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M'lud's butler remains discreet: Judges' lodgings

ONE PUSH of the polished brass buzzer and the butler flung open the door of the imposing pounds 1m house, set in acres of manicured lawn and hidden by the 12ft perimeter hedge.

Circuit judges rate Ayres End House, near St Albans, Hertfordshire, among their top ten digs. Did m'lud's butler have an opinion on the Lord Chancellor's inquiry into the pounds 4m spent every year keeping judges in 32 historic lodgings in England and Wales?

Were the masters available to comment on the pounds 6,188 spent every week per judge to keep their lodgings open? His smile froze as the door edged shut. 'I've nothing to say,' he said curtly. 'You should do all this through the Lord Chancellor's Department.'

'At least they let the servants live in now,' sniffed the woman from the row of cottages down the lane. 'They used to live here until the Government sold them off to us 16 years ago.'

The butler pays 8.5 per cent of his salary to live in government-owned Ayres End, with his wife - who locals say doubles up as housekeeper - and their children. Neighbours say that is just as well for the judges are hardly ever around. 'We've never actually seen one,' the woman from the pounds 350,000 barn conversion next door said. 'You just see the two outriders. When the big car sweeps out behind them you can't see through the tinted windows.'

The people down the lane have been luckier. 'I've seen the judge in the car with his red robes and wig,' the woman from the cottages said. 'There used to be one they called the hanging judge because of his sentences on the IRA. When he was at the house there would be men with guns on the door. But usually it's just the motorbikes when they are on their way to work.'

There has always been local concern about the cost, the woman from the barn conversion said. 'I was in the house once for a meeting about putting in mains water. At the moment the house supplies us with water from a well. It's really lovely inside and beautifully maintained. The gardens go on forever at the back. I think there is even an orchard.

'We all said it must cost a lot of money just to put the judges up and that it would be cheaper to keep them in a hotel. But we thought it was a security measure. What has surprised me is finding out there are 31 other places just like this one.'