition case that has been turned into a breeding box for owls, or of a moorhen pecking at the fins of a mortar bomb stuck in the mud of a pool." Meanwhile the Tyneham Action Group uses a nasty greenish-black paint made by the National Coal Board for grafitti, and pose a tame Tynehamite in a cloth cap for the TV cameras, Hovis-style. It is all deeply unstraightforward and, so, deeply English.

This being England, though, the ideological struggle is carried on by amateurs and "characters" with a high co-efficient of eccentricity: flogging judges, mavericks, entomologists, old colonials, "rural fascists". Tyneham is harnessed to other English debates - perhaps, even, to all of them - class, money, devolution, royalty, technology, transport, architecture, Europe. Everything trails its roots in those few miles: Eton College used it as an exercise ground in the 20s; on Gad Cliff "England's mountaineers practised for Everest." Tyneham's micro-sphere responded to such things as Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" - the protesters proposed the army use laser beams instead of shells, and hand some land back - or the Russian tanks in Prague in '68.

To anyone who reads this book, God may still be an Englishman, but he works in mysterious ways, and the devil is in the detail.

The Village That Died For England: The Strange Story of Tyneham by Patrick Wright, Cape £17.99


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