There is something rather wonderful about wandering the streets of places that once were home to thriving communities, but are now deserted. It's taken for granted just how much of the earth's surface we have molded or added onto to suit our needs, but when a community ups its sticks and departs a place, what's left suddenly feels poignant, atmospheric, and often extremely ugly.

From Bodie in California to Pripyat in Ukraine, a visit to a ghost town is a fascinating detour on any trip...


 
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GHOST TOWNS
All's fair in love and war they say. Tyneham, the English village destroyed by friendly fire...
posted by Richard Green on 16/02/2017

The village of Tyneham's story is a tragic one. Near to Lulworth in south Dorset in the UK, the surrounding area has beautiful little villages, green rolling hills, and the famously handsome coastline of the Jurassic Coast - so called because of the erosion that has exposed innumerable fossils. 

Another feature of the area is its connection with the British Army - in particular to its tank warfare training. The excellent Bovington Tank Museum is a short drive away too, which is a terrific place to visit and learn about the history of the tank, which is all well and good. But the MOD (Ministry of Defence) own the Lulworth Ranges, a 7,000 slab of rural Dorset that since 1917 has been given over to live-fire practise for tanks and armoured vehicles.

Part of the Armoured Fighting Vehicles Gunnery School, the land includes what was once the peaceful hamlet of Tyneham. It was inhabited since Roman times, is mentioned in the Doomsday Book and has a limestone church built in the 13th Century at its heart.

As well as the church, there was a school, a rectory, post office and several little rows of cottages, but just before Christmas 1943 it was all requisitioned in order to conduct firing tests. The fad for bumper stickers saying 'will the last person to leave so and so...' is over, and I never much cared for it, but in the case of Tyneham, the last of its 225 souls forced to flee did something profound. They left a note on the church door. It read - "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."

Sadly, although the evacuation was supposed to be temporary, the writer of the note, and all the other villagers never did return to live in their former homes. The land was compulsorily purchased by the army in 1948, and has been in use for training ever since.

Visiting is a poignant experience. True, the number of people wasn't large, the buildings are modest, and its ghostliness is overshadowed somewhat by the fact that there are other perfectly normal villages just a few miles away. Even so, walking round the village makes you think that it could just have easily happened anywhere in the country and how powerless everyone is in the face of the armed forces at times of war or peace.

Tyneham was just the place unlucky enough to be in the firing line, and so it goes. Literally too, as over the years its buildings have been damaged by shelling.

The scene is surreal enough as it is, but is made more so by having a good chance of seeing tanks in the distance on the route into the village. Sometimes the area is used for live firing, during which times the village and surrounding area is closed to the public - that said, it is open most weekends and public holidays. See the Tyneham & Worbarrow Website for more information on the village, and to find out when it is open. More generally there's Visit Dorset


 
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GHOST TOWNS
Once a gateway to India, now ghost ruins reachable only by driving through water...
posted by Richard Green on 21/03/2017
 

If you should find yourself in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu - famous for the beach temples of Mamallapuram, the temple cities of Madurai and Thanjavur, and the former French colonial enclave of Pondicherry - then an interesting detour is to the island city of Ramaswaram. About 170 kilometres southeast of the temple city of Madurai, Ramaswaram is located at the start of what's known as Adam's Bridge - a 50 kilometre long spit of land and chain of islands that curves in the Bay of Bengal towards Sri Lanka.

The bridge is made up of limestone shoals and sandbanks that arc over a very shallow sea between India and Sri Lanka.  

India and Sri Lanka were connected by ferry until 1964, when a cyclone destroyed the town of Dhanushkodi

The villages along the spit were once connected by a narrow gauge railway, but the track and large xx bridge, as well as many buildings and lives were lost on December the 23rd, 1964, when a cyclone struck the area. The resulting devastation was so bad that the main settlement of Dhanushkodi had to be abandoned.

Today it is possible to visit the ruins of what was once a thriving town, by catching the bus along the spit until the road stops and tourist jeeps and minibuses begin.

The greeny blue water is gorgeous, but the air hangs heavy with a supercharged humidity, and the oppressive heat and desolation make the place feel somewhat apocalyptic. The shamble of wooden huts and dirt paths from where the the busses set off from is about as forlorn a sport as I've ever seen in India.

But once you have negotiated the price - about a couple of pounds for a seat on the bus - a more holiday atmosphere takes hold. This is an extremely important pilgrimage site for Hindus, and there is an air of expectation as the vehicles set off along the beach in the direction of Sri Lanka.

The driver will no doubt point out the old railways line and a long deserted station, but from there on it's a strange journey across the sand, weaving through the dunes, and crossing the shallow water of the bay.

The little town of Dhanushkodi had a church, post office, railways station, hotels and a ferry jetty. The destruction from the cyclone was severe, leaving the facade of the church in tact, plus some other bluff brick buildings, but little else.

It's a sad spot really, bleak even on the sunniest of days. But the scene is livened up a little by local fishermen who live in wooden huts around the ruins and moor their brightly painted small boats on the beach. There are a few rudimentary tables put out by the fishing families selling shells and other modest souvenirs, but apart from roaming amongst the ruins and taking the place in, there isn't a cafe or place to get any shelter of food.

Then after about an hour it's all aboard the bus for the surreal journey back to the drop off point for the busses back to Ramaswaram.

***

One more thing...the beach at Ramashwaram is an important pilgrimage site, where Hindus travel to from all over India. I got talking to one of the bathers, a young lad from a small village far inland. He was having a nice time with his family, but surprised me when he told me his name was Stalin. Oh dear, his reaction was about the same as mine, but he said his parent were both Communists and so decided to call him after one of the most brutal tyrants in history.

Bathers in Ramashwaram, on of the most important pilgrimage sites in India. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It was a fun chat, and I was mentally adding 'Stalin' to the other unusually named people I had met in my travels - 'Pepsi', Typewriter' and 'English' among them. Then after we had covered the complications of growing up with such a notorious name, he gave me a cheeky smile and said "Well, now you should meet my brother too; he is there beside my mother".

He cupped a hand around his mouth to amplify his shout, and then called out "Trotsky". Oh dear oh dear...his brother sauntered over and I enjoyed a few more minutes chatting with my new comrades. 

A local family, with brothers Trotsky and Stalin at the back. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Getting there: Madurai is the nearest airport to Ramashwaram and has flights to Bangalore, Chennai, Colombo, Delhi, Dubai, Hyderabad, and Mumbai. Alternatively Chennai acts as the gateway city for many international tourists heading to the far south of India. Airlines flying to Chennai include British Airways from Heathrow, Emirates from Dubai, Singapore Airlines from Singapore and Thai Airways Thai Airways from Bangkok.

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  • "The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth"
    Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer, poet and aviator