Rumbled: farmer who hid his illegal castle behind the hay

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The Independent Online

They say an Englishman's home is his castle. Unfortunately for Robert Fidler, that sentiment does not impress has local council.

Mr Fidler, 59, built a mock-Tudor castle, complete with ramparts and cannons, on his farm in Salfords, Surrey in 2000. Because it was on green-belt land and unlikely to get planning permission, he concealed itbehind a 40ft stack of hay bales, covered with a blue tarpaulin. He, his wife Linda, 39, and son, Harry, seven, moved in and in August 2006 he removed the hay bales and revealed their castle.

The Fidlers were hoping to take advantage of a planning law which states that if a building is standing for four years and no one objects to it then it becomes legal.

But planning officers at Reigate and Banstead Council said because the hay bales had obstructed the building no one could see it, so no one could object. Yesterday councillors gave Mr Fidler 12 months to demolish the castle, which could be worth more than £1m.

Mr Fidler said: "The council are no different from vandals. I'm not worried as I don't believe I've done anything wrong. I can't believe they want to demolish this beautiful house."

But the council leader, Lynne Hack, said Mr Fidler's attempt to use the four-year loophole amounted to "blatant deception" and added: "It's a shame because he obviously put a huge amount of time and effort into building this thing and it is a beautiful house. It's sad that he didn't decide to apply for permission to build it somewhere else [with permission].

"But our position is that the land is green-belt land and, unless there are very special circumstances to do so, you can't build on green- belt land as it is very precious. We didn't think that building a castle qualified as special circumstances."

Throughout the four years his home was hidden, Mr Fidler applied for permission to build other structures, including a race track. Amazingly, when planning officers inspected his property, which they did several times during the four years, they did not notice the huge house he was hiding under the hay bales.

Ms Hack added: "It's a farm, and on farms you expect to see hay bales so it wasn't particularly unusual and he has other buildings on the property so we assumed that he was living in one of those."

The couple went as far as keeping their son away from play school on the day he was supposed to draw a picture of his house. "We couldn't have him drawing a big blue haystack; people might have asked questions," Mrs Fidler said.

During the four years, they shared their home with dozens of nesting birds. Mrs Fidler added: "We thought it would be a boring view, but birds nested there and feasted on the worms. We had several families of robins and even a duck made a nest and hatched 13 ducklings on top of the bales."

Mr Fidler was unavailable for comment; he was visiting his other castle, in Africa. He bought a 10-bedroom structure called Fort Metal Cross in Ghana for about £500,000 in the late Nineties. It was built by the British in 1693 to protect the local trade in ivory, gold and slaves.

When he returns to his English castle he will probably be forced to begin tearing it down, although he does have the right of appeal to the High Court against the planning inspectorate on a point of law. And Ms Hack believes he will probably do that, adding: "I doubt he'll accept the decision gracefully; he'll probably put up a fight."

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