Village dispute over land charge

IT is a small strip of land just six metres wide, but it has created a caused a big dispute in a picture-postcard Suffolk village.And when Felsham's postmaster ignored the Lord of the Manor as they passed in the street, it further inflamed the delicate situation.

By John Howard

IT is a small strip of land just six metres wide, but it has created a caused a big dispute in a picture-postcard Suffolk village.

And when Felsham's postmaster ignored the Lord of the Manor as they passed in the street, it further inflamed the delicate situation.

Marian Kukula, Lord of the Manor at the picturesque village near Stowmarket, has now warned Jonathan and Suzanne Nicholls, who run the village's post office and stores, they are illegally crossing his land to get to their home and business – and he wants to make them pay for it.

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Mr and Mrs Nicholls said they were dismayed that they have been asked to pay what could amount to thousands of pounds just to go in and out of their premises.

The couple's gravelled drive in Church Road dissects a grass verge belonging to fellow villager Mr Kukula.

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The Lord of the Manor has contacted the couple through his solicitors, Birkett Long, of Halstead, telling them the use of the land is illegal and asking them for compensation.

Mr and Mrs Nicholls, who moved to their 150-year-old village home about three years ago from Felixstowe, said they believe that the dispute could cost them around £5,000.

Mr Nicholls, 48, said: "It's a lovely village, very friendly and we were welcomed by the community, and you feel that welcome is being spoiled by someone in the community, by someone who seems to think he has some power over you.

"It's a very old fashioned thing, the Lord of the Manor owning the land. You feel quite helpless. It's money we can't give him –we have put everything in to making this a going concern."

He added: "I'm really not sure what the next stage is, it's been worrying us.''

The dispute was heightened further when Mr Kukula took offence when he passed Mr Nicholls in the village.

He wrote to Mr Nicholls saying he had nodded to him "in what I thought was a civil enough manner" but claims the postmaster ignored him.

He added in the letter: "I am not prepared to take this from someone who has been in the village about five minutes and expects to get a free ride over my property."

Mr Kukula also wrote he no longer wished to contribute to Mr Nicholls' income and cancelled his order for newspaper delivery.

He also wrote to complain about Mr Nicholls visiting his house on one occasion, saying: "I do not want you on my property and most particularly, I do not want you hanging about making ridiculous faces through my window."

Mr Nicholls' neighbour Robert Eburne, a former council head of department, said he had also received a solicitor's letter about the use of the land.

But he said he does not believe he has to pay any money at all and has told Mr Kukula's solicitors so.

"I responded directly to the solicitor saying I felt he had not got a claim and I would not be paying him money," said Mr Eburne.

"From my prospective I find it a little bit odd. I have never met him, and it seems odd that someone three doors down would send me a legal letter and a follow-up personal letter, without coming to knock on my door.

"It's nonsensical that someone at the heart of the community should have this threat placed on them.''

Mr Nicholls has been researching the law and understands that the right to charge for passing over common land derives from the ancient title of Lord of the Manor, a wealthy landowner who lived in the local manor house.

After a 1993 ruling upholding these manorial rights, the titles have been changing hands quickly.

But a ruling by five Law Lords in April, villagers at Newtown Common in Hampshire successfully argued that they should not have to pay thousands of pounds for access to their property.

Mr Kukula, at his Georgian-style mansion yesterday, said he had no intention of commenting on the matter.

The Lord of the Manor, whose home behind a high brick wall is next to the village green, said: "If he (Mr Nicholls) wants to make a fool of himself, that is entirely up to him. I don't think there's a story in it.''

In a letter from his legal representatives about access to the post office and stores, Birkett Long said: "We act for Mr Kukula, of Mausoleum House, Felsham, who is the registered proprietor of land on the south side of Cockfield Road and Church Road, Lower Green, Felsham, being land subject to rights of common.

"Noting this point we have been informed by our client that you access your property across this land and we would confirm that such a right of way is illegal.

"However, under the terms of the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 and the supporting regulations, if you wish to secure a documented right of way from my client, the same is available subject to a statutory charge based on when your property was constructed.

"Compensation is calculated as a percentage value of the property that the right of way serves, and this percentage varies on the age of the property.''

It is believed Mr Kukula may have acquired his title about 20 years ago and he has lived in the village for many years.

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