Valley folk divided over 'farm for tourists': Writers seeking rural tranquility are embroiled in a clash with their neighbours, writes Peter Dunn

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The Independent Online
PLANS for a 'traditional' farm to attract tourists have set a group of writers and artists in the Wye Valley against their longer-established neighbours.

The 'incomers' were confident of victory after a skilfully orchestrated media campaign against the scheme, but Monmouth council planning committee approved it by 19 votes to 10. Councillors went against the advice of their own planning officers, who considered it inappropriate for an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The name of Tom Sharpe, author of Blott on the Landscape, featured in the campaign, and the headlines virtually wrote themselves. 'A real- life battle for Mr Blott-On-The- Landscape', the Western Daily Press called it. 'Author Tom Sharpe's hit black comedy turned to reality yesterday when he began a battle against a Blott on the Landscape,' the Daily Express said.

The Wye Valley is home to a colony of artists, writers and musicians, many of whom have been crusading eloquently to stop the 15th- century Pilstone Farm being converted into a centre for tourists.

Bob and Cilla Greenland's plan is to turn the semi-derelict 47-acre property near the village of Whitebrook into a traditional farm, selling locally raised lamb and pork, with a restaurant, craft shop and 85- space car park screened by trees. The Greenlands, who run a similar business at Wolvesnewton, eight miles away, found a willing vendor in Major-General John Hopkinson, whose family has owned the farm since the 16th century.

Opponents called the scheme a 'virtual reality whimsy', quoting Wordsworth's 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey' where nature 'never did betray the heart that loved her'. They included Vernon Handley, conductor, Julian Mitchell, a writer of Inspector Morse scripts, Martha Gellhorn, 84, war correspondent, and Julia Greg son, formerly a writer on the Times.

Julian Mitchell summed up their mood. He said: 'I'm not opposed to rural development. What I am opposed to is inappropriate development in an area which for centuries has been sought for its seclusion.'

Some local people became irritated by the incomers' tactics for three reasons.

First, Tom Sharpe does not live in the area, as a press release suggested, and has had nothing to do with the campaign. 'I don't even know where this development is or what it is,' he said at his home in Cambridge yesterday. 'Someone's got it terribly wrong.'

Second, one of the most prominent campaigners, Maggie Biss, whose 18th-century home adjoins the property, had her own designs on it as a tourist attraction when it came on the market two years ago. Mrs Biss, who does part-time public relations work, says she considered buying it as a bee farm or holiday lets but changed her mind.

Thirdly, two other protesters, Charles and Anne Hawes - who moved from Hackney, London, six years ago - caused hilarity among farmers with a scheme to prevent tractors and noisy machines being used on two days each week.

Julia Gregson, author of the press release announcing Tom Sharpe's support, said: 'That was embarrassing. It was a mistake which was corrected as quickly as possible. These campaigns are put together by incredibly busy people and it was an error of judgement not to check with him.'

Bob Greenland, who spent the early part of last week lobbying councillors to counteract the media campaign, found an ally in Don Spencer, Monmouth councillor, dairy farmer and member of the valley's Area of Natural Beauty advisory committee.

He said: 'The problem with Pilstone itself is it's only 40-odd acres of land surrounded by forest. If a neighbouring farmer took it over it means the buildings go derelict. With the development Greenland's proposing, at least you'll see stock back on the fields and he's going to repair the buildings and put slates where there's only rusty tin at present.'

Mr Greenland is apprehensive about the campaign breaking out again. He says: 'Some of the people complaining hadn't even seen the place or contacted us at any time. They described it as an unspoilt 15th-century farmhouse when half of it's a rather hideous modern building which we want to improve.

'They quoted Wordsworth when once the Wye Valley was highly- industrialised with iron works, charcoal works, all sorts of things. It's now a major tourist area, which is why we need to move here.'

(Photograph omitted)