Village speculates as couple retreat behind castle gates: 'Weird' and 'aloof' lord of the manor provides locals with gossip. Steve Boggan reports

DAMNED handy things, castles. When devils from abroad are on the rampage, threatening to horsewhip you; when local peasants are locking up their daughters because of you; when all and sundry want to string you up by the privates, you can lock the gates and let the world go by.

That's what Alan Clark, the former defence minister, did yesterday when news reached him that James Harkess, a former judge, was on his way to confront him for sleeping with his wife and two step-daughters. 'I've heard they're coming, but I'm just happy to have nothing to do with it,' Mr Clark told the Independent at the gates of Saltwood Castle.

I suppose you're also happy that you live in a castle?

'Hmm. Goodbye,' he said.

Earlier, while walking the family rottweilers with his wife, Jane, outside the walls of their pounds 8m, 12th-century home near Hythe in Kent, Mr Clark was more forthcoming.

Having agreed that he should be horsewhipped for having affairs with Valerie Harkess, 57, and her daughters, Josephine, 34, and Alison, 36, he at least defended himself over Josephine's claims that he showed her his 'willy' when she was only 13. He blamed Max Clifford, the family's publicist, for inventing the story.

Mr Clark and Mrs Clark spent the rest of the day behind the walls of the castle, the site at which the murderers of Thomas a Becket hatched their plot, and the location for a TV advertisement for breakfast cereal.

Several hundred yards away, in Saltwood village, the locals were dining out on tales of their philandering lord of the manor. Most said he was aloof; some said he was weird; all agreed he was anything but boring. 'It's the talk of the village,' said Deepakben Patel, the postmistress. 'He loves the publicity - always has - but this has shocked some people. The ones with young daughters say they won't let them anywhere near him from now on. Others say that he should be castrated.'

However, Mrs Patel admitted that she had been harbouring a grudge against Mr Clark since he cancelled his daily delivery of the Times, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times when he discovered another shop could do it for 3p a week less.

Many complained that he never opened his castle to the public. 'It would make money for everyone in the village if he did,' said Carole Waters, landlady of the Castle Hotel. 'He never comes in here, but we wish he would. He sounds fascinating.'

Sarah Giles, 15, wandered into the grounds briefly two weeks ago when a friend told her the castle was open. 'I went in to ask if it was OK but he sent me away. He was weird - he had on a shiny shirt and mirrored sunglasses.'

Max Clifford might have been interested to know that Mr Clark touched - or tapped - Sarah on the shoulder before asking her to leave.

But Mr Clifford had more important things to ponder yesterday - how, for example, to keep the story hot.

'The judge would love to confront Mr Clark but it won't be up at the castle,' he said. And raising the stakes to presidential magnitude, he added: 'I think I'd like to see them talking face to face. Perhaps . . . some sort of TV debate.'

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