Savernake Forest is a classic rural idyll: a handful of cottages set amid more than 4,000 acres of ancient oak and yew. Residents of the forest in Wiltshire would need the best part of an hour to walk through the estate, owned by the Earl of Cardigan. But lately few of them have been in the mood for a stroll.
The earl's woodland tenants may be surrounded by rural tranquillity but the atmosphere is far from calm: they are embroiled in a land dispute with David Brudenell-Bruce, the Earl of Cardigan. The ongoing squabble, they say, has made them prisoners in their own homes.
For more than 60 years, residents and visitors have been allowed to roam through most of the 4,500-acre forest under the terms of a 999-year lease agreed by the earl's family with the Forestry Commission.
But now the earl's tenants and other people living in the forest claim he has banned them from the tracks and paths that link them with their neighbours. They accuse the Eton-educated landowner of stealthily colonising the forest by exploiting a legal loophole that allows his family to reclaim up to 200 acres of the Savernake estate during the term of the lease.
David and Jane Turner, the only people living in heart of the forest who own their home, are fighting his attempts to stop them using a muddy lane which runs past their property. The earl recently reclaimed a small patch of track directly outside the cottage, and the Turners believe his aim is to drive them out so he can regain the feudal grip his ancestors held over the estate after the Norman conquest.
Mr Turner, 58, a semi-retired accountant, said: "Cardigan has no right to ban people from the forest, but that is what he has been trying to do. In our case, he initially tried to ban us outright, but when that did not hold up in law he bought a small 'ransom strip' of about 30m by 40m outside the cottage instead.
"We are Cardigan's major problem here, because all the houses immediately around us are rented from him, so we are ruining his domain. In a warped sense, he would like to have all of the houses in the forest back under his tutelage, and to be their feudal baron."
Mr Turner added: "When we first moved here we had an ongoing dispute with him over our water rights, because we are not on the mains and we're reliant for our supply on the bore he has in the forest. He tried to stop us using it, because he wanted to make life so difficult for us that we would end up wanting to sell, but no one other than him would be willing to buy the house."
Another local resident, Harry Smith, is currently unable to turn left out of his own driveway, because the earl has banned him from a one-mile private stretch of track leading towards the public road to nearby Marlborough.
Mr Smith, an art agent, took his grievance to the High Court last month, claiming a personal "right of way" on the basis of the fact that he has used the track regularly for the past 20 years. A judgment is expected next week.
"The real issue here is not about whether I should be allowed to use a particular stretch of track, but about the use of these 'ransom strips' to stop local people and the public generally using the forest," said Mr Smith. "We know exactly what Cardigan is doing when he reclaims a bit of land here and another little bit there.
"Lord Cardigan still doesn't accept that the Savernake estate is no longer his land. The fact that it was effectively sold under a 999-year lease to the Forestry Commission in 1939, leaving him only shooting rights, seems to him a minor irrelevance. I am also not convinced that the commission is keeping a close enough eye on exactly how much Cardigan has bought back up of the 200 acres his family is allowed to reclaim."
The earl, descended from the Lord Cardigan who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, one of Britain's most notorious military blunders, has long had a reputation for jealously guarding his family heritage. Since inheriting responsibility for what remains of his family estate in the late 1980s he has had a series of run-ins with local people and visitors to the centuries-old forest.
Between 1946 and 1994 the Marquis of Ailesbury's ancestral seat, Tottenham House, in the Savernake Forest, was occupied by Hawtrey's Prep School, where the earl himself was educated. However, after growing tired of pupils' "unauthorised" use of private roads running through the forest, he evicted the school, forcing it to merge with Cheam School in nearby Newbury.
Some months later the earl was branded a "stuck-up party pooper" when he authorised a party at the house only to withdraw permission just moments before it was due to begin. At the time, he said he had been shocked to learn that the event was a £15-a-head get-together, rather than the black-tie celebration he had expected.
Over the years he has had a series of contretemps with local horse-riders, including the model Jodie Kidd, who until recently lived in Durley, a picturesque hamlet on the outskirts of the forest.
Last month the earl, 48, brought a private civil action against one of his tenants, 74-year-old Raymond Hudson, alleging that the pensioner drove into him when he tried to bar his way on a road closed due to foot-and-mouth. Police declined to prosecute Mr Hudson, but Swindon magistrates asked him to sign a "non-molestation order" and he is awaiting a further court hearing.
The earl was not available for comment at his secluded home in the forest last week. His wife, cookery author Rosamund Jane, said: "This kind of dispute happens all over the countryside, so I don't know why it's of so much interest when it occurs here. You get bad tenants everywhere."
A Forestry Commission spokeswoman said they were unable to comment on the earl's behaviour towards his neighbours and tenants because they were involved in discussions with him over public access: "We do closely monitor how much land is reclaimed, but issues of the landlord's ability to reclaim land are detailed in the lease. We do not want to release details without the knowledge of the other party.
"As far as we are concerned, we have a forest estate and the general public has access to Forestry Commission land."Reuse content