And the walls came crumbling down

When oil fever came to a small Lancashire community hope sprang eternal. Then the vibrations started.
Click to follow
One day in April 1987 Alyson Guest was sitting on the lavatory in of the flat she was renting at one end of a creaking old stone farmhouse in the middle of the Lancashire moor country. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, she was thrown from the seat by severe wobbling coming from within the porcelain. Leaping up and standing astonished on the other side of the room, Ms Guest noticed that the lavatory, which was bolted directly into the ground, vibrated for some time as if directly wired to a small nuclear power station.

"The vibrations were so severe it was quite impossible to continue," she said, of the task in hand.

Recovering from her shock, and alerted by a rumbling noise outside, Ms Guest ran out into the lane which runs along the front of the house in time to see three trucks slowly wending their way towards the village of Slaidburn. She noted the name on the back of one of the lorries and returned to her business.

The following weekend, Christopher Wenner, a member of the family who owns the house and uses one wing for holidays, came to stay. He noticed, as he turned his car into the yard behind the house that the dry-stone walls which flanked the lane on either side of the building had collapsed. Worse was to follow, opening the front door he was immediately struck by extensive wave-like cracking in previously sound walls and ceilings. There was more severe damage, too: big cracks running up the back of the house, which passed straight through the lintel stones under a couple of windows. One internal split was sufficiently expansive for the water pipes running behind the plaster to be exposed. Wenner was astonished at the damage, which looked as if the whole house had been picked up and shaken. He immediately asked Alyson Guest if anything unusual had happened around the place recently. Well, she said, there was the time she was thrown off the lavatory by these unaccountable vibrations. And then there were the lorries.

Laytham's Farm is over 350 years old, a house built without foundations in the same way as dry-stone walls, with a lime in-fill and plaster on the exterior. In several places the outside walls are bolted together with metal strapping. It is not, as any casual observer might take note, the strongest of constructions.

Nevertheless it commands a magnificent view over the Forest of Bowland to one side and the Hodder Valley to the other. Looking across the fells on a February morning, with the wind whipping the trees as if bent on a mission of revenge, you might think there is not a lot out there on the bleak, battered fells that anyone would be interested in. But in April 1987, Enterprise Oil, the great success company of the Eighties (which in 1990 was named as paying its staff more than anyone else in Britain) were very interested in the place. They thought they sniffed oil.

Unlike in the title sequence of the TV series The Beverly Hill-Billies, when Jed Clampett goes out shootin' at some food, and up from the ground comes a bubblin' crude, if there was oil round Bowland way it was well out of gunshot range. So Enterprise contracted a firm called Simon Horizon, who had in their possession several Vibroseis wagons. A German machine with an enormous circular pad like a giant dustbin lid strapped to its under-carriage, the lorry moves into position, then winches itself up off its wheels allowing all its three tons to press down on the pad. The pad then vibrates vigorously, enabling sound waves to pass through the ground to a depth of three kilometres and to a radius of four. The name on the truck Alyson Guest had spotted was Simon Horizon.

It didn't take Chris Wenner long to put together a theory as to why his house suddenly resembled a lump of Stilton. Local gossip in Slaidburn was full of oil talk, the seismic soundings and how everyone would benefit when the place was full of free-spending Texans.

Wenner thought he ought to contact Enterprise and see what they had to say. So, soon after the incident, a helpful and attentive employee of the company, called Mr Aspinall, arrived at Laytham's. He took a look round, noted the splits in the pavement outside, the way the roof of the outhouse was coming away from its walls, and all the interior and exterior damage to the house and satisfied himself that the Wenners were not trying to pull a fast one. Seismic sounding can cause damage to dry stone walls, he revealed, indeed the company had contracted a full-time waller to make good any vibration damage throughout the area (hence the manner in which the Wenners' field walls were quickly repaired). Besides, he added, the sub-contractors were given guidelines, don't vibrate within 100 metres of vulnerable buildings; and the schedule of work he showed Wenner revealed that a testing had been done on the lane right outside Laytham's, the front wall of which is only two metres from the tarmac. An open and shut case, Wenner thought.

Nearly nine years later, Martin Wenner - Christopher's brother - stands in the kitchen of Laytham's with a briefcase full of documentation.

"Our costs so far," he says, waving about a wad of papers, many of them tied with legal red ribbon, "have touched pounds 30,000. And still there is no sign of a settlement."

When you engage with a large corporation over a matter of compensation, they will more easily stand the legal costs of a long-running case than you can.

"After Mr Aspinall had been we thought that was it," says Martin. "And then he rang to say, sorry, there was nothing he could do. The matter was being taken out of his hands and put with the legal department. If we wanted compensation, we'd have to sue." And then the costs began to tick up like a taxi fare in a traffic jam: pounds 750 for an architect's report, pounds 3,500 for a structural surveyor's report, pounds 10,000 for a top-notch solicitor and pounds 5,500 for an engineering survey of the house. The survey found that "it is reasonable to conclude that the seismic survey caused damage to stone structures in the area."

"And we've had to spend money on repairing as much as we can, otherwise the house would have collapsed - although we have been forced to leave some of the damage unattended, as evidence," says Martin, standing by a crack he had just discovered hiding behind a radiator, through which a stiff breeze whistles.

There have been farcical moments in the Wenners' nine year Bleak House experience of suit and brief, such as the time the sub-contractors sought to have the case struck off on the grounds that it had not been filed within the statutory limitation period.

"It had," says Martin. "But of course a judge had to hear their case, then throw it out which inevitably caused yet more delay. We're still waiting for a date when a judgement can be reached. And the longer we wait, the more it will cost us."

Meanwhile, by a bizarre coincidence, Martin, who is an actor, landed a part in the television series Roughnecks, playing an oil company explorations executive. As a piece of extended method-acting research, this was in the De Niro class.

"I certainly knew what I was talking about," he says. "And then we had to film out on an oil platform which turned out to be owned by, yes you've guessed it, Enterprise Oil. I feel they have invaded every aspect of my life." When we contacted Enterprise about the affair, their helpful spokesman said that while the company accepted liability for the damage caused to the Wenner property during the exploration in the Hodder Valley, court proceedings were required to settle the amount of compensation due (though there has never been a written admission of liability). And as yet there was no date for such proceedings.

"If they are saying that," says Martin, in the resigned tone of one who knows the answer, "Why on earth couldn't the thing have been settled nine years ago when it would have cost about a tenth of what it will cost now?" Incidentally, during the survey of the Hodder Valley, no oil was found.