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A Winter Weekend in Dorset - Part 3

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The final place I visited during my weekend in Dorset was the deserted village of Tyneham. Tyneham is a small village in Dorset, close to the coast, and a few miles to the west of Corfe Castle, on the Isle of Purbeck (which is not actually an island, but a headland).

Tyneham has a fascinating history. It is now a 'ghost village'. This means that the village now has no inhabitants, not that it is occupied by ghosts!

In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, and on the orders of the War Office, the 250 villagers were told to pack up their belongings and move to new housing in nearby Wareham. The surrounding area was already in use for training soldiers, and this village was now considered to be too close to the firing ranges being used to train new troops in firing weapons and driving tanks. Since the early 20th century parts of the area had been used as testing grounds for the first tanks and this isolated stretch of coastline still has an army presence to this day.

The villagers left a message on the church door, for those who came after them

'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 the villagers never returned. In 1948 it was finally decided that the army would remain and the land was then purchased by the Ministry of Defence who still use it to this day for training. Some of the villagers objected and an inquiry was held, but other villagers by this time had settled elsewhere and did not wish to return.

Over the years most of the buildings have gradually started to fall into disrepair. However the local Portland stone is quite strong and many walls are still standing. In fact this stone is famous for its quality and has been used in many well-known buildings in London, and has even been used in the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Two buildings (the church and the schoolroom) were preserved and can be visited today. You can see the church in this image.

Although the area is still owned by the military, in recent years it has been possible to visit the village on set days of the year.

The lovely old church has a peaceful atmosphere and beautiful stained glass windows. Nowadays the church also houses displays relating the history of the village.

On one of the displays I noticed this photograph of a couple who used to live in one of the houses. Most of the men in the village were fishermen or farm workers.

The village school has also been preserved, and is also open to the public. It still has all the original furniture and fittings.

On each desk (and safely preserved beneath a sheet of protective plastic) are essays completed by the children who studied at this school before it closed. I loved these essays, which give a charming glimpse of a rural childhood of the time. I have copied them out but I am guessing with some of the words!

This essay was written by a girl called Violet Cake.


'Nature Study. I came over to play with Vera last Saturday and we went for a walk. Kathy came with us. I saw dozens of butterflies coming in off the sea from France, mostly the small cabbage whites heading for the vegetable plots to lay their eggs. Last year there were lots of clouded yellows with them but I only saw three this time. We went back down to the village by a different path. We went down through Eweleaze because Vera wanted more grasshoppers. Her jumper got covered in agrimony and goose grass seeds, we had to pick them off before she got home. They clung on very tight. We got back to Coyle Cottages in time for tea.'

The teacher had commented ' Good, Lovely writing Violet'.

Written by Arthur Pritchard -

Nature Study. Gad Cliff. I was very hot and tired when I reached the top of Gad Cliff. I lay down and closed my eyes for a rest. I was on my own but it was not quiet there were loads of sounds that I could recognise. I did them in a sort of poem.

The scratchy song of a whitethroat

The endless one of a lark

Lazy droning dumbledore

Busy buzzing flies

Rustling grasses on the cliff edge

Gentle slapping sea

Distant bleats and lowing cows

Dull hammering of a farmer at work

Shrieking of herring gulls round a lobster pot

Harsh crack of crafty chatterpie

Help! I cry and flee

Made a pillow of an emmet butt

Ants all over me!

The teacher has written ' Well done Arthur, what a lovely poem. You will find it easier to write if you put less ink on your pen.'

Kathleen Wrixon

'Nature Study on Gold Down.

Last Saturday I went for a walk with Very and Violet up Gold Down. We went down the path by the farm and climbed the old road to the top of the down. We sat on the grass watching the birds. It was a really lovely day. The thistle fields were full of little birds twittering about. Violet says they were pipits and linnets. I knew stonechat as soon as I heard his warning call, like two pebbles being bashed together.

When it was time to go home, Vera saw the old Gad Cliff vixen creeping around above us on the coastguard path. She slipped over the edge of the hill to her den. As we went home we saw a yellowhammer sitting on top of the bar gate shouting 'little bit of bread and no cheese'.

The teacher had commented ' Well done Kathleen. You have worked very hard on your writing'.

The yellowhammer is supposed to have a song that sounds like the phrase ' a little bit of bread and cheese' in case you are wondering!

The village is set back slightly from the coast. There is a pleasant walk down to the beach through an unspoilt valley. It is unusual in this part of the world to see a stretch of coastline with no development at all, so this in itself makes the walk interesting.

It is possible to find fossils on the beaches in this area. Perhaps these people are fossil hunting.

Tyneham, The Empty Village by Phaude

posted on on Wednesday 6 July 2011

Amongst numerous prejudices too irrelevant to detail, I hold an habitually hostile wariness of any guidebook which claims some settlement or other ‘nestles’ anywhere. I’m occasionally as susceptible to the lazily-wrought cliché as the next man, true, but I stand firm on this one. Settlements just don’t nestle. And yet Tyneham does seem to. Unsignposted, half-hidden in a cleft amongst the Purbeck hills on the south Dorset coast, this tiny settlement mentioned in the Domesday Book has stood empty since 19th December 1943. Empty and, yes, nestling.

To say the place was abandoned would be wrong, since that would suggest the villagers went willingly, and indeed permanently. They didn’t: they only left their homes temporarily. The tragedy was that they were never allowed back.

The War Office initially commandeered the village and the surrounding area for the duration of the war to be used for the training of troops to bash the Bosch, and some 250-odd residents were displaced with just a month’s notice. One of the last to leave pinned what is with hindsight a heartbreakingly sad note on the door of St Mary’s, the village church, before going:

“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.”

In 1948, however, having hung on to the area long after the Kaiser had been kiboshed, the War Office issued a compulsory purchase order for the village and surrounding land, since when it has been a part of the Lulworth Ranges. The villagers, not owning their homes, were compensated only to the value of the produce in their gardens, and many of them died without seeing their village again.

After much hectoring, the MoD (as the War Office, with a characteristic lack of self-awareness, became) granted limited access in 1975, since when the village has become a sort of nature reserve-cum-run-down rural idyll, albeit one with regular nearby tank fire. The school (which had actually been shut in 1932, though it is presented as having been left as it was in 1943) and the church have now been sympathetically restored as museums to the village’s past and its former inhabitants, but aside from them only a few shells of buildings now stand, the depredations of the elements, trigger-happy soldiery, and the greatest enemy of all, time, having reduced them to ruins.

Pevsner notes (as well as making the prissily typical proclamation that ’the chancel is Victorian, and so is the best feature of the church’) that ‘the loss to the public of a tract of lovely hill and coast is lamentable.’ The great irony is that the army unwittingly preserved this place much better than any other tract of land in the vicinity by not allowing development. Clouds Hill, TE Lawrence’s cottage, is nearby. (As, for that matter, is Monkey World, which proves that geographical proximity has no bearing on character.) It’s worth a day trip.

Tyneham: the British village that time forgot by Andy Jarosz

Posted on 501 places on 28 June 2011

Imagine receiving a notice to say that you must leave your family home within the next month in order to ‘help the national war effort’. Few would have begrudged the cause in the autumn of 1943, but for the villages of Tyneham in Dorset this would still have been a letter that they hoped they would never receive.

Preparations for the D-day landings were in full swing and the Army had developed new, more powerful tanks. These tanks required more space on the Dorset firing ranges for their exercises and the village of Tyneham was suddenly an unwelcome obstacle on their local map. With success in the Normandy landings of paramount importance, the government issued letters to the 225 residents in November 1943 requiring them to move out by the following month.

The move was meant to be temporary as the poignant note pinned to the church door suggests:

The hand-written note reads, “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”.

Almost 70 years later and the villagers of Tyneham (and their descendants) have long given up hope of ever returning to their homes. The military continued to use the land for their exercises as the war ended and the Cold War began. In 1975 the Army did allow access to the village and the surrounding countryside on weekends and during holiday periods, and that situation persists today.

The village school has been recreated to show a classroom from the time it was last used. The coat pegs by the door still bear the names of the children of the time while a piano sits along one wall, silently gathering dust. The adjacent village church is also a museum with excellent interpretative displays telling the history of Tyneham long before the 20th century as well as an explanation of life during the war years.

While the church and the school have survived intact the same cannot be said of the houses of Tyneham, many of which have fallen victim of bombardment by practising troops. Little more than shells remain of most properties, no doubt a sad reminder to those few surviving people who remember their childhood years in this tiny village set in the most idyllic of valleys.

Tyneham is a village where time really did stop in 1943. Those temporary evacuations became permanent and houses fell into ruin while people had to get on with their lives elsewhere. Perhaps the residents of Tyneham did feel that they made a valuable contribution to the war effort. This sense of public duty must have been tinged however with more than a little personal sadness at the great sacrifice they had been forced to make.

On the Web

Tyneham Project on Flickr by Shaun Matthews of LLAP

Click here to be taken to Shaun’s Tyneham Flickr Photostream