Villagers protest over water rights

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THE village pond at Kingston Bagpuize in Oxfordshire became the scene for a strange gathering yesterday as a Russian aristocrat, backed by English peasants, insisted on the ancient right to water animals from the pond.

Count Nikolai Tolstoy took his donkey, Misty, and his Shetland pony, Dinky, to the pond to quench their thirst. The owner of the pond and the surrounding land, John Hale, objected but two policemen asked him to stand aside while Count Tolstoy and a band of villagers exercised their rights.

The land around the Town Pond, as it is called, was privatised in 1844 when it was enclosed by Act of Parliament. In the last two years Mr Hale has enclosed it further with a line of cypress trees screening it from the road.

Once the pond was an idyllic spot where village children came to play and look for frogspawn. Stocks stood beside it for the punishment of errant villagers, and gypsies camped there.

'The pond was part of the old village green - an attractive wild place with ducks and moorhens,' Count Tolstoy said. 'The present owners have built a concrete bridge and installed fairy lights and a plastic heron.'

Villagers were angered when the owners made access difficult. The parish council sought a legal opinion and was advised that although the land was private villagers had a right, under the Enclosure Act of 1844, to use the water for themselves and their animals. However, the owner, Mr Hale, insists that there is no public right of access.

Local police, at first perplexed by the dispute, have learnt that there is also a statutory benefit for them in the 1844 Act. It specifically provides for them to water their horses at the pond.

However, Count Tolstoy may not be the beneficiary of these ancient rights for much longer. He stands to lose his house, together with the watering rights it provides him with, if he has to pay a bill for some pounds 2m in damages and costs arising from his libel case with Lord Aldington. He is seeking to show in the European Court that the British government has denied him justice.

'If we win it will mean a drastic revision of the libel law, which is an effective means of censorship in its present form, as the case of Robert Maxwell has shown,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)