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Gravel plan stirs madding crowd in Hardy land

ACROSS the broad pasture valley of the river Frome in Dorset - the Valley of the Dairies in the novels of Thomas Hardy - fly- posters warn of conflict between villagers and one of the county's biggest farming dynasties.

If landowners, planners and quarrymen have their way, this will soon become the Valley of the Gravel Pits, in an unfolding drama which owes less to Hardy's tradition than Tom Sharpe's splenetic Blott on the Landscape.

In the village of Woodsford, near the county capital of Dorchester and just down the road from Hardy's birthplace at Higher Bockhampton, tension is high. Here, 800 of the Paul family's 2,500 acres have been earmarked for gravel and sand extraction. It is the biggest of 10 'preferred sites' identified by the county council to meet a shortfall of 10 million tons for construction work in the next 10 years.

In an area noted for the lunar landscapes left by earlier quarrymen, the fear of dust, rumbling lorries and decades of blight on the value of cottage properties and tourism is tangible.

Woodsford's working economy has been dominated by the Paul family since 1911, when Noel Paul began raising dairy herds and growing cabbages and potatoes for the Royal Navy.

He had three sons by his second wife. The youngest became a parson. The second, Noel junior, ran the farms after his father's death 12 years ago. When he left, the eldest, Wyatt, took over. Wyatt, an Oxford double first who supports Amnesty International and has counselled down-and- outs, embarked on an ambitious scheme, building a packaging factory to supply vegetables to supermarkets.

Last November the operation struck trouble. Wyatt shut the plant and laid off 120 full-time and casual workers. It hit the sparsely populated community like a shipyard closing on Tyneside. 'The vegetable side was not profitable,' says one former senior employee. 'The redundancies were all done pretty secretly. Some got other jobs but the main thing was they were no longer living in rent-free cottages.'

The manner of the sackings shocked and angered Woodsford. Keith Fletcher, 73, a retired vet who lives in a thatched cottage next door to the Pauls' handsome farmhouse and is chairman of WRAGE (Woodsford Residents Against Gravel Exploitation), sums up the mood: 'When the redundancies came, out of the blue in the course of two hours one Monday morning, there was utter bewilderment.

'In 40 years as a vet in this area I worked for both Wyatt and his father. Wyatt is a charming and intelligent man who felt he had to make firm decisions. I don't think he realises that there's a lot of bitterness and a certain amount of fear. Many people feel they've got to be careful what they say now.'

Local protesters estimate that that Paul family stands to gain pounds 15m selling 4.5 million tons of gravel from its fields in the next 20 years. Wyatt Paul, who lives behind padlocked wrought-iron gates with a large sign saying 'Beware of the Dog', declines to discuss his business plans or relationships with the community.

'I'm not going to make any comment, I'm afraid,' he said when I phoned him last week. 'Personally I've kept a very low profile about my character and I don't want to change now.' I think we've very objectively put our points of view and I don't want to be involved in the personal side of things. I don't see why I should, to be honest.'

Andy Price, Dorset's deputy county planning officer, believes the community is over-reacting. 'There are no firm proposals at this stage,' he says. 'Woodsford is one of 10 sites in the county's minerals plan because there is substantial gravel there free of the constraints of more environmentally sensitive areas.

(Photograph and map omitted)