There are Christmas stories; and then there are Christmas stories. And this is one of the latter. It is the tale of Lapland New Forest, a festive attraction that promised a snowy winter wonderland – and delivered instead something that looked more like a muddy travellers' site after the bailiffs had been in. It is the story of absentee Santas, delinquent elves, fisticuffs in the grotto and confrontations by the crib. Above all, it is the saga of how an estimated 50,000 people paid around £2m to visit an attraction run by a man who, unbeknown to them, was a convicted tax evader who once gave evidence for the defence at the Brinks Mat trial. Nativity story it ain't.
Today, with Lapland New Forest closing just six days after it opened, this man is somewhere in southern England, rueing, perhaps, that he ever had the idea for his Christmas money-spinner. His customers are determined the matter will not rest there. They have lodged more than 2,000 complaints, and trading standards officers are making inquiries that could yet end up in the courts.
It's quite a mess, and it all began, as far as official records show, on 12 August, when a company called Lapland New Forest Ltd was registered. Its sole director was Victor Robert Mears, a 65-year-old member of the Brighton Mears clan and related to Mary Mears, Conservative leader of Brighton council. In the 1980s, he served four years for tax evasion, during which he gave evidence about the Brinks Mat robbery on behalf of the defendant Kenny Noye, later the M25 killer. Mears, then a gold trader, had links to the case through another trader called Derek "Little Legs" Larkins. These are, to say the least, unusual antecedents for a man who planned to spread festive joy.
A little more than a month after Mears's firm was formed, a planning application was lodged with East Dorset council. It was for land near Ringwood known locally as Matchams Stadium, where go-karting, bike racing, paintball and boot sales have been held. The application – by Frederick Nash, director of a company called Matchams (South Coast) Ltd, which leases the land – outlined plans for a "Christmas fair" that would include nine log cabins, an ice-skating rink and an ice slide. There was no mention at any point of the involvement of Mears or his company. Instead, an appended page, headed "Winter Wonderland Proposal", claimed the plan was for a "wonderful experience for all the local children to enjoy", and that it would be "managed by a team of people who between them bring a great depth of experience organising this type of event."
The idea of a Christmas attraction went down rather well locally. The Southern Daily Echo published a story headlined "Plans unveiled for a 'winter wonderland'", and, despite the "log cabins" plainly being garden sheds supplied by a Horsham firm, the council approved the application on 30 October. There Nash's involvement ceased. He said that all claims in the application were supplied by Mears, and all he had been paid was a "small deposit". He described relations between him and Mears as "strained" and added: "It looks like we will be considerably out of pocket."
Activity at Lapland New Forest Ltd, however, was now in full swing. Operating out of Wild Park House, Home Farm Road, Brighton (later described as a "converted police box and public toilet" on an industrial estate), it began to advertise the attraction. Tickets were not cheap (£25-£30 each), but large groups started to book, paying hundreds of pounds at a time. After all, it looked so beguiling on Mears's website. Beneath a picture of spruce trees and pine lodges smothered in snow, were promises of a "Magical Avenue of Light, Hollywood Special FXs, Fantastic Fun Ice Rink, Seasonal Food, Market Stalls... Wood Cabins... & much more!" Soon, thousands of mums, dads and grandparents were handing over their credit card details and telling their children about the pre-Christmas treat in store.
The first customers arrived on 28 November. The good news was that there were indeed reindeer, husky dogs and a polar bear, albeit a plastic one standing disconsolately in the woods. The bad was pretty much everything else. Jane Perrett from Bristol, who had paid £285 for her family's tickets, told her local paper: "It looked like a travelling fun fair or a car boot sale ... the tunnel of light was a joke. It was like they had pulled Christmas trees on both sides of a path together, plonked on some fake snow and put hanging netting lights up ... The queue for Father Christmas was a joke. We gave up after half an hour but my sister-in-law was waiting two hours, and when they got there, they were charged £10 for a photograph with Santa."
Pictures taken at this would-be Dingley Dell showed elves and a snowman wearing costumes that looked as if they'd been ill-made for one amateur dramatic society but worn by another; a nativity scene that was, in reality, a painted backdrop viewed across a muddy dirt-track area, and the promised snow lay on the ground not so much in drifts as handfuls. Soon there were scores of complaining postings on websites such as mumsnet.com and moneysavingexpert.com. Andy Webb from Portsmouth spoke for many families when he said: "They played on what Christmas means to children and falsified what was on offer."
Come Monday, phones at Dorset County Council's trading standards department were ringing off the hook. Manager Ivan Hancock said: "I've never known anything to spark so many complaints in 20 years' working. I've heard of someone spending £3,000 on tickets and terrible stories of real human misery, like a terminally ill grandparent taking all their grandchildren to the park." Helen Jones of Boscombe Down told the Salisbury Journal: "It was basically just a muddy field where they had stuck a few trees and a couple of huskies", and James Wood of Amesbury described it as "a few blowers puffing out fake snow on a bit of wasteland". His father-in-law had paid more than £250 to take a party of 14. Henry Mears, representing the management, conceded there were "very serious problems", and blamed family illness and a Father Christmas phoning in sick.
Down at Lapland, things soon turned ugly. Two elves and a Santa were attacked by irate customers, and one, named Daryl, said: "I nearly got lynched." A posting on YouTube showed an elf having a fag behind the grotto. According to Henry Mears, six staff left because of intimidation by customers, and an agency, Richard Events, advised their people to leave. By midweek, the Bournemouth Echo had started a petition demanding full refunds, and several forums opened on Facebook for angry Lapland customers, including "Lapland New Forest Is Rubbish", and "New Forest Lapland Experience – Scam".
With complaints building by the hour, and the fiasco achieving cult status in national newspapers, the management had to do something. They made the funfair rides free, got the ice-rink working, and changed the website, always rather more businesslike than the attraction it advertised. "We have been having severe and very unusual technical problems with our server computer," began the equally unusual statement on it. "It has left us completely unable to communicate directly to all our customers... we apologise for any concern this 'silent' situation may have created."
The protests were now unstoppable, and a demonstration was planned for Saturday outside the gates. Then, on Thursday afternoon, Lapland closed. A statement by the management said this was due to "intentional organised crowd manipulation and event sabotage... and unscrupulous and inaccurate negative bias media". (Bad publicity was also blamed by Lapland West Midlands – reportedly no relation – for its failure to open on schedule yesterday after trading standards officers toured the site and found it bore little relation to the attractions claimed on its website.)
Thousands, both those who went to the New Forest site and those who have paid but not yet been, now want their money back. If they paid more than £100 by credit card, they might succeed, especially as the firm handling these payments has frozen the LNF account. If they didn't, they can probably whistle "Silent Night" for it.
Frustrated customers have a lot of questions. Where, they ask, was one of those famous council risk assessments when you need one? Where was some sharp-nosed official to investigate the team "with great depth of experience" of which Mears boasted? And whence came the large sums of money even this attenuated attraction must have cost? But most of all, they are asking themselves: how in the name of King Wenceslas did we fall for that?
Additional reporting by James Berrill