With its thatched cottages, gurgling stream and surrounding pastures filled with grazing pedigree cattle and cantering Arabian horses, the Devon village of Gittisham has long been regarded with pride by its inhabitants as a bucolic "heaven".
Not any longer. The peace in the community at the heart of the 3,500-acre Combe Estate was shattered yesterday after hand-delivered letters arrived at 27 of its 40 houses informing residents that their rented homes were being put up for sale and most would have to leave within weeks.
The decision by the millionaire owner of the estate, Richard Marker, to put the village on the market with an estimated price tag of £7m was greeted with fury by villagers who accused their hereditary landlord of a "feudal" coup to replace long-term residents with monied urbanites.
An emergency meeting was being held in the village hall last night to discuss a crisis plan to stop the sale or raise funds to buy the properties for the community. The wooden bus shelter had been daubed with graffiti reading "It's mad" and "Marker scum".
Ken Hopkins, 55, is a parish councillor whose two-bedroom home for the past 14 years, Riverside Cottage, is to be put on sale for an estimated £275,000. He said property prices in the region meant few if any of the current tenants, including himself, would be able to buy their homes. "Families have been born in this village; now children will be uprooted and have to find new schools," he said. "We fear the heart will be ripped out of the village as people buy up places and turn them into second homes. It is like heaven living here. But people are on low incomes and cannot afford to pay the prices that homes will going for."
The letters sent to tenants give most until the end of June to make a bid for their homes or leave. At least one, Carol Hall, 33, a civil engineer who is seven and a half months pregnant with her first child, said she and her husband had to be out of their three-bedroom home by 31 May. Explaining that they could not afford the £250,000 price tag, she said: "It's just cruel. Now we have not got much time to find a house and prepare to give birth to my child."
Representatives of Mr Marker, who inherited the estate, admitted that news of the sale had come "out of the blue" for tenants but insisted it was for enlightened rather than medieval reasons.
His agent Mark Townsend said: "Along with the estate trustees, he decided the whole raison d'être for the village was outdated. It was built to house agricultural labourers, which is no longer the case. What is feudal is to have one individual owning and running an entire village. It isn't a question of cashing in on the property market. All the common land, such as the playing fields and the village green, will be put in a trust for the community with money to maintain them. He wants the village to stand on its own two feet." Mr Townsend said Mr Marker's preference was to sell the village as a whole to a new owner so the houses would remain as rented properties.
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