The Echo Chamber

26 February 2017
Ben Pentreath

It’s a stormy, windy night in Dorset. A gale is tearing through the valley, and Charlie, Mavis, Henry and I are sitting by the fire hearing the rain dash against the shuttered windows: a good night for ghost stories.

This afternoon we went over to the Isle of Purbeck.  For a long time, people have been telling us  about the so-called “Lost Village” of Tyneham, although I think maybe the first time I’d really read about the village was in my lovely Rena Gardiner book of the Isle of Purbeck, which I wrote about some time ago here.  Here was Rena’s mysterious illustration and description of the decaying manor house back in the late 60s:

(Oh, and there is a very small number of the recent reprints of Rena’s Isle of Purbeck book, still available in the shop here).

During the war, the wide, spacious land that surrounded this remote village was requisitioned by the War Department, as the army began to prepare for D-Day.  On 19th December, 1943, the entire village was evacuated, with a promise that ‘once the emergency was over’, the villagers could return. It was never to be. 

At the end of the war, with the growing threat of the Cold War, the Ministry decided to retain the land to be used for gunnery practice; still today, whole tracts of the remarkable Purbeck coastline are closed, except during weekends. I haven’t ever been here when the guns are firing, though anyone who lives near these army ranges – like the Salisbury plain – will be familiar with that dull thud of distant shellfire that connects us instantly with earlier, more violent times or places.

The story of Tyneham, and the protests and campaigns, fought during the 60s and 70s, by former villagers, to be allowed to return to their church and village, and to open the place up gradually to public access, is well documented on the internet. But we didn’t know what to expect, on this freezing, blustery day.

A tiny, derelict row of cottages by a duck pond greets the visitor; an old phone box has been restored outside.

Roofless and forlorn, the houses are sad as graves.

Brilliant, evocative and informative displays in each cottage or house show old black and white photographs of each in their heyday.  Here is Harry and Edith Barnes, and their daughter Phyllis, outside the post office in 1911:

Here, in 1907, Annie Fry the schoolmistress; Jane Pitman, the postmistress; and Polly Tizzard, her sister.

Peter Driscoll in the Post Office garden:

The postman’s sidecar in 1939:

Empty chimneys are all that remain.

In the shepherds’ cottage, next door, this photo of 1917;

Shepherd Lucas, seated on the right, in 1905:

In the Labourer’s cottage, next door, this photograph of Percy Kerley, Fred Lucas and Bill Holland, in the fields, in 1911:

Ernest and Evelyn Whitelock, 1929:

Ernest on his tractor, the first on the farm at Tyneham, in the harvest of 1942 – just over a year before the evacuation:

The school – Mrs Pritchard and her pupils, in 1927:

A tree by the churchyard:

It was a landscape of Paul Nash and Ravilious:

On the afternoon of the evacuation, a notice was pinned to the door of the church –

Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our homes, where many of us have lived for generations, to help win the war to keep men free. 

We will return one day and thank you for treating our village kindly.


Next door, Rectory Cottages:

Albert Biles lived at the cottage; here is his daughter Dorothy, with her aunty Daisy:Albert Biles, who gardened the Rectory:

The schoolhouse, like the church, is restored.

In a corner of the village, the remains of the Rectory:

A path leads down to Gwyle cottages:

As they were:

Harry and Marjorie Grant, at Gwyle Cottages, in 1931:

Arthur Grant, with his new bicycle, aged 7:

The remains of Tyneham House itself are hidden deep in a wood, away from public view. The army demolished most of the ancient and venerable building in the late 60s.
We walked down to Worbarrow Bay…

Where again, one felt as if we had stepped through a canvas by Nash or Ravilious.  Storm clouds rolled in on a freezing wind.

In the valley driving out is this handsome old farm.

What is missing from this landscape?  Well, there is no building, no evidence at all, needless to say, of life in the second half of the twentieth century. I wondered briefly what these hills would have looked like with the inevitable inroads of bungalows and plastic windows, of road signs and caravan parks and tourist paraphernalia. The absence of all this is as tangible as the families themselves.

Leaving Tyneham, the tiny single track lane, without any markings, travels high up on the hill, with great sweeping views down to Poole Habour and across an utterly deserted part of Dorset. We felt almost back in New Zealand (except for a few cabbage trees and Maori caves missing).

And we made our way home, rather more silently than usual.

29 comments on this post

Wow what a sad tale, thank you for telling it. I’ve never heard of these abandoned villages, how terrible for the families to have had to leave like that.

[…] Not many people talk now about the villages requistioned and abandoned in the Second World War, but Tyneham is one of them and Ben Pentreath visits it here. […]


This is such a poignant story. I wonder what happened to the people who lived there?
Have a great week!


Have you ever visited Oradour-sur-Glane? Near Limoges in the South of France. This strangely reminds me of it, although Oradour was destroyed in a far more violent way. There, lives lost, here lives suspended and never fully regained. War has lots of victims.


Enjoyed this post so much. The sad stories that are generally not known to the general public, that accompany all wars. I found myself wondering what happened to the sweet little 7 year old Arthur, who was so obviously proud of his lovely new bike.


Very poignant and lovely post Ben, and fantastic photos, old and new. Haven’t been for years, winter is the most atmospheric and quiet time to go. When at the Nash show at Tate recently, was delighted to see many images featured in Paul Nash’s paintings near my place near Ballard Down, north Swanage, and Nash lived briefly at the old house at Whitecliff Farm, Swanage (think thats in the Manor Houses of Dorset book you) which you get a good view of if you walk up the hill from Shep’s Hollow Chine, across from the Ballard Estate. This estate is usually dismissed as a suburban bungalow estate and walked through without much of a second glance by those walking the south west coastal path which passes through but actually has an interesting history perched on the top of the cliff, was built as wooden barracks during the first world war, due to the closeness to the beach and sea, and a few of the old solid barracks remain, but mine sadly is a spruced up 1960s bungalow (no architectural gems here but check out the Purbeck House Hotel for eccentric architecture, dying for a sympathetic make-over, hint hint!) but in a perfect spot! Just passing this on if you’re ever further Swanage/Langton Matravers way, always good out of season and fancy some Nash inspired views and a cup of tea if you’re passing!


thank you ben! i cannot recall ever seeing a photo of a more loving, lovely and happy couple as harry and marjorie grant. a most handsome bunch of people, every photo, with a presence that is not found these days. the women beautiful and the men fearless! and the kids all good lookin’. i live in a place like the “old farm” photo, and my “sense” is that everyone who ever lived here “is still here” and content, possibly the same for magnificent Tyneham.

i am better for you sharing your weekly expeditions, dear ben.


Clay McCleerysays:

Your finest, and saddest, story to date.

Charlotte Harrissays:

Perhaps the silver lining of this sad story of what might be called abuse of power is the countryside unspoiled by the ugly incursions of the decades since 1940. Thank you for sharing this illustrated history. We vacationed in Dorset and the Isle of Purbeck a few years ago and wondered that so much land would be unoccupied despite bugeoning population. Your story provides some explanation.


Years ago I was on holiday with family at West Lulworth. It was gorgeous… but one day we were driving along a lovely country lane and all of a sudden heard gun shots, etc. I found it frightening – it must’ve been near Tyneham! What a sad story.


This is such a sad story. This was a village full of busy and bluster and connections and chatter and the spirit of community and all that was taken away and not returned after the war. What a callous action. How heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing the photographs here. When I was in Devon and Cornwall I often thought how much the hills and cliffs were like those of our Otago coastline. Even bush covered, they would have presented a familiar sight for many of the colonial settlers at the end of their long journey.

Isla Simpsonsays:

I often think buildings come alive with people and I suppose the phrase ‘home is where the heart is’ chimes a chord here. What an awful wrench it must be to be leave the place you love and call home. The sadest story, but so happy to learn about it here in your blog. Xx


I’ve always been curious about Tyneham. This is heartbreaking. Thank you for naming the people where you could. It’s the least they deserve. Best, Nicola

Deb Millersays:

Very poignant, atmospheric post Ben. I wonder how many of the children are still alive and where everyone ended up living.


How utterly sad yet remarkably beautiful. Excellent post, Ben, thanks for sharing.


Fascinating blog. Perhaps the houses are not forlorn but, as you rightly say, a grave to the past. And no doubt in time these will crumble back into the soil. As we all do.

Personally, I think there is something rather more forlorn about the schoolhouse “dummied” up – with no formal schoolmaster, no cries of children, no clattering of feet on the wooden floor. I’m an aesthete and love classical architecture but … to me, many NT houses carry a sense of faux and melancholy, that something has irretrievably been lost. The great noble ancestral families with large families, staff lighting fires and gamekeepers managing the land, have moved on. They are a hollowed out version of what they once were. That’s why I stopped visiting NT properties.

I’d rather read the personal diaries of a deceased aristocrat, rather than visit an estate which is now being “interpreted” and staged by a NT manager. Of course the best architectural gems need be conserved. But what the NT is doing is unfortunately rapidly turning smaller estates and swathes of the countryside into a kind of Disney re-enactment of the past with the ever present sense of death about them.

Houses need to be lived in, nurtured and cherished, to have a sense of soul or allowed to crumble gracefully, such as Tyneham. It is a reminder of mortality, not just human but socially too.

Diane Keanesays:

Hi Ben, thank you for a very interesting and thoughtful post. Recently I read a lovely work of fiction, “The House at Tyneford” by Natasha Solomons, which I believe must be based on the story of Tyneham. (The author lives in Dorset.) It is set during WWII and ends with the village being commandeered by the Army and everyone made to leave. It is a beautiful evocation of time and place. Perhaps this book is as near as we can get, now, to “seeing” the manor house, which the main characters inhabit. Recommended.

For all the heartache to the real Tyneham, it is ironic that at least the area was spared the ravages of development. Nevertheless, it seems to be a place where a feeling of absence is the main thing there.

Have a good week!

Southern galsays:

What a sad story. Thanks for sharing it. Another place to pin on my map of England that you reveal to me.


Thank you. Your posts always educate me and leave me thinking, and I have to admit, quite often leave me in tears. But they are good tears, so thanks again.


If anyone is interested in reading more about Tyneham, I recommend ‘The Village That Died For England’ by the historian and broadcaster Patrick Wright.


Haunting indeed. And begs the question in my humble opinion of Why ? We were at the end of the war the army hardly required practice at shelling by then. And the powers that be still managed to mess up the landings anyway. So many lives interrupted unnecessarily in my opinion and GKW the village was not re-instated. Instead of which the MOD dismantled it. An odd affair to say the least. More to this than meets the eye?


beautiful images this week


My first memory of Tyneham was as a child on a family walk when we seemed to stumble upon it. At that time the abandoned buildings still had their roofs. I remember being deeply affected by the sense that time had stood still in this place, even at the age of about ten. It left me full of wonder and curiosity. I have visited Tyneham several times in recent years. It stands as a testimony to a sad chapter in history, yet is evocative in the sense that you have almost gone back in time. Full of information; this is a real open-air museum which still holds as much fascination now as it did to me all those years ago.


What a haunting and beautiful post. I am sure we all have boxes somewhere with similar black and white photographs of our ancestors smiling like the ones in these pictures. How very sad to think of the upheaval in their lives and the broken promises of the ‘powers that be’. Thank you for telling their story.


Lovely post about such an interesting place and point in time. My favourite memory of Tyneham is a framed print in the church that says, “Lost, several golden minutes between sunrise and sunset, no reward is offered as they are gone forever”

Charlotte Ksays:

Golly. No words.

Nicola Lawrencesays:

I wonder if the villagers collectively moved to another village or did they spread out. How very sad – such a loss of identity, community and family history. They all looked very happy in these photographs. The buildings are so pretty – what a wrench to leave – and then to not come back. Thank you for such a thought provoking – beautiful and melancholy as Julie said – post, Ben. (I wonder who owns the sheep?). x


Lovely post Ben l heard about the village of Tyneham some years ago it was a place l just had to visit.The photographs on display there portray a happy community in a idyllic location. Once again the ravages of war sadly put an end to this tiny village and it’s occupants.It is said the villagers were heartbroken that they never returned it is easy to understand why. We also stopped and saw the village from a vantage point it was nestled in the gentle calming Purbeck hills half a mile away from the coast where the villagers would have enjoyed picnicking by the sea.The one positive thing is that it is on MOD land and they now look after it so the story remains a sad one at that but war doesn’t leave any happy memories only stories of survival. Oh dear lm getting a bit heavy but such is life. Hope you had a good weekend thank you again for finding time to share with us.


This is so beautiful in it’s melancholy.

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