2008: History wakes up

By Nick Churchill

BENEATH the muck and dust of ages, Tyneham’s centuries-old farm is stirring. For nearly 65 years all that has moved through its stables and stalls are bats, creepy-crawlies and the odd range warden – but a new project is under way that will see these buildings restored and reopened.

Not that it will ever be a working farm of course – Purbeck’s famed ghost village has long since surrendered all possibility of human habitation – but it will provide a unique vantage point from which we can peer into the past.

I’m lying awake at night working out how I can bring the whole thing together, but the idea is to show how the farm worked.

Lilian Bond

Project manager and designer Lynda Price and her husband John have already cleared the pond by the time I find them ankle-deep in mud.

A small double-arched bridge has been uncovered, and so, to their surprise, has the cobbled floor of the stream. “This must have been for decoration, because I can’t imagine why someone would go to all that trouble if they only used the stream to flush away waste from the stables,” says Lynda.

“It’s a puzzle, one of many, but that’s what I love about this job.

Lilian Bond called this the Pond Yard in her book (Tyneham: A Lost Heritage) but, although she gives very detailed descriptions, I have no idea how this was laid out. I’d imagine there’s a stone road over that bridge as this was the main entrance to the farm from what they called the Lulworth road.”

Tyneham and the surrounding area was evacuated in 1943 to allow Allied troops to exercise in the build-up to the Normandy landings. The villagers and the estate’s owners, the Bond family, never returned.

Retained as part of Lulworth Ranges, for decades it remained largely unseen, gradually returning to nature until the mid-1970s when the Ministry of Defence agreed greater public access on weekends and holidays.

In 1994, the old school was reopened, restored to how it looked in the 1920s. Work followed on the church and many of the cottages with a series of displays explaining village life under what was, to all intents and purposes, the last vestiges of feudal England.

Swanage-based artist Lynda has now turned her attention to Tyneham Farm. “The farmhouse is only two bricks high, so that is lost, as are some of the other buildings.

“But the Great Barn, the granary, stables, tack room and cowsheds are all there. So is the mysterious bull house, which had a chicken coop on top.”

She plans to reopen the main barn as The History Barn, for use by community groups and schools, as well as placing the farm in its historical and environmental context.

One wall appears to have been painted blue. “Well, Lilian Bond talks about the Tyneham Players, and the shows they put on. Her father erected a stage on the north aisle, so it could be that they painted it. She says they used to have up to 160 people sitting in there.”

In the store above the 1904 coach house, Lynda opens the shutter doors and the light floods in.

The original tiles are on the roof and, although part of the timber framing has been patched up, there are materials here that are hundreds of years old.

“Most of this is 1904 because we know the steps were originally on the outside of the building, but the stables, stalls and mangers are part of a much older building.

“I’m lying awake at night working out how I can bring the whole thing together, but the idea is to show how the farm worked and to look at the decline of small farming communities. It will also acknowledge the radar research work at Brandy Bay.”

Lynda is on the lookout for pre-1940s farm implements and excitedly showed me photos of long-redundant chaff-cutters and hay-balers sent to her by a property developer who was impressed by her work at Tyneham.

“You get involved in every aspect of the project – from tracing families to finding the right wood and stone, designing displays and clearing bramble.”

Her boundless enthusiasm surfaces again as she shares with me a letter from the nephew of Walter Case-Smith, the tenant farmer until the early 1940s.

He talks about a much-admired flock of Dorset Horn sheep and how the milk had to be stored overnight in tanks of water to keep it fresh in summer before a lorry arrived to take it to Corfe Castle.

“It’s amazing what you find out – Walter Case-Smith was quite a character. The field in front of the farmhouse was open, so cows, chickens and sheep would be out grazing together. You wouldn’t see that nowadays.”

The last tenant of Tyneham Farm was one S C Churchill. “Now he wasn’t very popular. He was a newcomer for one thing, but he also brought the first tractors to the valley.

“Previously everything had been done by horse, so he laid farmworkers off – and, of course, he got all the compensation when the village was evacuated.”

As with the rest of the work at Tyneham, the farm project is not commercially-driven.

The village remains a gentle oasis for the imagination untainted by tea rooms, gift shops and hi-tech displays, allowing the ruins to retain the mystery that has captured the minds of thousands of visitors over the years.

“I can’t stand that phrase visitor centre’ – it’s so dry and dull,” says Lynda.

“What I love about Tyneham is that it’s a great place for people of all ages where they are not hassled by ice cream sellers, hot dog stands and souvenir stalls.

“The Army does not have a vast budget of taxpayers’ money for Tyneham, so I’ve had to get very good at asking people for things for nothing and the £2 parking fee really does pay for the upkeep.”

Clearing work continues – much of it involving community groups such as the Lulworth Society – but as befits this window on Purbeck’s past, there’s no set date for the reopening of Tyneham Farm. Things have a habit of working out when they’re meant to.

“There is a plan of sorts, but no timetable. There are so many possibilities – it’s very exciting.”

The Great Barn at Tyneham Farm will be open to the public on March 22. If you have old farm implements or other ephemera that may find a home at Tyneham, please contact range liaison officer Lt Col Ken Davies on 01929 404714.

Published by Daily Echo, Saturday 23 February 2008