For 10 years, the people in these pictures have been having a family row - all about the little patch of ground on which they stand. Bad blood flows between families up and down the land, but sometimes these melodramas become tragedies. Lesley Gerard referees three such disputes. Photographs by Philip Sinden
All families argue. A family without sibling rivalry, rebellious teenagers and disagreements with their in-laws would constitute Utopian abnormality. But for those whose conflicts have gone beyond the boundaries of ordinary squabbling, with family members who either do not speak to one another for years or else indulge in protracted battle, the route to reconciliation is difficult and sometimes impossible.

This newspaper's agony aunt, Virginia Ironside, points out that the real motives for continuing conflict will always have become distorted over the years."It's unusual," she says, "for family members to fall out for years and years, but quite often the same members may go through two or three estrangements, with events converging to reconcile them at certain points through life.

"But whether it's brothers and sisters fighting over rights of way, or parents and children fighting over incidents in the past, I've often found that once you strip away layers, you find that these actual incidents have nothing to do with it.

"It's the result of one person or persons feeling neglected or not loved enough. They feel they must strike out in some way at the person whom they believe, rightly or wrongly, has rejected them. All attempts at reconciliation are hindered by a mutual fear of further rejection."

Fighting over property or wills, she says, is a common source of family feuds. "A daughter left out of a father's will in favour of a brother, say, may well focus on the unfairness of that, and, in the process, appear greedy. But what she's actually upset about may date back to the fact that the father always favoured the brother."

However, any analysis of what causes family feuds will always run up against the fact that families are made up of individuals. There's no such thing as the average family. And for every one who thinks the family unit is the mainstay of decent society, another will find in it the source of discontent.Or, as Tolstoy observed: "All happy families resemble one another. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

To the manor born

The Curzons are one of the grandest families in British history. Descendants of George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India and the first Viscount Scarsdale, they can trace their bloodline back even further, to William the Conqueror. "Let Curzon holde what Curzon helde", reads the motto on the family crest at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, the family seat since the 12th century.

At the age of 72, the current Lord Scarsdale had hoped to spend his dotage enjoying the peace of the estate to which he is devoted. But early this year, the Honourable Peter Curzon, Scarsdale's eldest son and heir to the title, was arrested and unceremoniously imprisoned for non-payment of a pounds 575,000 divorce settlement.

Father and son, it quickly emerged, had not seen one another for 12 years, since 1985, when Scarsdale decided to donate Kedleston Hall to the National Trust with the condition that his descendants could live there. His son, however, had wanted to sell the stately home on the open market because he was legally entitled to 10 per cent of whatever it fetched (all Scarsdale's five children had a 10 per cent stake in the property due to an arrangement designed to reduce death duties). The row culminated in Peter Curzon accepting pounds 1.15 million, in return for which he waived all future rights to the estate, barring the title. Neither has spoken since.

Scarsdale first heard of his son's arrest in January from reporters. Shocked and unprepared, he publicly branded him "snake-like" and "underhand". Worse was to come. On his release from the cells, Peter Curzon revealed to a tabloid newspaper that his second wife, for whom he had left his wife Karen and 13-year-old daughter Danielle, was a former prostitute. His father's shame was now complete.

Peter Curzon now lives in Florida, in a five-bedroom house on St Pete's beach. He says that the divorce settlement has left him facing financial ruin. Under the ruling, Karen Curzon was awarded their half-a-million- pound stud farm, Battle Barn, near Hastings. "I am nearly 50 years old, broke and looking for a job," he complains. "My ancestors must be spinning in their graves. Quite frankly, my family stinks."

The source of his bitterness goes back much further than the row over Kedleston - back, in fact, to Scarsdale's first marriage to Peter's mother, Solange Hanse. Scarsdale, then plain Francis Curzon, a captain with the Scots Guards, met her just after the War in Germany, where she had been transported by the Gestapo. A talented opera singer, once known as "the Belgium Nightingale", who had joined the Belgian Resistance, she was among the many thousands seeking repatriation. Curzon, whose duties included organising entertainment for the troops, fell in love and married her against the wishes of his family.

But, once married and living in Croydon, Solange became a chronic alcoholic, frequently in and out of psychiatric hospitals. "Our home life was fraught," says Peter Curzon. "At her worst, my mother would drink anything and everything. She'd hide bottles in the toilet cistern and up the chimney. My father would have her sectioned into hospital and she would escape - she'd get as far as Ireland or Belgium," he adds with obvious pride.

He adored her - but not his father: "Scarsdale was cold-blooded. He'd deal with the practicalities, but there was never any kind of reassurance. You did feel like you were on your own the whole time."

At the age of seven, he was sent away to a Catholic prep school, where, he claims, he was once beaten so badly that his pyjamas stuck with congealed blood and had to be cut off the next morning. "My memory is that when I told my father the next weekend, he said, `take it like a man'. He was always trying to impress on us that we were privileged members of this historic family."

In 1967, when Peter was 18, Curzon senior divorced Solange for cruelty and was awarded custody of the two younger children, Annette, then 13, and David, 8. Peter says his mother had to go and live in a small bedsit in Victoria, with only pounds 10 a week maintenance. She waitressed at the Golden Egg cafe in Leicester Square. Later, Peter further alleges, his father wrote to her explaining he was no longer in a financial position to contribute: "When I saw the letter, I lost all respect for Scarsdale."

In 1974, Solange died. It was Peter who found her body: "I walked into her bedsit and there she was, dead on the floor. The fridge door was open as if she had been going to get the milk for her tea. I was devastated. I telephoned my father and told him, `Mother died this morning'. What he said was, `Oh dear, poor thing. For the best, really'."

Curzon senior had moved with his new wife, Helene, by whom he had two young sons, to Derbyshire, to work as estate manager for his cousin Dick, the second Lord Scarsdale.

Solange was buried at Kedleston but, after the funeral, father and son saw little of each other for some years. Peter Curzon flatly refused to follow his father into the army and opted instead for a free and easy lifestyle, sharing a bedsit in London and doing a variety of casual jobs, including working in a laundry, selling advertising space for the Times and setting up as a used-car dealer.

"My father thought being a used-car salesman was quite disreputable," he laughs defiantly. "But I told him, the Curzons started out as horse traders, and horse traders had just as shabby a reputation as used-car dealers now. I was just following in, albeit updating, a family tradition."

In 1979, he met his first wife, Karen, a miner's daughter, at a car auction in Nottingham and, soon after, Scarsdale, who had now inherited Kedleston and the title, offered an olive branch. He invited his son to work on the 500-acre estate. Curzon, jaded with London life, accepted, but soon became bored with Derbyshire society and says he felt pressured by his father to find a suitably aristocratic wife. When, in secret, he married Karen at a registry office, their hostility resurfaced, and Scarsdale sacked him.

The row over the future of Kedleston followed. Peter Curzon was convinced the real value of the estate on the open market could have been as much as pounds 50 million. He stood to make pounds 5 million. But his father, aghast at the thought of Americans or Arabs owning the family home, negotiated a deal with the National Trust whereby they took over the house and the Curzons were given a 23-room Georgian wing. During this protracted process, Curzon was made a millionaire, though he was not grateful. "Damn right I did not say thanks!" he snorts. "He gave the house to the Trust to spite me."

He and Karen settled with their baby daughter at Battle Barn Farm, but it was not a happy marriage. He now says that he never loved his wife, that he only married her for the sake of Danielle. In fact, throughout their marriage he had visited prostitutes - which is how he met his current wife, 42-year-old Michelle.

In describing Michelle, the subject of several lurid pages in the News of the World in March this year, he avoids the term "prostitute": "I don't like it - it conjures up images of her standing on street corners, which isn't true." He prefers the term "escort girl" - "it's softer, kinder" - and describes their love affair as "a meeting of minds".

They set up home in Florida for a year. Then, during a brief return to England to see Danielle, he was arrested for not paying Karen her final settlement. He spent two nights in the cells until he capitulated. He says that it was his love for his daughter which brought him back. Yet Danielle left a message on his answering machine saying she never wanted to see him again.

Nearly 5,000 miles away, Lord Scarsdale pores over press cuttings and ponders the fate of his wayward son. His side of the story - one he has never before spoken about publicly and has never discussed with his estranged son - is that he was brought to the brink of a nervous breakdown by his first wife's alcoholism. He says he was often the victim of her violent, drunken rages. "But I thought it was the right thing to keep these awful events from my children."

He believes that Solange "brainwashed" Peter into thinking ill of him, and defends his decision to restrict her maintenance because she would only spend it on drink. "Peter doesn't know how it was to see the beautiful wife I adored destroyed by alcoholism, or how I struggled to keep my family together, even giving up my job at one point. Doesn't he ever wonder why I got custody of the children? The cruelty I was subjected to, I kept it from him, and now it's too late - he wouldn't want to believe me."

He seems, if anything, baffled by his son: "He didn't want to mix with decent people when he came here. He likes working-class people - his best friends were the general estate workers." He says his son smuggled Karen, then his girlfriend, into a house on the estate, which embarrassed him. He made no attempt to meet her.

He also vividly recalls the day Peter married her. He had claimed to be at the dentist. "He came into the office late, moaning loudly and clutching his jaw. He was being terribly theatrical, saying `Oooh, I have the toothache'. I said `well, if it's that bad, you'd better have the day off'." When he heard the truth a week later, from the family solicitor, he felt betrayed: "I had this lovely plan for Peter and what does he do? He marries this girl in secret and doesn't do his work properly. I thought, `I've done my best, I'll tell him to go'. It was very painful."

Their relationship ended completely when Curzon cashed in his 10 per cent of Kedleston. He speaks of handing his son the cheque and Curzon turning on his heels - "without so much as a thank you. I felt shattered by that. I was so hurt. I thought, `damn him, damn him'."

In the years that have passed, he has hoped to hear from Peter, but felt unable to make the first move himself. "Even a postcard, saying. `thanks for the cheque, Dad', would have been nice."

"There is something twisted in Peter's nature," says Scarsdale. "He's vindictive and difficult." But then he stops himself. "No one regrets the breakdown of our relationship more than me," he says. "I always longed for the best for him, and I haven't given up hope..." For a moment, his sang-froid deserts him. The third Lord Scarsdale has broken down in tears.

The plot thickens

To the casual observer, there is nothing remarkable about the small patch of wasteland opposite 26 Foxwood Road. It's an overgrown plot, home to a derelict caravan and scrap cars. Yet this patch of weeds on a Sheffield housing estate, barely 50ft x 26ft, has become the object of a long-standing feud between the Thorpes and the Wilkinsons.

Ron and Florence Thorpe, both 71, and Florence's brother Dennis Wilkinson, aged 69, a wealthy coal merchant, live around the corner from each other. Dennis's son Paul, also a coal merchant, lives at number 28, right next door to Ron and Florence. In happier days, all of them would gather to drink shandy beside the Thorpes' fountain and garden gnomes. But the Wilkinsons and the Thorpes haven't spoken for a decade, except in the language of battle.

The troubles between them began in January 1986, when Dennis bought two pounds 1,000 plots of land opposite the Thorpes' bungalow at number 26. The Thorpes, wanting to improve access to their drive, insist that the original intention had been for the land to be shared between the two families but that Dennis had decided to keep it all for himself. Dennis Wilkinson says the Thorpes failed to come up with their share of the cash when he made the deal. He has put it in his will that they can never buy it, even after his death. The Thorpes say they offered him pounds 1,000, which he refused.

Paul Wilkinson, aged 42, who moved into Foxwood Road in late 1985, says he never wanted to be involved in the dispute. "It's between them next door and me old feller," he declares. Yet he quickly became embroiled. When he parked outside his house, the Thorpes, claiming their right of way had been violated, began taking photographs, measuring by how far offending vehicles were sticking out, and logging their registration numbers, all to prove that their nephew was causing an obstruction.

After 10 years of this, Ron Thorpe now has hundreds of photographs and a dining-room knee-deep in files, law books and statutes, which he can quote at length. From his observation point behind his living-room net curtains, he keeps a daily vigil on the comings-and-goings next door, and secretly tapes his arguments with the Wilkinsons. "You never know when it might be needed in court," he says darkly.

The constant squabbling has, on occasion, erupted into violence. Paul Wilkinson destroyed the Thorpes' rock garden. When the Thorpes complained about the unsightly scrap vehicles parked in front of their living-room window, the Wilkinsons erected a five-foot high fence, allegedly telling the Thorpes, "We'll put you in Fort Knox then." Ron Thorpe responded by hacking down the fence with his chainsaw while Florence egged him on, saying "Go on, go on, do it!". She now recalls, "I was very proud of him that day."

The police have been called many times - once when Ron Thorpe grabbed a starter pistol, declaring, "there's only one way to settle him - a bullet between the eyes." Another time, Florence Thorpe accused her nephew of kicking her leg. He told police that she had fallen as he pushed her away, that she had been attacking him with a brick and what he believed to be an Afro comb. Mrs Thorpe says: "I didn't hurt him, but I'd have liked to have hit him with a brick if I could have got my hands on one. I just wasn't quick enough."

In 1994, the wrangling over parking finally landed Paul Wilkinson in court. He was accused of assaulting both the Thorpes and a family cousin, John Potts. The court heard that a row had broken out after Dennis Wilkinson caught Mr Potts parking his car on the disputed territory while visiting the Thorpes.

Paul Wilkinson insists that he only went out to intervene, wearing only his underpants, when he saw his father and Mr Potts, who is 81, squaring up to one another. He was bound over for 12 months in the sum of pounds 250. Local newspapers branded him a "bullying coal merchant".

After 10 years, there is no end in sight to the feud. Point out to Paul Wilkinson that his aunt is barely 4'11" tall and has suffered heart attacks, and he snaps: "You don't understand. You don't know her. When she gets going, she's like a fire cat." Suggest to Dennis Wilkinson that he should give the land to his only surviving sister and he slams a coal-stained fist down on the table:

"Over my dead body. That lot [the Thorpes] never stop complaining. There's no peace and, if it wasn't the land, it would be something else. They've even taken photographs of my old dog, Bruno, lying in the road, saying he's blocking the highway. There's too much hurt gone on."

Behind the battle for the weed patch lies an even more ancient enmity. Up until 1986, the Thorpes' bungalow, where they have lived since 1970, was owned by Dennis and his older brother Joe, now dead. Dennis's and Florence's mother had lived there. But, in late 1985, there was a legal dispute which resulted in the two brothers signing over the deeds. Florence believes this is the cause of the bad blood between them:

"He said: `You've got the house, but I'll see you never enjoy it'. After that, he went and bought the patch of land we wanted. I think he decided it would be useful to Paul."

"We're the real victims," insists her husband. "The stress will be the death of us." Indeed, Florence is now recovering from her third heart attack. But they won't consider moving. "Why should we lose our lovely home?" they cry in unison. "We'll never give up. It's the principle."

Ron now believes he has found an obscure land ruling which could open their way to sue for half the plot of wasteland.

Dennis Wilkinson is equally adamant that he will fight to the end. "Them lot's just jealous because I've got money and they haven't," he says, gesturing to the luxury Mercedes camper van and Range Rover parked next to the coal in his driveway. "That land's no use to me, but there's no way Florence'll get it. I wouldn't give her the skin off my orange. It's the principle."

Twin piques

Janet Percy and Jill Dodds are identical twins and close confidantes. They live only two miles apart in Bedlington, Northumberland, and each describes the other as her best friend. Yet, for eight bitter years, Janet and Jill did not speak. Each twin denied the other's existence. Their children grew up as strangers.

The rift dates back to their parents' divorce 21 years ago. Their father, Thomas Maddison, left their mother, Marlene, for one of her friends. Of the sisters, then aged 14, Jill stood firm behind her mother, vowing never to have further contact with her father - but Janet felt torn between the two, particularly when her father and his new wife, Sandra, set up home across the road:

"That just rubbed salt in Mum's wounds," she says. "She didn't really want us to see our Dad, but I missed him. I used to go and visit him, then lie about it and feel guilty about lying." So when she married her first husband, Kevin, she did not invite her father to the wedding, to avoid upsetting her mother.

Her mother and sister finally found out when her father went to see her after the birth of her first son, Darren. "They said, `You've made your choice. We don't want any more to do with you'." Eight years were to pass before the twins spoke again.

Jill: "Dad had betrayed mum, and I couldn't see why Janet wanted anything to do with him. All those years, I tried to forget about Janet and just blank my memories out. That was our way of coping with the hurt."

Janet: "It was awful. I desperately wanted to get in touch, but I just couldn't. Part of it was pride, part of it was a terrible fear of rejection."

Ironically, reconciliation began only when she and her husband split up. "My mother had always said that I'd never understand how it felt to be left like that. Now I know exactly." Then she had another son, Daniel, by her current partner, and found herself missing her family even more. She kept picking up the telephone and putting it down in despair: "But, one night, I made that call, even though my hands were shaking. I told Jill, `There's a lot of water gone under the bridge - we should be friends'."

Jill suggested they meet at her house. "She opened the door, and I found myself staring into her face, identical to mine. It was obvious we were both nervous. For the first hour, I was on the edge of my seat." Then Jill's young daughter, Katie, came into the kitchen and saw them together. "She burst out, `Crikey, Mum, she looks just like you'," Jill says, laughing.

That first meeting turned into a long evening of drinking tea, trawling through photograph albums and talking about their children. Janet stayed for supper and returned home euphoric.

The final stage in their rapprochement came just months later. As they walked with their children beside the River Wansbeck at Guide Post in Northumberland, they saw a young boy thrashing about in the water. He had fallen in while playing with friends. The child was drowning, and the twins jumped in and dragged the boy out.

"He had already stopped breathing and turned blue," recalls Janet. "His eyes were open but glazed. We were terrified, but I gave him mouth-to-mouth, and Jill was pumping his chest." Thus they saved the life of four-year-old Andrew Blower.

"The paramedics and police came, and Andrew was taken to hospital. We just stood there, all drenched, like creatures from the black lagoon," Jill recalls. "When we called the hospital later, and his mum told us he was OK, we were overjoyed. That was two years ago, but rescuing Andrew had a huge impact on us. It dawned on us that, if we had not settled our differences, we wouldn't have been walking along the river bank at the right time and that child might have drowned. It felt like fate had brought us there."

The sisters now say they will never again allow family differences to drive a wedge between them. And just last month, their mother, Marlene Maddison, 61, finally relented by agreeing to see Janet again, after her own mother died.

Marlene says: "When you're a mother, you think that your daughters are going to stand by you. Although I felt betrayed by Janet, I never stopped loving her. Over the last two years, Jill has acted as a go-between, making sure I knew what was happening in Janet's life. I was close to my own mother and, when she died, I realised I didn't want to miss out on Janet and her family."

They all met in a local pub, hugging and crying. "We told each other we loved each other," says Marlene. "Now I feel the bad times are behind us and we can look forward."

But Janet says she will continue to see her father. Her advice to other divided families is, "It's never too late to make that phone call. Life is too short to wonder what might've been"

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