Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Occasionally time does stand still. Not just temporarily, but for decades. And there is such a thing as a ghost village. In the parish of Steeple With Tyneham, close to Lulworth on the Dorset coast, you will find the deserted village of Tyneham, once comprising an Elizabethan manor house, church, farm, school, and a handful of small cottages. In 1943 the villagers received a directive from the War Office to evacuate their homes; the area was to be requisitioned for military training purposes and a return to the village would be permitted, indeed was promised, after the war. One of the last to leave pinned this poignant message to the church's oak door:
'Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.'
They never returned. After the war, the government did not return the land to the villagers and the buildings fell into disrepair; the manor house was partially demolished, although the church was left standing. The land has remained in the possession of the Ministry of Defence to this day and is still used for troop and tank exercises as part of the Lulworth Ranges. Consequently for much of the year the area is closed, but is opened at weekends and public holidays. The village has been cleaned up and sensitively presented to visitors, albeit in its semi-demolished state, and the church and school house display excellent and informative histories of the village and its people, with the school laid out as it would have been in 1943. It is particularly pleasing to see the books opened for a natural history lesson.
Tyneham is the starting point for one of my favourite coastal walks, and one that my Dad was also very fond of. We would get up early in the morning and drive to Tyneham and park at the village's visitor car park. Warm weather was usually expected later in the morning, but at 7am the air would be cool, and thick mists coming in off the sea softened the tops of the landscape and settled in the valleys. You could hear the sheep chattering and bleating, but you wouldn't see them until they were only a few feet in front you. The path climbed to the top of Gad Cliff, a serrated outcrop in the cliff face, formed by the buckling of geological strata. A sure and safe path was always guaranteed by marker posts, their tops daubed with yellow paint by the Ministry of Defence, more to prevent errant hikers from wandering into areas of unexploded ordnance than to mitigate the morning's mist. In good time the fog would lift revealing glorious views in both directions along the coast; Kimmeridge and St Aldhems to the east, Worbarrow Bay and Portland to the west.
Last summer we took a family walk along the same route. It was later in the morning - approaching lunchtime - and as we walked along the top of Gad Cliff we could sense a stiff south-westerly wind was blowing onshore; out in the Channel the calm August seas had gone and there were plenty of white crests to the offshore swells. As we began the descent to Worbarrow Tout - the promontory formed where Gad Cliff meets the sea, formed by the circular scooping motion of the waves at the East end of the bay - we were fully exposed to the elements. It was exciting and vital. The wind shouted in our ears while trying its very hardest to blow us back up the hill. Seagulls shrieked and swirled above us, attempting to convince us that their erratic, lurching flightpaths were planned and coordinated. We were not convinced. The sun was regularly breaking through and it was that type of day when the coolness of the breeze fools you into taking wrong decisions; "I'd better pack warm clothes, it'll be cold on the cliff top," followed by jumpers being tied around waists after 10 minutes of walking; or, "It's quite cool - we won't need to the Factor 50 suncream," requiring an evening application of after-sun lotion to fiery foreheads and smarting cheeks.
We stopped on the beach and lay on a sheltered grassy sward for a while. It was quieter out of the wind, and the noise of the breakers hitting the beach and the small undertow of pebbles chattering and clattering as they were sucked back into the spray was soothing, hypnotic almost. We ate crisps and drank apple juice before returning to the car at Tyneham village. It was a gentle mile-long walk past tousled briar patches, burned-out armoured vehicles, and hawthorn bushes twisted by the wind, leaning at implausible angles. An intriguing rail system - embedded in the hillside to provide moving targets for tank firing exercises - looked rusty and unused for years but had somehow become a necessary element of the landscape. Small tortoiseshell butterflies landed on the path in front of us, flirted, then whirled away into the wind.
To be honest with you, as a landscape painter scenes like this terrify me. I normally like to paint the landscape at dawn or dusk where the strong contrasts of light and shade reveal texture and create drama. I also like to use prominent features as my focal point where I can satisfy my craving for painting detail. The huge expanse of nondescript grass and wind-blasted shrubs present a problem for me in this scene; too little detail and the rest of the painting makes little sense, too much and it becomes a mass of confusing brushstrokes that no one wants to look at. Without the assistance of a strongly abstract style to help me out, this required some careful consideration. Structurally, and from a compositional sense, it is an important element in the painting with various lines (trodden paths, shrubs, fences) leading the eye down off the cliff top and into the bay below. Having decided that Worbarrow Tout would be my focal point in the composition and the location for some detailed work, I decided to keep the foreground quiet by simply suggesting some texture here and there with broken brushstrokes. I then glazed over these with transparent washes to create the effect I was looking for.
Writers and art critics regularly make the mistake of suggesting that landscape paintings capturing flat lighting at midday lack a sense of atmosphere - a nebulous concept if ever there was one. I disagree. Despite my aversion to aspects of this scene and time of day from a painter's perspective, I felt compelled to paint it. I wanted to portray the rugged authenticity of the coastline as we normally see it and how we often feel it. It isn't always shrouded in mists and floodlit by sunsets, but is often looking a little dishevelled, wind-blasted and sun-bleached. But it never stops being beautiful. When you look at this painting I am inviting you to join me on the cliff top walk and feel the warmth as the sun breaks through, just as it seems you are being blown into next week. Experience the faint, but satisfying crunch of the hardy wild grass under your walking shoes, and appreciate the honesty of the landscape. As for the sunburn.....just be more careful next time! If you can do that when you look at this painting then it has the elusive quality of 'atmosphere' - a sense of the time and the place.