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Epiphany at Worbarrow Bay

The Dorset Downland peaks in a great mountainous ridge beyond the village of Tyneham. It ends in the cliffs at Worbarrow Bay, an uncanny crescent formation in a coast of stacks, hollows, barrows, and a mysterious “fossil forest” - the cast of a prehistoric woodland - set in Cambrian limestone near Durdle Door. These remnants are the precursors of diminutive species which still grow along the banks of the boggy cliffside streams. The blustering October wind from the Channel causes the hardy grasses, bushes and shrubs to shudder. The sea is a metal grey under a grey sky, shocked with brassy sunlight. The waves beat upon the shingle with all the power of the equinoctial tides.

A lone fisherman, encamped in a small tent has been casting out all day. Soon he will be “off” - “it’s too cold”. As far as I can see, he hasn’t caught a great deal, despite the conditions looking promising - especially for bass. His face is red from the breeze. As the tea from his flask touches his lips, the liquid must be lukewarm - tasting, not quite of tea, but of thermos flask, that strange, indescribable, hybrid flavour, where plastic and metal seem to have mingled with the liquid. It is a taste which everyone who wanders or waits for hours in the countryside knows.

The reddish cliffs of Worbarrow rise up, as if to uphold the Downs and the ancient barrows and tracks which trace their way across them. From vantage points such as these, military commanders have always observed great battles and repulsed advances. In the last war, the officers overseeing coastal exercises viewed their operations from the brows of cliffs where Iron Age chieftains built barrows and forts. Churchill and King George Vl viewed a similar “attack” at Studland Bay, the wide harbour near Poole where yachts and ferries now sail by. But at Worbarrow Bay, the army’s role had a greater poignancy, and it is a legacy which lives on to this day.

In 1943, the year in which the first American troops were seen in England in large numbers, the inhabitants of Tyneham village were told that they were to be evacuated from their homes - the whole of their valley, including the old Elizabethan manor house belonging to the ancient Bond family, to be taken over by the forces of the Crown for the duration of the war. But not a soul ever returned to live in the valley, and a strange silence - save for the occasional rattle and thunder of a post-war tank exercise - enveloped the landscape. Those villagers were the last of a line which stretched back for thousands of years in the valley, their dwellings ruined and robbed of meaning, dwindling away in the landscape like the Iron Age remnants on the hills.

Tyneham house decayed and was eventually demolished. The little cottages were shot to pieces in the name of target practice. Yet the rest of the surroundings stayed almost as they were - frozen as if by the deep frost which must have taken hold of the valley in the Christmas days when the villagers said farewell to their community. And it is an unearthly silence which surrounds us in the moonlight and clear night-sky. There are no sounds of the human world, not even a distant car or aeroplane. Even the orange glow of light from Poole and Bournemouth does not penetrate as far as this forgotten valley on the Purbeck coast… forgotten, quiet, wild and partly prohibited.

Tyneham is reached by a winding lane. A gate bars the entrance to this small road throughout the week, but on Saturday and Sunday the Ministry of Defence open it to visitors. And the lane itself connects to another roadway, running from Lulworth Castle right along to the outskirts of Wareham. It is also quite often sealed off: the white barrier and red warning flags indicating that a tank exercise is underway. As well as the solitude of the Dorset landscape, there is another mysterious presence locked away in the hills - the presence of soldiers, men with binoculars, men obeying orders from Government HQs, men in concrete bunkers and watch-towers. Just as David Rudkin’s 1970s’ film, Penda’s Fen, reveals an English landscape with something terrible lurking just beneath its beautiful form, so this stretch of Dorset suggests a similar vague sense of darkness.

Perhaps it has always been there - the melancholic mist which veils the Wessex landscape. Perhaps it has nothing to do with Tyneham, the army and Civil Defence, and is drawn out from something much older. Thomas Hardy divined its essence, as did John Ireland in music. And T.E. Lawrence, a man who in later life was beset by an increasing feeling of unease, seemed drawn to the wooded lanes and long-straight runs which still seem to lead on and on to nowhere. Lawrence met his end on one such lane - the victim of a bizarre motorcycle accident, which many still claim was the product of a political conspiracy.

Perhaps the detachment he found here stimulated a vague memory of the Arab revolt, when he would drift for miles into the deserts, discarding every link with the outside world, and “dreaming himself” into the spirit of the place. A stone effigy of Lawrence, lying as if in state, can be seen in the Saxon church of St. Martin at Wareham. The figure is clad in the robes of Arabia - an Englishman who was half-Bedouin, half-knight. Churchill said that his memory would “live in the legends of Arabia”, but it may be that his spirit has found its resting place in the stillness of Dorset - far, far away from the “innumerable silences of stars” in the night sky above the Holy Land.

From the bridge over the River Frome at Wareham, a road runs across marshes and saltings. The downland of the Isle of Purbeck rears up from the wet meadows, the whale-back forms of the hills stretching on into the distance. Their forms are simple, like the sea - like frozen tidal waves. They are mirrored in the sky by a procession of cumulus clouds, too huge to imagine. The road, straight as an arrow acts as a causeway between the town and the coastal hills, yet it feels as though the sea could overwhelm it at any moment.

And beyond the causeway near Bindon Hill, Worbarrow and Tyneham remain locked in time. The army has fastened the gate on the lane, the Land Rover has driven back to the camp, and a decaying calendar in a farmworker’s cottage is open at December 1943. The tanks and guns are silent. Grass triumphs at last, and to quote Sir John Betjeman, “I must say, I’m rather glad”.

Stuart Millson MCIJ

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