Hedge of darkness

Residents of a quiet cul-de-sac in Lincoln say they are baffled by a dispute that led to the violent deaths of two neighbours. But, asks Richard Askwith, was this bloody episode simply the inevitable consequence of the simmering resentment and injured pride that lie at the borders of Britain's gardens?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As hedges of contention go, it is an unassuming growth: a privet hedge scarcely two feet high, separating 16 Webster Close, Lincoln, from No 18. Then again, perhaps it was not the hedge in question. There is also a 15ft leylandii tree at the bottom of No 18's garden, and it has been suggested that this was what caused the trouble. But the privet is the likelier suspect, for it had been a sore point for years.

As hedges of contention go, it is an unassuming growth: a privet hedge scarcely two feet high, separating 16 Webster Close, Lincoln, from No 18. Then again, perhaps it was not the hedge in question. There is also a 15ft leylandii tree at the bottom of No 18's garden, and it has been suggested that this was what caused the trouble. But the privet is the likelier suspect, for it had been a sore point for years.

As far as anyone can remember, it had been there longer than either of its victims, though neither was exactly new to the vicinity. And now it has outlived them both.

The first, George Wilson, who had lived in No 16 for 18 years, died 12 days ago. It was Friday the 13th. An argument with his neighbour, Robert Dickenson of No 18, had degenerated into a slanging-match - a regular occurrence, according to other residents of the close. Voices were raised; then there was silence; then, a few minutes later, there were gunshots. Wilson, 66, died of his wounds in hospital.

Dickenson, the second victim, was arrested shortly afterwards, at the end of a brief siege by armed police, and remanded in custody. He had a black eye and an injured arm. He had been due to appear in court this week, but was found hanging in his cell on Sunday and died the next day. He was 52.

Residents of Webster Close are still reeling from the episode, expressing bafflement both that such bloody mayhem could take place in such a "nice, quiet" cul-de-sac, and that two such "nice, quiet" men should be involved. Both, we are told, were unassuming, inoffensive Englishmen. Dickenson, according to Michael Reidy, who lives across the road, was "a thoroughly decent bloke". Wilson, according to another neighbour, was "a lovely man - a gentleman". Both were keen gardeners; neither seems to have sought much more from life than to live quietly at home with his family and cultivate his garden. Dickenson had lived there all his life.

But the issue of the hedge had gradually been growing between them, as had the leylandii. It's not clear precisely how the trouble started, but it seems to have been simmering for about two years. In one account, it started when Dickenson "just cut a huge chunk out of the tree without asking", on the grounds that it was obstructing his car. Another says that it began when Dickenson unilaterally took a foot off the height of the privet hedge.

Either way, it is hard to see how such behaviour could be worth a man's life - let alone two men's lives. Yet perhaps, if we're honest, it is not so surprising. Britain is full of quiet, inoffensive people who keep themselves to themselves and channel their energies into their gardens - and into disputes with their neighbours. It is scarcely six weeks since Douglas Reed, 63, collapsed and died in the middle of a "hedge rage" dispute in Louth, Lincolnshire. Other recent disputes include the jailing, last August, of Malcolm and Marlene Girling for cutting down a hedge they shared with their neighbours in Witton, Norfolk; the hedge-related murder of Llandis Burden by Uri Bowen of Talybont-on-Usk, Powys, in 2001; and a dispute in Shropshire over a 3ft "mispositioning" of a fence that involved 21 court cases and, last year, the jailing for three months of Samantha Richards, 27.

According to Hedgeline, a group set up to seek ways of alleviating such problems, there are probably 100,000 hedge disputes active in the UK. That's just hedges, remember. Throw in fences, boundaries, party walls and rights of way, and who knows how many feuding neighbours we could be talking about? We have all come across them, with their bursting files of sarcastic correspondence, their solicitors' letters (and bills), their frosty silences and ever-more-withering glares across their disputed boundaries. And we can all see how grotesquely, indecently futile it all is - unless we ourselves happen to be involved.

It is largely a countryside phenomenon, perhaps because rural title deeds are more likely to have been shoddily drawn up in the distant past; and perhaps because rural boundaries are more likely to be marked with vegetation rather than bricks and mortar. According to Michael Jones, founder of Hedgeline, "A hedge is going to be planted on one side of the boundary or the other. But then it grows. And once the branches or the roots are on your side of the boundary, then that gives you the right to cut them back, which is often when the arguments start. So then you have to define precisely where the boundary is. And once you start contesting that, it can lead to weeks of lucrative work for highly paid land lawyers. The Land Registry's advice is never, ever, to contest a boundary. But, of course, thousands of people do."

Last week, the High Hedges Bill - inspired by Hedgeline and introduced as a private member's Bill by the Labour MP Steve Pound - received its third reading in the Commons but was talked out by Conservative opponents. Its purpose is to neutralise thousands of hedge disputes by enabling local authorities to force owners to trim hedges to a reasonable height. "The Government could use its authority to push the Bill through," says Jones, "but it would mean taking some time out of government business." The Bill is due to return on 4 July, but, Jones admits, "it probably won't happen."

Yvette Cooper, of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, professed herself "extremely disappointed" at the Bill's failure. "High hedges can make people's lives a misery and cause great friction between neighbours. This Bill is a sensible way to deal with cases that neighbours can't resolve."

But the truth is, this isn't really about hedges at all. It's about something far more deep-rooted. The judge in the Samantha Richards case spoke of "a tragedy of Greek proportions". Why the Greeks should get dragged into it is a mystery. This is an English vice, tied up with our addiction to home-ownership and DIY and our general aversion to anything resembling communal living. Only the English pride themselves on seeing their houses as their castles; only the English see pig-headedness as a national virtue. Winston Churchill, most revered of all Englishmen, expressed the attitude best: "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty..."

All over Britain, ordinary, inoffensive Englishmen are doing precisely that, digging their heels in over tiny details of mutual boundaries. "It can be triggered off by having a hedge just a fraction of an inch over the boundary," says Jones, "or even a fence-post the wrong way round." And, he adds: "These disputes cause all kinds of stresses and tension, and can even affect people's health."

But do they have to result in murder? "It's interesting," says Professor David Cooke, professor of forensic psychology at the Douglas Inch Centre, Glasgow. "Often violence is precipitated by a threatened loss of face. If someone is put in a position where something very important to them is challenged, then things can escalate. A sense of injustice develops, the more they think about it. It is a very personal thing, your own space - we are territorial animals.

"As with all violent incidents, there will be multiple factors leading to the actual end-point. It's the availability of weapons that's critical. Normally, these disputes don't have this lethal outcome because of the lack of guns - if the only weapons available were knives, a loss of life would be much less likely." But of course they aren't, these days; and, in the absence of a radical change in the nation's attitude to property, tragedies such as the one in Webster Close will presumably become more common.

Additional research by Adam Jacques