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We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end

If you must have a dispute with the neighbours, pick young ones. Pensioners are too dangerous. By Kate Watson-Smyth
IT USED to be so simple. An Englishman's laurel hedge marked the edge of his domain and that was the end of the matter. But, over the years, this marking of surburban territory has led to physical violence, costly trials, and now, death.

This week, Eric Nicholls, a disabled former car dealer, began a 30-month sentence for manslaughter after killing his neighbour with his walking stick. Major Anthony Jones, an 82-year-old former rocket scientist, was was found lying in a pool of blood in the disused graveyard between the two men's houses last August. His loyal labrador, Gunty, was sitting at his feet.

But the anger and bitterness between the pair was so entren- ched that Nicholls could not bring himself to express any remorse at all for what he had done. Instead he boasted about it to a group of teenagers who tended the Major as he lay dying.

"I am afraid I gave him a good whacking - it was me," he said.

"As he went down, I brought the stick down as hard as I could on the back of his neck," he told the police. "I feel a sense of relief that he is dead."

During the trial, Nicholls claimed he had acted in self-defence after the major "lunged at him", but conceded that he had often thought of killing his neighbour.

The two men had lived opposite each other in the Berkshire village of Sulhampstead for 35 years. Although they had never got on, they went into business together in 1986 to extract gravel from their common land. When the gravel ran out four years later, the pit was filled in and the cordial dislike between the two men erupted into a bitter dispute over the boundary markers of the two estates.

Nicholls developed a burning dislike of the sprightly major, who had enjoyed skiiing and camping and had cycled 10 miles the day before his death to collect spare parts for his MG sports car. During the war, Major Jones led a unit which infiltrated enemy lines to find the launch sites of V-2 rockets. In later years he worked on a secret, missile-based project which led to Polaris and Blue Streak, and had even constructed his own television from a modified radar screen.

Nicholls is a former car salesman who walked with the aid of a stick. His hatred towards his neighbour was thought to spring partly from jealousy at his way of life and partly from the belief that Major Jones, who neighbours conceded could be difficult, had defrauded him.

Major Jones's son, David, said yesterday that Nicholls was argumentative and difficult with everybody. "I often discussed the situation with my father, and he just wanted it to end. It was a one-sided dispute which we tried to diffuse. It was a vicious, brutal and premeditated attack. He was charged with murder and should have been convicted of murder. My father would have easily made 100. He was unstoppable, did his exercises on the dining room floor for an hour every day, skied, windsurfed. He was an extraordinary man."

There is nothing new about feuding neighbours, but what does stand out about this case - like many of the more ferocious disputes - is the age of the protagonists. That famous stiff upper lip which won the War for Britain is still present in the nation's psyche. All over the country there are pensioners who kept Hitler out of Blighty, and they'll make damn sure that no neighbours are going to tramp all over their lawn.

Two years ago Charles Stanton, then 87, and Michael Jones, 67, ended up with a massive legal bill after a 16-year feud about the height of the hedge between their houses. The Stantons planted a row of fast-growing Leylandii and Mr Jones, claiming the Stantons had refused to prune them, lopped 5ft off the top, not once but twice. The writs flew back and forth, and both sides spent upwards of pounds 50,000.

Lorna Greinel and Michael Somerton, both former police officers living next door to each other in a quiet Bedfordshire village, argued about the noise and smell generated by the former's horse livery stable. The feud culminated in an incident in which Miss Greinel drove some distance with Mr Somerton spread-eagled on the bonnet of her car. (Miss Greinel was later acquitted of dangerous driving.)

Traditionally, the bitterest arguments tend to be about boundary limits, and the older the participants, the more furiously they seem to defend the line of their hedges.

As the judge said over the dispute between Mr Stanton and Mr Jones, it was an "example of the entrenched attitudes which can be adopted by neighbours, and is no good for anybody but the lawyers."