England's green and pleasant land

Patrick Wright on the Dorset village that became an ideological mirror for England

While it still existed, Tyneham was a remote English village, hidden in a fold of the downs overlooking the Dorset coast. It was equipped with largely unexceptional features: a squire in a small Elizabethan mansion, a one-room schoolhouse, a modest church with a coronation oak outside. All this was brought to an end shortly before Christmas in 1943, when the place was evacuated to make way for US troops practising for the D-Day landings.

The villagers surrendered their homes on the understanding that they would be reinstated once the war was over. By 1948, it was the turn of Clement Attlee's Labour government to break "Churchill's pledge", declaring, with reference to the emerging cold war, that Tyneham would have to be retained permanently as part of the Royal Armoured Corps' tank gunnery range. Financial compensation was paid and, since many of the displaced were not property owners, funds were released so that a special council estate ("Tyneham Close") could be built some distance inland.

For some of the displaced this was a satisfactory conclusion. Yet the story did not end there, as I found out while researching The Village that Died for England. Wired off and forbidden to all but the military, Tyneham was remembered by campaigners who tried to free it, or at least improve rights of access to the obstructed coastal footpaths.

There was local agitation in the 1940s and protests were renewed in the late 60s, thanks to the intervention of Rodney Legg, a volatile young campaigner who would go on to become chairman of the Open Spaces Society. His Tyneham Action Group went into action in 1968, prompting the Daily Telegraph, already transfixed by "the events" in Paris and elsewhere, to notify its readers of the emergence of a "militant resistance movement" in Dorset.

In reality Legg had initiated an impossible coalition in which defenders of the traditional Dorset squirearchy tried, and failed, to make common cause with animal welfare and anti-hunt activists, footpath militants, and at least one UFO-spotting admirer of Aleister Crowley. Yet the campaigners battled on, fighting one another as vigorously as the external enemy.

The story of Churchill's at least partly mythical "pledge", followed by Attlee's "betrayal", ensured Tyneham's persistence as one of the more telling ideological fables of the postwar decades. As the actual village crumbled behind the wire, Tyneham started to glow like Pompeii in the public imagination. Hundreds of newspaper articles evoked it as a pure fragment of England that had, paradoxically, escaped the modernisations of the postwar period. The village may have been extinguished, but at least there had been no widening of its dimpled lanes, no improvement of its fields with pesticides or deep ploughing, no alteration of the school curriculum or the liturgy.

There was a socialist version of this nostalgic legend, in which the dispossessed of Tyneham were identified with the Tolpuddle martyrs, but Dorset's posthumous village had other potentialities too. Conservative England embraced it as the emblem of a deeply settled organic community destroyed by the modern bureaucratic state. There have also been racist elegies, in which Tyneham is imagined as an ancestral England that had never been visited by postwar immigration.

In recent years, the argument over that expropriated valley in Dorset has dwindled. The displaced villagers have nearly all died. Survivors remember how the Ministry of Defence finally ambushed them with the assertion that its soldiers had actually been using their tanks to conserve the blasted heath and downs from an even worse fate: intensive farming, coniferisation and house-building.

Yet the ideas and values that drove the various battles for Tyneham have not faded away. In the era of the Countryside Alliance, Tyneham is revealed to have been a training ground in a different sense: a testbed not just for tanks but for the brew of clamorous arguments - cogent, spurious, contradictory and sometimes plain toxic - that is now applied to the entire countryside.

Patrick Wright

The GuardianTramp

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