Fighting for Tyneham
The campaign to allow its residents to return to Tyneham was a more tangled story than it appears at first sight. John Newth does some unravelling.
Published in December ’13
Tyneham has surely had more words written about it than any other English village. Having nestled quietly for centuries in its Purbeck valley, it became a symbol for several issues, including the wishes of Government against the rights of the individual, when it is justifiable to break a promise, how to accommodate the need for warfare training areas, how those areas should be treated by the military, the disintegration of the squirearchy, and a raft of environmental questions. As a result, the drama of Tyneham had a large and diverse cast list, many of them with political agendas which ranged much more broadly than the fate of a tiny Dorset village. More heat than light was generated, the great majority of contributions to the debate being informed by sentiment rather than rational argument: as late as 1995, a book on the subject was given the emotive title, The Village that Died for England.
In December 1943 the residents were given one month’s notice to leave their homes so that the valley could be used to train troops in preparation for D-Day. Perhaps more in hope than expectation, the letter from the War Office to the 225 residents concluded: ‘The Government appreciate that this is no small sacrifice which you are asked to make, but they are sure that you will give this further help towards winning the war with a good heart.’ Immeasurably more eloquent in their simple sincerity were the haunting words that an unknown villager left pinned to the door of Tyneham church: ‘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.’
The writer’s confidence seemed justified because the residents were told, ‘When the War Department has no further use for the property and it is handed back, you have every right to return to the property.’ By accident or design, the Army omitted to mention when that would be. D-Day came and went, as did VE-Day, 1945 gave way to 1946 and still the Tyneham villagers were exiled. In May 1947 the MP for South Dorset, Viscount Hinchinbrooke (later the Earl of Sandwich), shocked the normally cosy and congenial London dinner of the Society of Dorset Men by using his after-dinner speech for a vehemently impassioned attack on the Army’s retention of land in Purbeck. Possibly the MP’s speech forced the Government’s hand because later that year, it was announced that Tyneham was to be retained by compulsory purchase as part of the 7200-acre Lulworth gunnery ranges.
One of the oddities of the Tyneham story is that it was another two decades before concerted protest against the situation was organised. Perhaps the explanation was that twenty years on was the late 1960s, when the youth revolution had segued into student revolt led by the likes of Tariq Ali, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Rudi Dutschke. Dorset had its own political firebrand to match these: 21-year-old Rodney Legg, who published the first issue of Dorset: the county magazine (the direct forerunner of Dorset Life) in December 1967 and used it to call for the formation of a group to protest actively about the Army’s continuing occupation.
The Tyneham Action Group was officially founded at a public meeting in Dorchester in May 1968. It attracted some big-hitters to come out in support, including Rolf Gardiner of Springhead, Lord Salisbury who had been MP for South Dorset, Lilian Bond, sister of Ralph Bond who was the last owner of Tyneham House and the village, and Labour peer Fenner Brockway. Rodney Legg was the group’s first secretary and helped to organise some modest official trespassing and symbolic wire-cutting. He has also left a vivid narrative of a breathless freelance trespass committed by himself and a Liberal MP, Graham Tope, from Flowers Barrow down into Worbarrow, up the Tyneham Valley and across to Gad Cliff, pursued by four ineffectual Land Rovers and their armed occupants. Legg finishes the account by telling how over lunch at the Weld Arms in East Lulworth, ‘I telephoned the Range Office to tell them they could stop looking for us – but there was no reply, as they were all still doing just that.’
The action group inevitably provoked an equal and opposite reaction. Former generals and admirals wrote letters to the local and national press in apoplectic outrage. Others complained, not without justification, that some members of the group were motivated less by concern for the Dorset countryside than by a blanket anti-militarism. It was pointed out that without tank-borne soldiers, many of whom trained on the Lulworth Ranges, the protestors ‘would probably have lost the freedom to act as they are doing’. Such arguments were given added weight by the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Forty-five years on from that low point in the Cold War, it is difficult to recall the genuine feelings of fear, as well as revulsion, that gripped many people. It was certainly not a time to try to curb the activities of those charged with our defence.
Nor did the Tyneham Action group help itself. From the start it had attracted hotheads, fanatics and extremists. Gradually their voices began to drown out the more measured and rational tones of the official committee led by Philip Draper, who had been born in the Tyneham Valley and gone on to become a distinguished engineer. One of the lunatic fringe actually found her way onto the committee: the press officer, Margaret Kraft, who claimed occult powers and, when the Brigadier commanding the Royal Armoured Corps at Bovington was killed in an aeroplane accident, that it was due to a curse she had placed on him.
A split was inevitable, and a stormy meeting in late 1969 saw Legg resign. He formed at least two other groups dedicated to evicting the Army from Tyneham through more positive action (although it amounted to not much more than painting slogans and uprooting signs) and railed bitterly against what he called the ‘Tyneham Inaction Group’ both at formal hearings and in the pages of his magazine. The Army must have loved it. Largely thanks to such internal squabbling, the campaign ran out of steam as the ’seventies progressed, the number of surviving villagers decreased and protest gave way to commemoration with the annual laying of a wreath in Tyneham church.
Two other factors meant that the Tyneham campaign was doomed. One was that in the late 1940s, many villagers were re-housed, notably on a new estate at Sandford called Tyneham Close. For the majority, the choice between a draughty stone cottage with primitive sanitation and a modern house with facilities such as electricity and indoor plumbing was not a difficult one.
Secondly, if the Army had left, the land would have been offered back to the landowners, that is the Bond family, under the ‘Crichel Down’ rules. The majority of villagers, as tenants, would have had no absolute right to return to their homes. Such a return would have been in the gift of Ralph Bond’s son, Major-General Mark Bond. As a serving soldier when the campaign was in full swing, he was in an impossibly difficult position but he addressed it with wisdom and dignity, never losing sight of his obligations to the village while skilfully causing minimal offence to his Army superiors. There is every reason to believe that he would have done all he could for those villagers who did wish to return, but they would have had no guarantees.
The long-standing arrangement that persists to this day is that there is public access to Tyneham and the rest of the Lulworth Ranges on most weekends and during the high summer season. One should not underestimate or disrespect the genuine grief felt until the day they died by some of the villagers, who never recovered from the emotional trauma of being turned out of their homes, but overall, it is a compromise that works. Even Rodney Legg, in a volte-face perhaps prompted in equal measure by maturity, wishful thinking and guilty memories of how he rendered the campaign ineffectual by his divisive actions, has written: ‘Our stand was presumptuous and flawed. I now feel that the release of the land would have unleashed more problems than it solved, and shudder sometimes at the thought of how close we came to an illusory success. The compromise that won the day at least gives everyone something.’