Landlord condemns ramblers as perverts

Britain's most notorious property owner replies to complaints that he is illegally blocking a public footpath on his land

Nicholas Van Hoogstraten is unrepentant. The most notorious landlord in Britain thinks the ramblers who dared take him to court for blocking a footpath are nothing but "a bunch of disenfranchised perverts".

Nicholas Van Hoogstraten is unrepentant. The most notorious landlord in Britain thinks the ramblers who dared take him to court for blocking a footpath are nothing but "a bunch of disenfranchised perverts".

He was in Zimbabwe last week, oblivious to the latest noisy episode in the long-running saga of Framfield 9, a footpath through the large estate in East Sussex where he is building Hamilton Palace, the most expensive house in this country for a century.

In his absence, the Ramblers Association had accused East Sussex county council of "betraying the public" for refusing to clear the right of way. The deputy leader of the council admitted to the Independent on Sunday that his officers were "frightened to death" of the man a local MP branded as "the sad Citizen Kane of Sussex".

When Mr van Hoogstraten flew back to Britain on Thursday and heard about the row, he was ready to talk - about his reputation for violence, the problems with the palace, and the ramblers using his notoriety to publicise their campaign for the right to roam.

Calling them perverts was a bit strong, surely? "Certainly not," said the multi-millionaire, sitting in one of his many hotels, a suitcase by his side. "You ask any policeman, he'll tell you. They're what we call the dirty mac brigade. Flashers. Very few decent upright citizens, people who pay their rates, taxes, and have a house they own are anything to do with the Ramblers Association."

One campaigner was "a closet lesbian", he said. That seemed to disgust him, although critics have suggested his much-reported misogynist views are a cover for his own closet homosexuality. He laughed. "I believe in the old order, which is that the man was the provider and the woman looked after the children and the home."

His latest girlfriend, a 17-year-old from Botswana "was given to me by her father". The five children he has had by three women were waiting for him in the hotel lobby.

"I see more of traditional life and the way things should be in Africa. The system whereby the man is the boss is the way God made it."

The footpath issue looks like going to a public inquiry, since the Ramblers Association campaign has provoked more than 4,000 letters of complaint against him, but he dismissed it as "nonsense. A bit of entertainment".

Only 166 of the letters have been from people living in East Sussex. Many locals refuse to speak out against him, apparently afraid of what might happen. "Nonsense," he said. "Does any honest upright citizen have any reason to fear me?"

It was hard to say. The legend of Mr van Hoogstraten as "the nastiest landlord of the post-Rachman era" has grown over the years, and he has always seemed to relish it. He is obsessive about the details of the conviction that sent him to prison in the Sixties, for links to a hand grenade attack on the home of a Jewish man.

"The point I'm objecting to [in press reports] is that it was not a Jewish minister," he said. "A cantor is not a minister, never has been. The fact that he was Jewish was totally irrelevant." Was a hand grenade thrown? "Oh yes."

But had the man the people of Uckfield call Old Nick ever used violence or the threat of it to get what he wanted? "Of course," he said. "As has every politician and every businessman in the world." And would he do it again? "Yes."

He had recently fallen out with a man in Africa who sent him a consultancy bill for £50,000 when their plans to merge businesses failed. "I said, 'Are you serious? I'm going to send you a bill, which will be a lot higher than yours because I'm a multi-millionaire and you're an arsehole'. He doesn't know about my darker side, to use your quote. He's going to get a nasty shock, isn't he, when he gets a gun up his arse?"

Mr van Hoogstraten's initial planning application in 1987 was to replace the burnt-out home at High Cross near Uckfield. He took 10 years to sign a legal agreement with the district council, by which time the site had been moved south on to green land and the skeleton of the palace was up.

Planning officers were told residents were "very concerned" but "afraid to raise any objection in the circumstances". The parish council registered opposition in February 1993, but that evaporated in a year. On Thursday, Mr van Hoogstraten denied threatening, intimidating or bribing council officers to get his way. "Absolutely and positively not. I swear on my children's lives."

The same went for residents. "I have never had any dealings of any nature with any resident. The whole purpose of having money is to put yourself on a pedestal, isn't it? Not to hobnob with the local riff-raff."

Abroad, he had different rules. "We built a hotel in Cuba and obviously that was bribery. I was heavily involved in Nigeria. I used to own the tin mines there. I flooded them. I wrote off a £6m investment. Since then I am pleased to say they have not exported one ounce of tin. So as you can imagine I would not set foot back in Nigeria."

Hamilton Palace was supposed to have been finished for the millennium. So what was the delay? "Quality. I want the best. Anything done that is not correct, I get it changed and we start again. It is a massive undertaking which nobody has attempted before, on this scale and of this quality."

The architect who translated Mr van Hoogstraten's dreams into plans at the beginning was dismissed as project manager six months ago, he said. So when would the palace be finished? "Within five years."

He professed not to know the cost. "Every time we get an estimate it's worse than I thought. The last time an audit was done it was £32m. That was January."