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It's 2015, and 37 year old Michigan-born Evy Cobb returns to the English village of Rouklye twenty-one years after her last visit, when she'd been left with her grandparents while her peacenik parents were off trying to scupper a weapons test in the South Pacific. Back then she was Midge Miller, and it was as sixteen year old Midge that she fell in with the rather peculiar Juby Bench, who'd lived in Rouklye as a boy, until 1943, when the government evicted everyone in the Rouklye Valley to make way for troop training, weapons testing and tank manoeuvres. Over time the village, badly treated by the Army and never handed back to its former residents, fell into the soulless ruin that it remains to this day. This is the story of Juby's final return to this ruined place, of his not entirely accurate memories of being young there, and of his friendship with the young Evy, a friendship which, by its conclusion, immeasurably changed her perception of the world and her place in it.


When I was a boy, my grandparents told me of a cousin who, in 1943, at the age of sixteen, vanished from the face of the earth. Until then he lived in a village in the county of Dorset in southern England. If I ever heard his name I have no recollection of it, but I do remember being told that he was very tall, with wild hair, and that he had an 'interesting nose'. And that's it. End of story, you'd think.

But many years later I came across an article about a Dorset village whose residents were evacuated by order of the government during World War Two so that it could be used for military exercises and training purposes. The village was called Tyneham and the article carried photographs that matched some of the ones that my late grandparents had shown me in their family album when talking about the obscure cousin.

Intrigued, I sought more material about the place, and soon, fascinated by what I read, I packed a bag and drove down to Tyneham, some 200 miles from where I lived at the time. There, I parked just above the village and strolled down a grassy incline between ancient trees, through a wooden gate in a low stone wall, and into…


Yes, Tyneham, abandoned those many years ago, was nothing now but a disorderly assortment of roofless, semi-collapsed former dwellings with weed-covered floors and ivy crawling through ragged rectangles that once were windows. And what a dismal, soulless place it was! Only two buildings still stood in their entirety: the church and the schoolhouse, which offered information about the village and the valley it huddled in, with old photographs showing how it had looked before the war, and many of the people who'd lived there.

I entered the schoolhouse: a lofty, chapel-like room with sturdy wooden beams, brass oil lamps dangling on long chains from a white-painted ceiling. A large blackboard on an easel, and an upright piano, stood either side of a brick fireplace. Rows of linked desks displayed samples of very old school work, under glass. I was looking at the work on the desks when an elderly man came in. We struck up a conversation. He too had come to look the school over, but he wasn't a casual visitor like me. He'd been a pupil there. He told me how it had been for him and the people who lived in Tyneham, giving me a first-hand view of life there, in his day, for the ordinary family. It had been far from easy for most working people, he said. There'd been little money, few luxuries, no electricity, running water, flush toilets, radio, and most of the other things that we take for granted nowadays. He was cynical, too, about the class divisions built into such communities; an alternative view to the slightly romantic picture that I'd naively formed from much of what I'd read of life there, which painted Tyneham as an idyllic, nigh-on-perfect place – not the case at all, according to my new acquaintance.

In the years since that first visit of mine – I've been back several times – little has changed in Tyneham. There have been attempts to tidy it, with many of the old buildings shored up and made safe (though not rebuilt) so that visitors may walk in and out of them and take photographs without risk. But the village and the Tyneham Valley have been in military hands for eight decades now, and there are still jeeps there, and barbed wire, and signs warning visitors to watch where they go if they value their lives and limbs.

Over time the idea grew in me that I might write a novel set in a place modelled on Tyneham in which an elderly man who'd lived there as a boy goes back there for a very specific reason in the August of 1999. When I finally resolved to attempt this I decided to pay the place a further visit in the cause of making my descriptions as accurate as possible. Along the way I stopped off at Lyme Regis, a pleasant seaside town famous for a certain iconic scene in the film of John Fowles' novel 'The French Lieutenant's Woman'. There I walked down to the great sweeping harbour and along the old stone jetty known as The Cobb, and parked myself near the end of it on a bench, to eat a sandwich while watching the leaping waves. Sitting there I noticed, on the back of the bench, a plaque dedicated to a local man by the name of Juby Wiscombe. I'd never heard the name Juby before, but it appealed to me and I decided to give it to the old man in my story. His other name, his surname, came from what I was sitting on. So it was that Juby Bench came to life within yards of where a storm-swept Meryl Streep stood in a hooded cape gazing out to sea in 1981. Another name came to me before I left that seat; that of the main female character I had in mind for the story. I called her Evy Cobb.

In some respects Juby Bench reflects the man I met in the schoolhouse on that first visit to Tyneham. Both in their seventies, they both returned to the village regularly, but their views on what life was once like there were, and are, very different. While the man in the schoolroom had his nostalgia well under control, Juby does not. In my book it's another character, an old friend of Juby's, who shares Schoolroom Man's views.

In the novel, the village is called 'Rouklye' (pronounced rook-lee). I've changed one or two other names too, but have retained those of many of the people who lived in and around Tyneham until a few turbulent days before Christmas 1943. Given the book's setting, 'This Ruined Place' seems the perfect title.

I wonder what the nameless cousin would have made of all this?