Two villages that died for England

diggers350 tony at
Fri Sep 26 20:15:21 BST 2003

Best kept villages,3604,835032,00.html

David McKie
Thursday November 7, 2002
The Guardian

Two villages that died for England: Tyneham, close to the Dorset coast, and=
 Imber, at the heart of Salisbury Plain. Both requisitioned for use in the r=
un-up to D-day: neither ever returned to those cast out of them. At Imber, n=
otice to leave was served on villagers on November 1 1943: they were all to =
be gone by December 17, just 46 days away. In Tyneham, the order to evacuate=
 was posted on November 16, with the place to be cleared by December 19 - an=
 even tighter time scale, even closer to Christmas.

In both cases, the villagers left sadly but comprehendingly, knowing they w=
ere giving their all for the war effort, but reassured too that when the war=
 was over they would be back. Tyneham people thought they'd been given a fir=
m War Department assurance that this would happen. Imber people were sure of=
ficials had told them the same, though the letters setting out the terms for=
 their expulsion were collected up by officials later that day, leaving them=
 with no record. (Much later, one of these letters came to light, but its te=
rms for post-war restoration were subtly ambiguous.) 

Tyneham, over the years, has had more attention than Imber, partly perhaps =
because this slice of Dorset was a part of the world many knew, whereas Imbe=
r ("Little Imber on the Downe, Seven miles from any towne") was always isola=
ted and obscure. The media kept coming back to Tyneham, so much so that a ki=
nd of repertory company of expelled inhabitants began to develop. It was als=
o commemorated in the mid-1980s by Patrick Wright's hugely praised book, The=
 Village That Died for England - republished this week in an updated edition=
 by Faber and Faber. 

This is not - as its length (nearly 500 pages) suggests - to be seen as a s=
tory of people turned out of paradise and never restored to it. It is a more=
 fascinated, and sometimes amazed, account of how we do things in England. "=
This book," says Wright in his new introduction, "is all about the splendour=
s and woeful inadequacies of English idealism." 

A ripe collection of wild eccentrics galumphs through its pages - some genu=
inely deserving the epithet "visionary", some plainly nuts. Llewellyn Powys,=
 "epicurean writer and philosopher" as Wright describes him, known to his fr=
iends as Lulu, with his taste for the megalithic and exaltation of lust; Rol=
f Gardiner, father of the more famous John Eliot, organic farmer, poet and d=
reamer, strongly suspected of Nazi sympathies though Wright says it was rath=
er more complex than that; his near neighbour and comrade in various causes,=
 Captain Pitt Rivers, whose Nazi sympathies were plain enough to get him loc=
ked up in the second world war. 

Then there are the turbulent, fissile pressure groups set up to recapture t=
he Tyneham valley from the military - only then to be hopelessly outgunned a=
nd outmanoeuvred by those who insisted the army must stay. Must stay to prot=
ect the local economy; must stay because people simply liked having them the=
re; must stay on the paradoxical grounds that the military occupation had sa=
ved the valley from something still worse: commercial exploitation of its re=
sources, mass invasion by trippers, caravans and holiday camps. 

Imber, in contrast, is now forlorn and forgotten. At Tyneham, Wright tells =
us, the church is restored and the school has become a gallery and museum. I=
mber is just a ruin: shattered remnants of the original houses interspersed =
with buildings put up for infantry practice, and a church which, though it h=
as always opened once a year for returning Imber parishioners, is becoming t=
oo dangerous to continue. Imber's story is sympathetically told, with the he=
lp of some wonderful pictures, in a book by Rex Sawyer published last year -=
 a work, this, of orthodox local history, and none the worse for that. 

As at Tyneham, long battles were fought to recapture the village, led by a =
dogged local councillor, Austin Underwood. ("He is a bad man," the then war =
minister John Profumo warned Harold Macmillan as Underwood organised civil d=
isobedience, "very leftwing and an Aldermaston marcher.") But the most they =
got was an undertaking - not ever, I think, fulfilled - that Imber would be =
opened to visitors on 50 days each year. 

Some who once lived there say the place was deliberately ruined to extingui=
sh their wish to go back. The US army, who had it in the first days of occup=
ation, treated it scrupulously, but when the paras came in they wantonly wre=
cked it. 

And yet I suspect Wright might find the state of poor Imber in some ways mo=
re to his taste than réchauffé Tyneham - now the centre, he says, of a remar=
kable posthumous cult: "Extinction has granted this remote English village a=
 strange numinosity, alluring and repulsive at once." Imber is simply strick=
en, abandoned, devoid of all cosmetic attention, and overwhelmingly sad. 

· The Village That Died for England, by Patrick Wright, Faber and Faber; Li=
ttle Imber on the Down, by Rex Sawyer, The Hobnob Press, PO Box 1838, East K=
noyle, SP3 6FA 

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