December 1943- The sleepy coastal Dorset village, Tyneham, is taken over by the British Military for use as a firing range, incorporating it into neighbouring areas such as Lulworth and Bovington, already being used for manoeuvres and tanks. The village, which included a school, church and post office is emptied of its residents who are relocated to other parts of Dorset. They are told they can come back when the war is over. They never return.
These are the bare bones. It’s certainly not as simple as this idyllic bit of lost England being subsumed by officialdom suggests and Patrick Wright is on hand to tell this story which feels as British as an Ealing film comedy.
Having recently moved to Dorset after only ever holidaying here decades ago I’m finding myself stirred by long distant memories and back in the early 1980s I could recall a visit to a lost, abandoned village. I hadn’t thought about it for years but moving here I began to wonder about it, I couldn’t even recall its name. I saw this in Dorchester’s Waterstones and realised this was just the book to fill in the memory gaps.
I read the 1995 hardback edition from the library but it was reissued in paperback in 2021 by Repeater Books with a new introduction which brings the story up to date.
This is an unusual non-fiction choice for me and I wasn’t totally at ease with the author’s style, initially. I found it slightly wandering to begin with and he didn’t bring me in as a newcomer to his subject- I felt he assumed I’d know things I didn’t and with the passage of time there will be fewer of us who remember the national controversy over Tyneham which simmered from the war years onwards so a new edition would seem a good idea.
It is far less about the good, dislocated people of Tyneham than the reasons for the decisions made for them and the development of this part of the Dorset coast in National Defence. There’s some memorable characters who made their home in this area before the war, including Rolf Gardiner, who promoted youth work camps and of whom there’s quite a bit here; the literary set of the Powys family as well as the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and her same-sex partner Valentine Ackland; the fiery squire of the Lulworth Castle who may or may not have been tainted by the Curse of Tutankhamun and who sat and watched his castle burn down in 1929 (I’ve just found out it was restored and is now an English Heritage site). In his bringing these people back to life Wright’s account shines brightest.
There’s some mileage to be had in the rival associations aiming to repopulate Tyneham in the late 1960s-70s where hippy idealism both works with and clashes against the established order with young firebrand Rodney Legg taking central stage.
It is more than a story of lost England as within Tyneham’s takeover and the decades spent in trying to get it back for the residents there’s really a pocket guide to the shifts in values and priorities of the nation. Class, unsubstantiated fears and prejudices and relationships with authority all play their fascinating part in this tale which is equally complex and straightforward. A measure of the success of this type of book is whether it makes me want to read more about the subject and although I feel that most of the texts would be bucolic reminiscences from those who lived thereabouts at the time Wright has certainly piqued my interest. I also think a visit to Tyneham might be on the cards.
I read the Jonathan Cape 1995 hardback edition but it would probably be easier to find the 2021 Repeater paperback reissue.