Ghost town

A tiny English vil­lage was aban­doned dur­ing World War II

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - LIVING - By Jerry Harmer

Ex­plore Bri­tain’s south­ern coast care­fully enough and you can still find relics of the dark years when the coun­try awaited Nazi in­va­sion: aban­doned radar sta­tions; tank­traps lost in farm­ers’ fields; halfhid­den con­crete bunkers over­look­ing wide, shin­gle beaches. Then there’s Tyneham. The first glimpse of this tiny Dorset vil­lage is from the long, steep road that takes you from sweep­ing views of the coast down into a small, wooded val­ley. At its bot­tom, Tyneham peeps out from be­hind a cloak of trees. Or rather, what’s left of it. “This is like Pom­peii!” my young son ex­claims, as we stand in front of what had once clearly been a row of cot­tages.

But now only the shells re­main. No doors. No win­dows. No roofs. He’s right. Bak­ing in a Mediter­ranean-like heat­wave, the ru­ins do have the feel of an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site, an an­cient set­tle­ment that had met an apoc­a­lyp­tic end.

And in a way, that’s ex­actly what hap­pened to Tyneham.

Its roots stretch back be­fore that great wa­ter­shed of British his­tory, the Nor­man Con­quest of 1066. For more than a thou­sand years, its res­i­dents had eked out a pre­car­i­ous liv­ing from land and nearby sea.

Then, one day, its long, un­re­mark­able his­tory stopped dead.

It was late 1943 and the tide of the Sec­ond World War was turn­ing. D-Day was barely six months away. The British mil­i­tary ur­gently needed more land for tank train­ing and ma­neu­vers. With a large base nearby, al­ready, its eyes quickly and eas­ily fell on the quiet set­tle­ment by the sea.

In Novem­ber, that year, res­i­dents re­ceived let­ters from the War De­part­ment or­der­ing them to leave within a month. The note as­sured them this was “in the Na­tional In­ter­est” and hoped they would make this “no small sac­ri­fice” with “a good heart”.

Within weeks they had packed up and left their lush Dorset val­ley. They’d lived with the dread of Ger­man in­va­sion for four years, but the army that ac­tu­ally made them refugees was their own.

As they de­parted, one of them pinned a note to the church door:

“Please treat the church and houses with care ... We will re­turn one day and thank you for treat­ing the vil­lage kindly.”

Since then, the roofs and up­per floors have col­lapsed; the doors and win­dows fallen out. Trees, grass, and weeds re­claimed the land. But the peo­ple never did. What was said to be tem­po­rary be­came per­ma­nent. The land still be­longs to the Min­istry of De­fense — signs on the ap­proach road re­mind you of that — but most week­ends the tanks and guns fall silent, and the pub­lic is al­lowed in.

It may be small — more ham­let than vil­lage — but a visit is ut­terly ab­sorb­ing. As you pass down the rows of hol­lowed-out cot­tages, un­ob­tru­sive dis­play boards show sepia pho­to­graphs of how they used to look and who lived there, and tell you what they did — post­mistress, farmer, gar­dener — al­low­ing your mind to peo­ple the

ru­ins with flesh and blood.

The school­house has been re­stored to look ex­actly as it would have, in the early 20th cen­tury, and St. Mary’s church has been care­fully main­tained. But every­thing else has been laid low by time, and that’s what draws you in.

We wan­der down shaded vil­lage tracks, from The Row to Rec­tory Cot­tages, then pic­nic be­side a sun-bleached, stone skele­ton that was once home to the Tay­lor fam­ily, who washed the vil­lage’s cloth­ing till the fate­ful let­ter landed on their door­mat. But­ter­flies flit from this­tle to net­tle and the blind­ing sun­shine throws deep shad­ows across the ru­ins.

“It makes you re­al­ize how hard life was in those days,” says Dorset res­i­dent, Linda Bryan, 70, look­ing at Laun­dry Cot­tages. “How sad they had to move out. I won­der where they went?”

Her niece, Lesly-Anne Meader, 60, from nearby Hamp­shire, is on her first visit.

“It’s very evoca­tive. You can see all the peo­ple liv­ing here,” she says. “I like ghost sto­ries.”

JERRY HARMER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this July 8, 2018 photo, grass and net­tles grow up around a row of aban­doned, di­lap­i­dated cot­tages in the “ghost vil­lage” of Tyneham, in Dorset, Eng­land. The tiny set­tle­ment was evac­u­ated on War De­part­ment or­ders in 1943, to pro­vide more land for train­ing ahead of D-Day in World War II. The peo­ple were never al­lowed to re­turn, and it re­mains in mil­i­tary hands. Vis­i­tors are al­lowed in most week­ends to see what is a poignant re­minder of the days of WWII.

JERRY HARMER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this July 8, 2018 photo, two vis­i­tors pause close to an in­for­ma­tion board out­side a row of ru­ined cot­tages in Tyneham, Dorset, south-west Eng­land. The res­i­dents of the tiny vil­lage were com­pul­so­rily evac­u­ated in late 1943 to pro­vide ex­tra land for mil­i­tary train­ing, ahead of D-Day, and were never al­lowed back. In the years since, their homes have fallen apart as weather has rot­ted the tim­bers and na­ture has re­claimed the land. Tyneham is still in mil­i­tary hands but it is open to vis­i­tors most week­ends.

JERRY HARMER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

This July 8, 2018 photo, shows the re­mains of an iron fire­place in the wall of an up­per floor, in a cot­tage in the aban­doned “ghost vil­lage” of Tyneham, in Dorset, Eng­land. Time and na­ture have over­whelmed the dwellings since the tiny set­tle­ment was taken over by the mil­i­tary dur­ing World War II to pro­vide more land for train­ing ahead of D-Day.

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