With its sweeping views, listed architecture and blossoming gardens, Quince Cottage must have seemed the perfect location for stressed urbanites seeking to relax on the Dorset coast.
But for two sets of guests renting the former quarryman's cottage on the peninsula of the Isle of Purbeck, the smell of the seaside was replaced with something less pleasant after they fell foul of a villager's fear that he was being driven from his home by outsiders.
Richard Pearce, 58, an odd-job man, was yesterday banned from the hamlet of Acton, near Swanage, for two years after he admitted trying to gas visitors to the holiday home by pumping butane into their bedroom while they slept. Bournemouth Crown Court was told that Pearce, who lived in the stone-built house next door with his elderly mother, thought the owner of Quince Cottage and his customers were seeking to evict him in order to turn his property into another holiday home.
The Isle of Purbeck, which is a designated World Heritage Site and a magnet for nature lovers wanting to explore its unspoilt coastline, has long been targeted by wealthy city-dwellers seeking second homes.
In Worth Matravers, the nearest village to Acton, at least 60 per cent of the properties are vacant for most of the year. Such is the dwindling number of permanent residents, the community has been given the nickname "ghost village" by some locals. As one local publican put it yesterday: "It's a beautiful part of the world but if you have grown up here and want to buy a nice stone cottage you'll find a long line of lawyers and management consultants ahead of you. And they'll all have bigger chequebooks."
The court was told that Pearce set up an elaborate network of piping that ran from his loft, through an adjoining wall and into the rafters of the adjoining Grade II listed cottage, rented for £775-a-week in high season and boasting "rustic charm" with stone fireplaces and exposed beams. He then sent two-minute bursts of butane gas into the property from a canister attached to the piping over a period of 30 minutes while the holidaymakers slept.
The first victims were woken at 1.30am on 2 July last year when they reported a strong smell of gas in the upstairs bedroom. The couple called the landlord, Guy Piercy, a local businessman, who offered them a refund when he was unable to locate the source of the leak. The holidaymakers accepted the money and left.
But when a second couple made an identical complaint the following week, Mr Piercy realised that none of the properties in the terrace were connected to the gas main, and police were called. Officers gained entry to Pearce's cottage and found his butane contraption.
Nicholas Dunne, for the prosecution, said: "The piping passed into the rafters, above the bedroom of Quince Cottage. There was a tap to control the flow of gas. Pearce told police that there was a conspiracy involving the holidaymakers and Mr Piercy to evict him and his mother. He said the gas was 'tit for tat'."
The court heard that, although the butane gas was not itself toxic, it could have led to asphyxia in sufficient concentrations and that it was also highly flammable.
Pearce, who complained that holidaymakers had sent incense into his house and made a clicking noise, has undergone medical treatment for a mental condition which had fuelled his paranoia, his legal representatives said.
Judge John Beashel, who sentenced Pearce to a two-year community rehabilitation order after he admitted two charges of unlawfully administering butane gas, said: "This was a very serious offence. Were it not for your mental condition you would be going to prison for a long time."
Mr Piercy, who still rents out the cottage, said he was relieved that no future clients would suffer a similar rude awakening. He said: "It was unfortunate and sad - the man was not well. I'm only glad that no one was hurt and he has been ordered to stay away from Acton."
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