About this Book
Tyneham is modern England’s archetypal ‘lost village’: a Dorset hamlet in a beautiful coastal valley evacuated to make a training area for allied tanks during the Second World War, and never returned to its inhabitants despite Churchill’s pledge of restitution. It has lurked in the national imagination ever since: the symbol of a vanished England.
The Village that Died for England is the second of my two English road books. It tells the story of the historical landscape around the minor road that comes up from the popular resort of Lulworth Cove, and passes close to Lulworth Castle before crossing a stretch of heath to climb the chalk ridge of the Purbeck Hills and then descending into the secretive and now militarized Tyneham valley beyond.
I first realized the interest of this landscape when writing about the novels of Mary Butts in the early nineteen eighties. The research, which extended over the best part of a decade, was like reading a palimpsest, deciphering one layer of writing only to discover that its letters were all mixed up with earlier inscriptions. At the beginning, I believed I was dealing with a story entirely set in the post-war period, when Churchill’s legendary ‘pledge’ was regretfully broken by the Labour government of Clement Attlee. It seemed, and indeed was, a story of organic English tradition raised up against the reforming welfare state.
However, as I looked into it, I found myself carried back into earlier times. Tanks had first laid claim to land in Dorset during the Great War, and there had been a heated campaign to get rid of them in the nineteen twenties, when the ‘Defence of Arish Mell’ was mounted in the pages of national newspapers. As for the allegiance that the tank found among working class people in the area, I could not get to the roots of this without going back to the late eighteenth century, when this part of Dorset was incorporated into an aristocratic pastorale. The country people came to be seen as deferential and picturesque yokels, and the nearby town of Weymouth was relaunched as ‘The English Bay of Naples’, a polite watering-place visited several times by George III.
The story of this embattled landscape is presented in its local detail, but I would not have persisted with the book unless it also engaged issues of wider significance. It investigates the strengths and weaknesses of ‘organic’ visions of the English countryside. It is concerned with opposed expressions of patriotism, the fear and appreciation of technology and military power, the tension between traditional ideas of English life and the transformations brought about by the modernising State. It is also a history of the environmentalist impulse, shown to have changed dramatically over the decades covered by the book.
A note on editions
The Village that Died for England was first published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in 1995, and by Vintage in paperback the following year. The text in both these editions is poorly presented with many errors – some my fault but a lot due to the fact that the copy editor at Cape was made redundant while working on the book. The text was corrected for the Faber edition of 2002, which is also revised throughout, including new material and also reinstating passages cut from the Cape edition in order to shorten the book. It is the only reliable version of the text. All editions are presently out of print, a situation I hope to rectify as opportunities arise.