'Independent on Sunday' campaign: A spectacular coast, behind barbed wire

Notices warn of unexploded shells, yet sheep and cows graze beyond. Must humans really be kept out? asks Hester Lacey
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The Independent Online
THE DORSET coastline is one of the loveliest in Britain, and one of the most beautiful stretches runs between Kimmeridge Bay and Lulworth Cove. Here, broad green valleys run down to magnificent chalk cliffs, a haunt of rabbits, foxes and badgers. Kestrels swoop overhead, sheep and cattle graze the downlands. Only the signs promising "danger of death" deter the walker.

It ought to be perfect hiking country, but it's not. Ominous red flags pepper the landscape while every few feet the hedges carry notices warning of unexploded shells in the fields. Seven thousand acres of land along the six-mile stretch of coast are used by the Army and the crash of exploding shells can be heard for miles around. By the road that leads down to Lulworth, the corpses of tanks litter the downs which are scarred with the tracks of military vehicles. Huge targets for gunners dominate the hills. The footpaths and lanes that cross the range are closed for much of the time, with gates padlocked. Last week the coast path looked particularly alluring under blue skies; but the entrance at Kimmeridge, high gates topped with barbed wire, was shut.

In the middle of this land is the ghost-village of Tyneham. Tyneham was taken over by the Army in 1943 as part of the war effort; the villagers were evacuated with the promise that they could return to their homes when the war was over. Helen Taylor, the last resident to leave, pinned a note to the door of St Mary's church: "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." In fact, the villagers were never allowed back. Miss Taylor only returned to her home earlier this year, when she died aged 97 and was buried in the churchyard (the firing stopped on the day of her funeral as a mark of respect). Tyneham remains part of the range and is still usually out of bounds, along with the rest of Army territory; access is only permitted at weekends, and not all of those, during the year.

Local walkers find this frustrating. Jan Coke from Swanage, who regularly sets out along the coastal path with her dog, Jumble, resents the intrusive warnings and barbed wire. "They don't let you in during the week because they think that people don't want to go walking then, but there are plenty of people round here that do. Lots of folk round here don't work nine- to-five in the town."

Mary Birch, also from Swanage, added that, while locals know to check the times the ranges are closed in the local paper's listings section, it is visitors to the area who are often caught out. "People come all the way out here thinking they can get out on to the footpaths and find they can't and have to turn round and go home again. To get the land opened up more, especially over the summer, would be fantastic."

Mike Power, from Ferndown, a few miles inland near the New Forest, has been diving in Kimmeridge Bay for the past 20 years. "I often find shells on the seabed, some exploded, some not, because the Army often fires out to sea," he says. Mr Power, who is the author of three books on walking in Dorset, says the Army is one of the biggest landowners in the county. "The coast path is beautiful. You can see wild flowers, butterflies, orchids that you don't see everywhere, but access to Army land is very restricted."

He believes that in some areas the notices warning of unexploded shells are no more than a ploy to keep walkers out. "The fields are full of grazing sheep and cows. I don't think there's any real danger," he says. "I would most certainly back any move to open up access for walkers. I have never thought it right that vast swaths of land can be pronounced out-of-bounds to stop others using it even when there are rights of way. We are all part of this planet and we should be entitled to roam where we want to."