Learning by Being There: WWII & The Abandoned Village of Tyneham

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

Tyneham is a village with zero population located in Wareham, Dorset. The village was evacuated in 1943 so that it could be used for military training, but sadly, the homeowners of Tyneham were never allowed to return...

One of the most poignant things for me when I visited, was seeing the note left on the church door by one of the residents. It actually brought tears to my eyes. These people gave up their homes, sold their cattle and tools, and did it all for the greater good, with the full belief and understanding that they would be returning once the war was over. Sadly however, they were never allowed to return.

Upon reading information in each ruined cottage, you get a real sense of the people that lived here and the village life. It seemed as though this was a friendly community, where everybody played a role. There was a church, a post office, a school house and just twenty minutes away, Worbarrow Bay where I imagine children played endlessly in the sea as parents relaxed on the pebble beach.

Some of the buildings have been closed since 2019 due to safety concerns, but you can still walk inside the cottages and the school house which has a full set up of a nature activity taking place.

Each building contains information about the former occupants, many who would have large families living in just a small space. There are even pictures of the former residents who have since come back to Tyneham, and you can see how they look now compared to when they left.

The people who lived in Tyneham were given just 28 days notice to leave, and the knowledge that they had to go was a secret they had to keep. They fled under the cover of darkness to spare rooms or homes in another village and none of them were paid for their homes, not even when they discovered they would never return. Can you imagine how it must have felt? For some, their entire generations of family had lived in Tyneham and now they were being forced to start again. The end of the war must have felt very bittersweet for them.

In fact, it wasn't until the 1980's that the public was even allowed to enter the village, after much campaigning that became too big for people to ignore.

After the war, instead of returning the village to its rightful owners, the government acquisitioned it for the military to be used as training grounds and it is still used for training today. In fact, there are signs everywhere warning you of live firing ranges and to keep out.

For me, it felt very much as though the government took advantage once the residents had left. They saw an opportunity and they took it. I'm all for the greater good and I understand why they needed the village initially, but I see no reason it could not have been returned later on, and a training compound be set up elsewhere. It almost makes you wonder if they had something to hide. With almost forty more years before the public was allowed to gain access to Tyneham, any evidence of another reason for keeping hold of the village would probably have been long gone, as would some of the residents that once lived there. The reason given at the time, was that as the Cold War started, Tyneham village and Lulworth firing ranges became crucial to the government’s defence plans and in 1952 the entire valley was compulsorily purchased for £30,000 by the Ministry of Defence.

Thanks to conservation volunteers, some of the buildings have since been restored including the school house which is set up as though there is a nature activity taking place. It reminds children of today what life was like without digital entertainment, and how much more knowledge children had back then, about nature, plants and insects.

The school house gives a glimpse of what school life might have been like, but bears none of the drabness you might expect from that time. You can imagine the children out and about, searching for butterflies and flowers to take back to their school house to study.

But it is in the restored church where the real spirit of Tyneham comes alive. Here, you will find photographs of the village as it once was, of the families then and now and the names of the families in the friezes around the church, which adds to the sadness of it all. There is a lot of information in the church, including the timeline of Tyneham and the war, more details about the houses and their residents and of course, that note that was pinned in vain to the church door.

The carpark that you will park on when you arrive (for a donation of £2) separates this part of Tyneham from another area of the village where most of the conservation work has taken place. Here, you will find the stables and barn where locals once put on theatre shows. It has been set up with a small stage to demonstrate how the theatre shows would have looked, and there are lots of old farming tools and equipment to look at too. This is your picnic area, where you will find shelter from the rain and where the portaloos are.

From here, head back into the carpark and follow the signs to Worbarrow Bay where you can spend a few hours on the beach if you want to. There are also more abandoned buildings along the way. There are no facilities on the beach so bear that in mind. My advice would be to take the woodland walk, it's quicker and nicer.

All in all, Tyneham Village is a must-see place to visit. It helps you to appreciate the sacrifices people made for us during wartime, it encourages a sense of anger as you understand how it must have felt for the residents when they discovered they would not be returning home. It allows your nostalgia to take over as you imagine the close knit community that lived here, and it makes you think about what we need to do differently with our own children today.

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