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IN TYNEHAM, ON ENGLAND’S south coast, abandoned stone houses stand in roofless rows. Their gutted, weedy interiors suggest war’s aftermath, but the only aggressor here has been time, grinding away since the last villager left in December 1943, when the U.K. declared the village and surrounding region off limits to everyone but tank crews.

“Please treat the church and houses with care,” read a note pinned to the door of the 13th-century Church of All Saints by one of the last parishioners to leave the village. “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.”

Nobody returned, though, and the decades have gnawed at Tyneham, a souvenir of extraordinary times that demanded extraordinary sacrifices. Tyneham was one of those.

Tyneham is in Dorset, that county of thatched roofs, rusticity, and Thomas Hardy, slightly more than 100 miles southwest of London. Lacking modern highways and cities, Dorset enjoys a placid removal, and Tyneham feels more removed still. The village, a few inland acres nestled in coastal hills, has no digital postal code, so a GPS unit cannot find it. Visitors need maps and sharp eyes.

Until 1943, Tyneham was like any other obscure outpost of country life, centuries in the making. But there was a war raging, and warriors—specifically British and American tankers—needed a rugged setting for live-fire battle practice. The readiest solution was to expand firing ranges in Lulworth, near the headquarters of the Royal Armoured Corps. The crews of the very first tanks trained in the Lulworth Ranges during the First World War, so with another world war under way it was logical to clear the ranges again. In the winter of 1943, the Royal Armoured Corps Fighting Vehicles Unit (Gunnery Wing) took over an additional 7,200 acres, including Tyneham, to train tank crews for the Normandy assault. (Another village, Imber, on Salisbury Plain, was similarly emptied.)

Tyneham’s 252 residents were given 28 days to quit their 102 residences, with the promise of a peacetime return.

But in 1948 the eviction became permanent. The government decided British tankers needed a dedicated training ground. One Tyneham villager, John Gould—born there in 1912 and informed of the eviction while serving overseas during the war—wrote in a letter of protest that his village was ever in his thoughts. “My home will always be there,” he said. “If I could I would go back tomorrow. It is a wicked shame that the pledge hasn’t been kept.” Viscount Hitchingbrooke, a Member of Parliament from Dorset who served in France in 1940, also decried the permanent seizure. “What is the use of a great standing army and fleets of aircraft if the source and inspiration of patriotism is lacking through the spoliation of our country side?” he asked.

But the complaints came to nothing, and the Lulworth Ranges remain a live-fire zone where tankers train most of the time. Since 1975, however, Tyneham has been open to history-minded visitors on the 140 days each year that the village gates are unlocked. To tramp Tyneham is to gauge freedom’s cost quietly, amid decay.

As a student of history with an interest in the war, I find Tyneham fascinating. To reach the ruins, I drove from my home in Christchurch, in east Dorset, through Wareham, a town about six and a half miles away, and Stoborough, watching for the Tyneham sign at a gated, fenced road leading to a parking lot and a posted notice: military firing range. keep out.

Upon parking I had a choice: go straight to the village or detour to Worbarrow Bay. After France fell, the cobble-strewn beach here began to sport barbed wire and tank traps that remain in place, though the mines that sheep had some times set off during the war are gone. Royal Air Force fliers used the waters off Chesil Beach to practice for the May 1943 “Dambusters” bombing raid on the Ruhr Valley. At Studland, American troops rehearsed beach landings, and on D-Day some Normandy Invasion forces, including U.S. Army Rangers and the 29th Infantry Division, embarked from the harbors at Poole and Weymouth.

My walkabout brought me indirectly to Tyneham, in the last 70 years overrun not by enemy troops but by plant life. Amid the overgrowth I could make out the village pond, and beyond it the closest thing Tyneham has to a street: Post Office Row, the stone shells of four attached cottages long ago stripped of roofs and interior structure.

Touches of a vanished past caught my eye: rusting fireplace grates and alley outhouses once used by farmers and fisher men who lived by the sea sons. To reach Wareham they would have walked. Now knots of young parents who ventured here by vehicle were reading wall-mounted historical displays while their little ones scampered nearby.

I headed across the way to examine more stone dwellings. At Double Cottages, wildflowers grow rampant up the interior walls. Workers in hard hats were busy restoring Gardener’s Cottage, John Gould’s birthplace and childhood home. Unlike Tyneham’s other empty dwellings, Gardener’s Cottage still has some of its second-story joists.

Only two Tyneham buildings are intact: the Church of All Saints and the school house. The deconsecrated church serves as a visitor center. The day I visited, crews were repairing the schoolhouse floor and roof, as well as the adjoining rectory cottages. A soldier was helping, suggesting that Tyneham still has friends in uniform.

I thought about that hard winter of 1943, with Christmas in the air and the war in full cry. The Axis had fallen in North Africa and Sicily. The Soviets were taking the offensive. The fight was on in Italy and across the Pacific. And in Tyneham, people were auctioning off their livestock and packing up.

Feeling the absence of people seven decades gone, I strolled to the All Saints rectory, once one of Tyneham’s most imposing buildings, now a burned wreck. A fence and stern signs—danger. these buildings are dangerous. do not enter—bar curiosity seekers, but even at a distance the scrolled stonework around the front door is impressive. Next I looked for Laundry and Gwyle Cottages, which nest in overgrowth, nearly back to nature—fittingly, since in the Dorset dialect “gwyle” means “wooded glen.”

As I retraced my steps my mood lifted. Yes, Tyneham is sad, a place where life and a way of life are gone. But Tyneham also tells an uplifting tale of sacrifice, and of villagers who never forgot where they came from.

“Tyneham to me is the most beautiful place in the world,” villager John Gould wrote in another letter—this time in December 1974, to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. “I appeal to you to look again at Tyneham’s plight…. If you reject this plea, I must make a second request, that when my time comes I will be interred in Tyneham churchyard. Most of all I want to go home.”

John Gould was buried as he wished in 2010.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.