Alan Clark may be an irresistible figure in the national landscape, but in Saltwood village (population 721) he is simply unmissable. Robert Verkaik grew up at the foot of Clark's castle drive
You, dear reader, may sit in your armchair watching his elegant television history of the Tory party or leaf through his Diaries savouring the de-haut-en-bas barbs and amazing tales of lechery but I, brought up in the shadow of his beautiful castle in Saltwood, never walk past the place without a wary eye on the battlements. Because I remember how his sons once took potshots from those battlements at village boys out conkering.

Alan Clark may have a special place in the national consciousness, but in Saltwood we see him close up. You might expect his castle would have a moat; on warm summer mornings we see him swimming in it. You know about his vintage cars; we see him in leather driving hat and goggles whizzing round the village being Toad of Toad Hall.

A 69-year-old Lothario? Neighbours are used to him appearing at the castle gate in trampish garb - scruffy jumper and baggy trousers set off by a green woolly "Benny" hat. Seen like that, he is not the last of the red- hot lovers but there are still red-hot political issues: will he build a hospice on the area of his land which now serves as the local allotments? Will he ever re-allow open days at the castle? He stopped them because he said there was continued pilfering (including the main key to the castle gate).

Such is the effect of great men up close. Tom Fuller, 18, still lives opposite the castle estate and used to be the Clarks' paper boy. Occasionally Clark gives him a lift up the hill in one of his motor cars. Tom is duly grateful, but wonders if the presence of his girlfriend in a miniskirt might have something to do with it. And then last year the Fullers' cat, admittedly on castle grounds, was savaged by one of the Clark Rottweilers (the ones that attacked a BBC film crew on the day Clark was selected as MP for Kensington and Chelsea). Then there are the casualties of the Diaries: the fat wife of a parish councillor whom he caught "stealing" firewood from the castle grounds. And the "incredibly tiresome" woman behind him at a Christmas service who "RADA'd up" the responses during the prayers, and her "buffer" of a husband who "blundered in occasionally, nicotine tones, and always out of time so that momentarily he came to be leading some of the prayers".

Many of the villagers have felt his famous bark. Chris Capon is a well known local Tory councillor who has been Clark's postman and friend for over 20 years. As postman he often found himself the victim of the "Clark bark", reserved for poorly performing tradesmen and trespassers. Postman Capon got the full blasting with, "POSTMAN!!! don't bloody well slam the door," every time he banged the wooden portcullis too loudly and disturbed the blackbird nesting in the castle letter box. Says Mr Capon: "He's certainly got quite a temper," but adds, "people admire his outspokenness and the way he conducts his life. He is what he is and doesn't ponce around the village saying I'm Alan Clark."

Despite all this, in the village itself, there is a cross-party hardcore of local people who are fiercely loyal to their glamorous castellan. Even Saltwood and Hythe Labour party organiser, Bernard Sealy, admits to a grudging admiration, expressing a preference for Clark as his local MP rather than the current incumbent Michael Howard. Says Mr Sealy: "I think he's fairly honest. When he's drunk he says he's drunk and not on tablets. And I don't think he would do anyone down unless they had an attractive wife or daughter."

So settle in your armchair, dear reader, the effect of great men close up may be just the same as at a distance after all.

Alan Clark's `History of the Tory Party' is on Sundays, 8.30pm, on BBC2

Comments