The farmer who fell foul of a Dimbleby: Peter Dunn finds a family whose ambition to build a home is opposed by a mediacouple Peter Dunn reports from a peaceful Avon valley on an everyday tale of country folk

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The Independent Online
RESIDENTS OF Upper Swainswick, a gracious Georgian village outside Bath in Avon, were jubilant when they stopped Barry Vivian, a local deer farmer, building himself a family house on his sloping land facing their Cam Brook valley community.

Mr Vivian says he has been forced to put his farm on the market because his family cannot face another winter in their exposed hillside mobile homes. One of the most eloquent campaigners against the house - the royal biographer and Swainswick resident Jonathan Dimbleby - wants to buy Mr Vivian's deer farm and use it for breeding cattle.

Mr Dimbleby is thought to believe that the 120-acre site is worth around pounds 150,000, about half its estimated market value according to Mr Vivian's agents. In an attempt at reconciliation Mr Dimbleby has written to Mr Vivian saying there was 'nothing personal' in the role he and his wife, the writer Bel Mooney, played in stopping the deer-farm housing development.

Mr Dimbleby, president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, has recently started farming in the Cam Brook valley, part of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. (AONB). Last Christmas, he paid about pounds 50,000 for 55 acres of meadow adjoining the Vivians' property. He has just applied for - and got - permission from Wansdyke District Council to build a wooden cow shed on his land, which faces Swainswick village across the valley. It will be 43ft long, 12ft high and topped with fibre cement roof sheeting.

Mr Dimbleby is proud of the effort that has been made to blend his barn into the landscape, behind a big steel shed owned by Mr Vivian. In the past, he has been critical of other agricultural buildings spoiling the area.

Mr Vivian and his wife Val are not amused by Mr Dimbleby's reputation as a conservationist, nor, today, by his interest in their farm. 'Why should I be?' Mrs Vivian says. 'He's put me through six years of hell here.' Mr Dimbleby and Miss Mooney deny they have been the primary cause of the Vivians' suffering.

Mr Dimbleby said: 'I've written to them to say I showed them no ill-feeling, that I objected to what they were doing because I support the planning laws. They took the view, because my name was familiar, that in some way I was disproportionately influential in decisions made by the planning authorities.'

The Vivians bought their land outside Woolley village eight years ago and established it as one of the largest deer farms in Britain with 500 head grazing 14 paddocks. Their customers include Sainsbury's. Because the farm had no house, the family, including two children, have lived in a 23ft caravan on temporary planning permissions. In winter their water supply freezes; family meals are eaten alfresco.

Four years ago, supported by the farmers' union and the government's Agricultural Advisory and Development Services, the Vivians applied to Wansdyke council for outline permission to build a four-bedroom home on their land. They pointed out that consent had already been given by Wansdyke for a family house on a smaller deer farm established (also in 1987) in the Limpley Stoke valley, also part of the Cotswolds AONB.

Permission was refused because of 'local concerns' about impact on Bath's green belt area and fears of 'ribbon development'. 'Then we lost on appeal on the grounds that we didn't need to live on the farm, which we strongly dispute,' says Mr Vivian. 'The inspector said our answer was to look in the local hamlets for a house. There was one for sale in Woolley at pounds 385,000 and another was pounds 700,000, completely out of our price bracket. We were then advised we could put up a venison processing plant with shop and offices so we did that, in stone, at a cost of pounds 30,000, just before the law on farmers' permitted development rights expired in January 1991. We regarded it as a lawful building but the council said it looked like a bungalow and told us to pull it down.'

Again the Vivians went to appeal, and lost. Before the hearing Mr Dimbleby wrote to Department of the Environment planners protesting about 'those who are indifferent to this precious landscape and would ride roughshod through the planning law'. His letter ended: 'I urge you in the name of my wife Bel Mooney as well as many, many others to demonstrate that the law . . . cannot be ignored with impunity.'

In August last year the Vivians took their case to the High Court and lost. Last December, ill with exhaustion, Mrs Vivian wrote to Wansdyke council saying she had had enough and was going to sell.

Within a week, according to Mr Vivian, a letter arrived from Mr Dimbleby. Dated 18 December, it said: 'I have heard a rumour wafting around the valley - like all rumours not to be trusted] - that you are thinking of selling your farm. If this is more than the rumour factory at work, perhaps we could talk about this as I would be interested at a market price] If it is just rumour-mongering forgive me raising the matter: I won't spread it] In the meantime, may I wish you and your family a Happy Christmas.'

On Christmas Eve, Mr Vivian wrote back saying he was reluctant to sell but added: 'Everything is for sale at the right price. In this case the right price is three times the present 'market value' . . .'

A week later the Vivians had a short note from Mr Dimbleby announcing that he had just bought land adjoining their property from Gordon Packer, a farmer who was retiring. 'I very much hope we can be good neighbours across the lane. If I cause you a problem let me know (tho' I pray I shan't),' he wrote.

'The really galling thing about it,' says Mr Vivian, 'is he put 15 cows on his land and he puts in this application saying he needs this big shed and gets his application passed. What do you think I felt about it?'

(Photograph omitted)