Reading the Faber Book of English History in Verse in East London was like trying to hold Radio 3 on the FM band.[*] The wavelength was under fire from all sides, and its measured strains kept giving way to the outlandish rapping and toasting of the local pirate stations. Closing the minister’s volume in dismay, I noticed an image of Nelson dying at Trafalgar on the cover and set off in search of a place where I might try again.
Mr Baker’s anthology was on the best-seller list by the summer, when I took it down to Dorset and found the place where it would really come to life. Driving up from West Lulworth, I left behind the yellow fields of EEC oil seed rape and travelled up onto the rougher, more English ground of Povington Hill. The heath still resembles the one Thomas Hardy imagined as Lear’s, but it is now part of the Royal Armoured Corps’s gunnery range: enclosed and blasted in a new sense. The road goes up past the turf-covered rings of Flower’s Barrow, and then turns off towards Worbarrow Bay. Along with the usual signs warning of unexploded shells, there’s a military checkpoint here and a notice of earlier date which forbids campers, hawkers and vendors from entering the valley below. Like Mr Baker’s England, Tyneham Valley had its great moments before history died on it in the 1940s. Its village and Elizabethan mansion, domain of the Bond family for nearly five hundred continuous years, were celebrated in magazines like Country Life, and Arthur Bryant was not the first to recognise its bay as ‘the loveliest in England’. Eton College used to send its scouts to Tyneham for their annual summer camp. The Times photographed the harvest here in August 1929, and spread the Baldwinite result – a horse-drawn harvester set off against a silver sea – over half a page. Clough Williams-Ellis stretched Tyneham’s view of Worbarrow Bay over the end-papers of his passionately-argued conservationist volume Britain and the Beast. There could scarcely have been a more evocative picture of an England that, in the Thirties, was endangered but still unspoilt.
Within a few years local papers would be renaming this romantic valley ‘The Forbidden Land’. Tyneham was evacuated on the order of Churchill’s War Cabinet in 1943. The Normandy landings were in the offing and a secluded training-ground had to be found. From this moment the story of Tyneham becomes a fable of loyal sacrifice and subsequent betrayal. Villagers received a month’s notice and the assurance that they would be able to return to their houses once the national emergency was over. They left, but only after Mrs Bond had written a note on their behalf and pinned it to the church door: ‘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 shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.’
The Attlee Government acknowledged the existence of ‘Churchill’s pledge’, as it quickly came to be known. But the Cold War changed everything, and at a public enquiry in 1948 Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, announced that the Government had no choice but to declare the evacuation permanent. Mr Ralph Bond, who had formed and commanded the Tyneham Home Guard among his own villagers in 1940, was bought out. Those of his villagers who hadn’t died of shock were rehoused, many of them in Tyneham Close, a specially-built council estate near Wareham. Tyneham disappeared behind the wire: Elizabethan mansion, secluded 13th-century church, village and all. As the place of Churchill’s broken pledge, it became a persistent metaphor of post-war England: a patriotic nation betrayed in its own name.
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[*] The Faber Book of English History in Verse, edited by Kenneth Baker. Faber, 448 pp., £12.95, 18 April, 0 571 14882 4.