Lord of the Manor finds a £500,000 goldmine in title

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To the casual passer-by the area seems to be a scrubby patch of common land surrounded by a muddy, potholed road. But for Michael Farrow, Newtown Common has a rather uncommon value.

As owner of the land, on the Hampshire/Berkshire border, he has the right to charge residents of the surrounding houses for driving along his road to reach their front doors - a scheme that could net him £500,000 after an initial outlay of just £4,200.

Buying an ancestral title may be regarded as no more than snobbery but to the sharp-eyed entrepreneur it can turn out to be a great investment.

When Mr Farrow bought a series of titles from the Earl of Carnarvon four years ago he simply planned to sell them for a small profit. But he discovered that the Lordship of the Manor of Newtown Common brought with it the ownership of the common ground. He is now demanding the residents pay him up to 6 per cent of the value of each of the 100 houses around the common so they may drive to their front doors.

Not surprisingly they have reacted with outrage; some of the houses are worth £1m. Lord Carnarvon has even apologised to the residents for selling the title, claiming he had no idea it included land. He has allowed them to search through the family's papers at Highclere Castle to try to find anything that will help their cause.

But Mr Farrow claims he showed the earl a copy of a deed signed and sealed by his father in 1927, which stated that he was the owner of the soil of Newtown Common. The Land Registry is also on his side and in previous disputes of this kind the law has come down in favour of the land owner.

Mr Farrow said: "They say they can't afford to pay this money but if you look at their driveways you can see the BMWs and the Jags and Range Rovers. It's not as if they are peasants with pitchforks." He would use some of the money to repair the damaged roads and keep the common wild.

"They are whining about it and have gone crying to the press and politicians, saying it's only a couple of yards of land they need to drive over but it is my land and they will have to pay to continue to drive over it, and that is perfectly reasonable because I own it. We are asking 6 per cent of the house value, which we think is reasonable and in line with what other people in the same position do."

Mike Westcott-Rudd, of the Land Registry, said: "There is no doubt that Mr Farrow owns the land and if the Lord of the Manor has a legal basis for his claim then either he negotiates an agreement with the villagers or they may have to go to court.

"You can't stop people walking over the land ... but you can stop them driving cars over it and you can also seek damages if it has been excessively used and the land has been ruined."

James Delmar of Strutt & Parker, which holds regular lordship auctions, said: "It is up to the solicitors doing searches on behalf of a potential house-buyer to find out if there is any common land that might affect the new owner's rights and the value of the house."