Architecture: How to muck up heaven: Why put a theme park in the midst of the real thing? Peter Dunn looks at plans for a leisure village in idyllic north Devon

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Ten years ago John and Patricia Shapland bought a semi-derelict Elizabethan house, Whitechapel Manor, near the village of Bishop's Nympton in north Devon and decided to convert it into a luxury hotel. Mr Shapland can trace his local farming ancestors back to 1570, five years before Whitechapel was built.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Shaplands' restoration work, both to the house and its 15 acres of ground, reflected their determination to treat the area's architectural heritage with respect. After three years' labour the conversion was described by the director of the county's conservation department as 'magnificent'.

When the hotel opened for business in 1987, its handsome facade proud against the undulating pasture of Whitechapel Moor, it had been appointed one of only four Grade I listed buildings in north Devon. Guests cheerfully paid up to pounds 160 a night to admire the terraced garden, the Jacobean carved oak screen in the entrance hall and the William and Mary plasterwork.

The tranquillity of its rural setting was enhanced by the proximity a mile to the north, of Exmoor, Britain's second smallest national park. Inspectors from good food guides showered the French chef, Thierry Lepretre-Granet, with rosettes. The Shaplands were particularly pleased that their business was putting pounds 150,000 a year into the local economy and providing 18 jobs.

Then, last November, came the man in the Porsche, ordering morning coffee, whispering with associates, peering into distant hedgerows - and suddenly the Shaplands' tranquil paradise - perfect English architecture in the kind of landscape we all say we love - has become the stuff of nightmares. For the visitor was John Moore, a local entrepreneur, an Irishman with a taste for fast cars and a reputation, somewhat marred by cashflow problems, for building luxurious nursing homes in western England.

Mr Moore has now decided to diversify into the up-market leisure industry and the site he has chosen is next door to the Shaplands on Whitechapel Moor. He has negotiated to buy, for a reputed pounds 870,000, the manor's neighbouring 300-acre sheep farm and turn it into a pounds 25m complex of 54 all-year 'quality' holiday homes, 200 timeshare cottages (some of them thatched), a sports centre plus motel, country club, a 175-acre golf course and even a chapel overlooking a village green.

North Devon District Council is to consider Mr Moore's outline application for 'Whitechapel Moors' on 1 February. The Shaplands, who have rejected a pounds 500,000 package from Mr Moore to compensate them for up to five years' construction work on their doorstep, say the project would ruin them. They are demanding a public inquiry.

Their concern is shared by Ronald Morrison Smith, director of the West Country Tourist Board. In a letter to the district council he has expressed anxiety both about the size of what has become known locally as 'Instant Ambridge plc' and the effect of building work on Shapland customers who visit the area 'to enjoy the peace and rural setting'.

Critics also include the Exmoor Society, which is worried about the impact of a large scheme so close to a national park. 'We don't want the park to become an island in a morass of development,' says the society's chairman, Guy Somerset. 'They do that sort of thing in the United States where it goes right up to the national park boundary and stops dead. One side, anything goes; the other side is protected. The suburbanisation of rural England - this is the problem here; it's alarming. Awful.'

'Whitechapel Moors' is only one of several multi-million pound development schemes planned for the soggy sheep pastures and broad wetlands of rural England. Conservationists and real villagers are bracing themselves for conflict as a new generation of country squires - local entrepreneurs backed by banks and landowners desperate to survive the collapse of small farming - beckon townies to a promised land of sanitised 'village' holidays behind high security fences. Instant village greens, churches, shops, thatched cottages are de rigueur in such schemes, even, in one case, ye olde village palm trees.

In north Devon, Torridge District Council has already given outline approval to a local farmer to build an pounds 8m replica village of 250 whitewashed holiday cottages and sports facilities on cow pasture at Clovelly, near Bideford.

Later this year planners at Woodspring District Council will consider an even more ambitious plan - a pounds 75m holiday park around the Somerset Levels village of Puxton, east of the M5 near Weston-super-Mare.

The 350-acre development includes 720 luxury villas, some with whirlpool baths, a 60-bedroom hotel, golf course and a subtropical water park with exotic birds fluttering in palm trees under a huge glass pyramid.

Villagers have formed a protest group, 'Palms off Puxton', named after the developer, the Antwerp- based company of PalmResorts International, which has plans for two other similar developments (sites still secret) in the UK. English Nature, fearful of damage to ancient ditches and rare plant species, is opposing the scheme. Weston's Tory MP, Sir Jerry Wiggin, worried about the implications of development sprawling across the M5 from urban Weston into open countryside, wants a public inquiry.

Back in north Devon, the district council's ruling Liberal Democrat group is facing all the dilemmas involved in conservation in a community dying on its feet. 'Quality holiday accommodation is what we need and, if Mr Moore can convince us he's providing it, I'd support the application,' says the group's leader, Malcolm Prowse. 'Those of us who were brought up here don't want to see north Devon fossilised.'

Richard Burgess, the farmer who sold out to Mr Moore, is defensive about the deal. 'If people want to be jealous that's up to them,' he said. 'If agriculture's failed in north Devon, what's left? We didn't want to sell really, but they're talking about 250 jobs. And it's not good land. A golf course is improving the environment, isn't it, and the houses will be all in trees.'

Some opponents of the scheme remain worried about the recent business problems and operating style of John Moore, an Irishman who lives in a fine house at Georgeham near Barnstaple, north Devon.

Some weeks ago he attended a public meeting in Bishop's Nympton village hall where his solicitor, Alan Gordon-Lee, a prominent local Tory, referred to 'unscrupulous rumours' about his client's business affairs. This was a reference to a company, Georgeham Building, owned by Mr Moore and his wife, which became insolvent after building a pounds 4m, 100-room nursing home, Kenwyn, in Truro for the entrepreneur about four years ago.

According to accounts of an adjourned creditors' meeting on 4 September, 1991, Georgeham Building owed more than pounds 500,000 to local and regional building subcontractors. One of them, Ashmaple, hotel fitters from Barnstaple, went into liquidation while owed pounds 143,000 by Moore's company. Paul Deschamps, managing director of P & D Heating of Plymouth (owed pounds 70,000) says creditors eventually settled for 30p in the pound under a voluntary arrangement.

Mr Moore declined to discuss his affairs in detail last week, saying he was going to Ireland for his mother's funeral. He referred me to his solicitor, Alan Gordon-Lee. Mr Gordon-Lee offered a robust defence of his client, accusing the Shaplands of 'nimbyism' to protect their own business.

'The Shaplands were offered some very amazing safeguards in my view but there's a limit to what they can be offered,' he said. 'It's all a very interesting storm in a teacup between a landowner who now thinks this might prejudice an - all right - quite exclusive business; but what's that got to do with the relevance of whether we try and regenerate this area?

'You know jolly well there are people in this world who are ideas men and make things happen and John Moore falls into that category. His mistake was he thought he could do all things himself. He'd had a quadruple bypass and was doing too much and blew up basically.

'All the rest is shit-stirring. The fact is that the West Country now has three high-quality nursing homes, all run very professionally. There was a hiccup on one of the three, without relevance to the rights or wrongs of the present application. He'd had a fixed arrangement with his bank who wouldn't let him have any more money.'

When I suggested to Mr Gordon-Lee that Mr Moore's creditors might be happier if he paid his debts to them in full before embarking on a new pounds 25m tourist venture he said: 'It may be a perfectly fair thing for them to say, but what relevance has that got to the rights and wrongs of this project? If you want to smear someone, yes, it's a very good way of doing it. But, the issue here is: is it right for north Devon, to regenerate a region that's gone backwards economically since the Seventies? You know bloody well Mr Moore will have the finance to do it, that he won't make the same mistake again.'

(Photographs and map omitted)