When the shooting stops

Bob Jenkins discovers Dorset's Lulworth Range - a no-go area in the week, paradise at the weekend

Danger - unexploded shells. Keep out." Not the sort of welcoming sign you expect to encounter on a weekend stroll in Dorset. But this is the Lulworth Range: 7,000 acres of prime coastline leading a double life.

From Monday to Friday, the six-mile stretch from Lulworth Cove eastwards to Kimmeridge Bay is a public no-go area while the armoured Fighting Vehicle Gunnery School takes target practice.

But most weekends - and during summer and Christmas holidays - the gates are thrown open and walkers are welcome. Just stick to the well-marked paths and you won't be blown to smithereens by an unexploded missile.

Considering this is a place where 70,000 shells are fired each year, it's mighty peaceful. Decades of army use means there are no public roads and no buildings along miles of stunning chalk cliffs.

The absence of intensive farming and modern pesticides creates a nature time-warp, too. Wild flowers and butterflies flourish on the chalk and limestone ridges with names fit for a Scrabble game - squiancywort, scabious and small skippers.

All this is so near, yet seems so far from Lulworth Cove with its vast carpark and crowds of trippers. Taking the steps beside the beach cafe, they were left behind as soon as I puffed onto the cliff path.

From on high, the cove looked spectacular, a green and white amphitheatre, the closest Hardy country gets to a Caribbean lagoon. But a boundary fence and a formidable gate lay ahead, Lulworth's Checkpoint Charlie into the military range. Confirmation of stepping into a different world came with another sign announcing "Fossil Forest".

Intrigued, I followed the path the short distance to the cliffs where steps descended to the beach. An information board helpfully explained this curious relic of the dinosaur age.

A mere 135 million years ago, this was a pine-scented forest, the peace broken only by small hunting parties of megalosaurus. Then the sea advanced, leaving tufa rock particles sticking to the tree stumps. As a result, hollow boulders resembling giant ring doughnuts still adorn the beach. You can also clearly see the shape of fallen trees.

Back on the trail, I continued along the grassy clifftop to Mupe Bay. Here a stunning panorama of the coastline unfolded. Lofty white cliffs stretched far ahead to the beautiful arc of Worbarrow Bay. The only signs of human input were yellow-topped waymarking posts and a clifftop picnic table. Bringing your own food and drink is essential. There are no pubs, burger bars or ice-cream vans for miles. Just tanks.

After a steep climb up Bindon Hill, the army training ground came into view on the left. Ugly tracks scarred the heathland and rusty tanks were dotted about, targets for some distant gunner. Even on a silent sunny Saturday, the sense of modern warfare's awesome force sent a bit of a shiver down my spine. I hurried on to the little bay at Arish Mell, where, above the beach, a jolly couple were enjoying the soothing sound of the waves. They were the first people I'd seen for an hour. "Don't miss Tyneham village," advised the man. "It's a real treat."

The promise of something special kept me going up the next steep climb to Flower's Barrow, an Iron Age hill-fort. Ironic that this pre-Roman coastal defence, partly fallen into the sea, should be slap-bang in the middle of today's military range.

Making a beeline through the earthwork, I descended to Worbarrow Bay's curved shingle beach, overlooked by colourful cliffs streaked red, fawn and yellow. Several families were pottering about, a sure sign that a carpark lay not far off. I followed the trail up the wooded valley to the ruined village of Tyneham, whence they had come.

As promised, Tyneham was indeed a treat. Of an eerie sort. This was a place that had stopped in time, a fishing and farming village evacuated during the Second World War to facilitate military training. The inhabitants never returned.

The village pond is now overgrown with reeds but visiting children were happily poking sticks in and squealing with delight during my visit, just as local kids must have done all those decades ago.

Close by, in the ruins of the Post Office store, I came across a family enjoying a picnic. The roof and windows were long gone but the fire grate endured. In the front garden was a glorious 1928 cream and red phonebox, complete with Bakelite receiver and buttons A and B. A poster commands: "I am on war work, if you must use me, be brief."

Two Tyneham buildings remain intact in the schoolhouse, dating from 1860. A blackboard bade me welcome, outlined the day's weather and suggested I look out for kestrels, roe-deer and sparrow-hawks.

The classroom here aims to show how things were in the 1920s. Desks are covered with nature study books, as if the children will return from play at any moment. A silent piano sits in the corner.

Across the path I ambled over to St Mary's Church, home to a simple but engrossing exhibition on the village. Old photographs of the inhabitants from earlier this century were on display. Like ancient Henry Miller with his white beard and stick who sat on the cliffs keeping a look-out for shoals of mackerel. Or Miss Woodman, the scary-looking teacher, whose ruined cottage is still just around the corner.

I found it hard not to feel sad that village life came to such an abrupt end, especially after I had read the note that the villagers pinned to the door when they left Tyneham on 19 December, 1943:

"Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our homes where many of us have lived for generations to help in the war to keep men free. We will return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly."

LULWORTH LOWDOWN

WHEN TO GO

The range walks are open every weekend for the rest of 1999. Also open 18 December-3 January. In 2000, six closed weekends include 29-30 January, 11-12 March and 13-14 May. Holiday opening: 21 April-1 May, 27 May-4 June. Recorded information line (tel: 01929 462721 ext 4819.

Tyneham's school and church are open 10am to 3pm in winter.

GETTING THERE

The nearest railway stations are Wool and Dorchester. The 101-5 bus runs from both to Lulworth Cove Mondays to Saturdays (tel: 01305 262992).

There is parking at Lulworth Cove and Tyneham.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Lulworth Cove Heritage Centre (tel: 01929 400587). Purbeck Tourist Information (tel: 01929 552740).

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