A quirky tale of campaigning pensioners exposing dodgy council dealings in a quaint old English seaside resort
This is a story of two extraordinary 85 year old campaigning pensioners. For 40 years have fought their local council over a dodgy land deal in a quaint Dorset seaside town and so far literally hit a brick wall.
It is happening in the unlikely place of Lyme Regis. The family holiday town, home to numerous bed and breakfasts, and with its iconic Cobb on the marina immortalised by the famous English novelist ,John Fowles in The French Lieutenants Woman ( later as a film with Meryl Streep) is not seen as a hotbed of intrigue.
But behind the public image of Olde English teashops lies a dark story that involves questionable dealings, dubious planning applications. illegal blocking of a public eight of way, secret deals over cream teas, fake entries put into Land Registry records, information hidden by local worthies, and threats to people who tried to find out what was going on.
The characters would not be out of place in a novel or could appear in a West Country version of Last of the Summer Wine. One, Stan Williams, is deputy mayor of Lyme Regis, now 85, and one of the longest serving councillors. The other, Nigel Marsh ,also 85, is probably regarded by officialdom as a local busy body questioning local decisions. Yet the two have combined to try and solve a land deal that has been festering for 40 years and still the town council won’t come clean.
The Cliff House mudslide that made 14 people homeless
The catalyst for the scandal took place almost 60 years ago. According to a paper by Richard Bull on the history of Lyme’s sea defences in the Lyme Regis museum the local council gave permission to property developer Edward Keen to build 20 bungalows and flats on unstable land prone to mudslides above Marine Parade. He excavated 50,000 tonnes of soil.
The book says: ” On..12th February 1962, only a few days after the excavation was completed, movement was noticed, with cracking and heaving in some nearby houses. Movements continued through the evening and by 9 pm the whole slope failed. Cliff House, which was standing empty, moved 3.2m nearer the sea and was back-tilted and ruined. Sunnydene Guest House caved in, and three other houses were left at crazy angles. Other houses were extensively damaged and 14 people made homeless. Above Cliff House a large back-scar appeared at the top of the slip plane or shear, cutting Stile Lane.”
Even after this the town clerk, Harry Williams was reported in the Daily Sketch as saying, … that the development project will eventually completely stabilise … the site…and, as far as the Borough Council knew, work could continue to excavate soil from the site.” This bloody mindedness was to be repeated by successor town clerks.
The developer aborted the plan and council put in a compulsory purchase order for the land in 1964 and have created a pleasant public gardens on the site of the now demolished Cliff House.
What was saved was the gardeners cottage called Cliff Cottage which was jacked up and restored. As the Lyme Regis book says: “Cliff Cottage, which still stands …was miraculously jacked up
back to true from a drunken angle, leaning into the landslip scar, using dozens of
hydraulic car jacks and quickly concreted in after use.”
The Cadbury chocolate dynasty connection
The property had been owned by Celia Jeannette Cadbury who married into the famous Cadbury chocolate dynasty. Her husband George ran an electrical engineering business in West Bromwich. She lived in Kidderminster which suggests the property was a holiday home.
She sold the property to Kathleen Dorothy Tompkins in 1955. A splendid deed of conveyence exists in Dorchester Archives with a map of the land.
In 1980 the rebuilt property changes ownership to Marilyn Bolton, then a formidable local councillor. There is no record of the price paid in the Land Registry entry and the property transaction appears to have taken place without a plan of the land. The solicitors were a respected local firm Kitson and Trotman who are also the council’s solicitors.
It is then that a series of events happened. First an old garage next to the cottage was replaced with a tearoom and then an extended high class restaurant was built with a terrace overlooking the new public gardens. The restaurant is now managed by celebrity chef, Mark Hix – see my previous blog here.
My own investigations of what happened next revealed that this new development was carried out illegally with the council’s connivance who then tried to cover it up what had happened until it couldn’t any more – including a false declaration to the Land Registry and the illegal removal of a right of way.
Merry Bolton, now an ex councillor in her 70s, told me of a meeting with a former town clerk, Mr Robin Munday.
cream tea deal
Over a cream tea with him in 1985 she said: ” We looked at the land next to the cottage and agreed that the boundary should be a line of trees. At the time the land was a mess after the upheaval so it wasn’t clear where it was.”
His successor Mike Lewis duly registered the boundary with the land registry allowing her to encroach on the council land covered by the compulsory purchase order. He was later challenged by both Nigel Marsh and councillor Stan Williams and promised to change it but never did.
It was her two planning applications in 2006 to turn the tea room into an extended restaurant that caused the biggest stir. The tea room already obstructed a public footpath called Stiles Lane which is illegal but the new planning application encroached on to the council land. At the same time she never applied to either divert or extinguish the public right of way.
Plans for restuarant showing the encroachment on council land and the old right of way
Dorset council have confirmed to me that is the case. The told me:
“We can confirm that Footpath W2/12 from Pound Street to Marine Parade in Lyme Regis is obstructed by a number of buildings and landscaping works carried out over many years to re-profile the area following landslips and the creation of Langmoor Gardens.
“The Highway Authority has powers to enforce an obstruction of the public’s right of free passage over a public highway, but there is an alternative route, which is safer and more commodious for the public. Therefore, this is a considered to be a low priority for already stretched public funds.
“When planning permission was granted to extend the building that is currently obstructing the footpath, this did not give permission to obstruct the footpath. The applicant was advised to apply to divert the footpath by legal order and that this order must be confirmed before work commenced. We do not believe that West Dorset District Council received such an application.”
In 2009 after the restaurant had been extended the row led to the appointment by the council of a distinguished boundary demarcation expert David Powell. His report, which I have seen, came down firmly that the former councillor had encroached on council land. He suggested calling in the lawyers to sort it out.
But neither the council nor Ms Bolton agreed. She wrote to Mike Lewis on 2 November 2009 ” We are anxious as the Town Council to avoid expensive and pointless litigation, which will make both the experts and the lawyers rich, but leave the parties to the dispute the poorer”.
What followed was a rewriting of the council’s entry to the land registry to create a retrospective lease on the council land to the restaurant. But absolutely nothing was done to change the title deed of Cliff Cottage which included the council land.
In 2017 the current town clerk John Wright put in an application to do this on Marilyn Bolton’s cottage but he never proceeded.
Instead he has followed his predecessors and tried to hush matters up. This included a letter to Nigel Marsh banning him from speaking to any Lyme Regis councillor or official. I am told this is not the first time he has done this which must be legally unenforceable.
Since then he has declined to reply to my questions after telling me had no intention of doing anything about the footpath which he sees as a Dorset Council matter. The council’s lawyers have pleaded ” client confidentiality ” to any queries though they have refuted one allegation that they were working hand in hand with the ex-councillor and the council at the same time – which would lead to a complaint to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
As for the two indefatigable pensioners. Stan Williams says: ” As a kid I used to walk up that footpath to go to school every day. I don’t wish to see the restaurant run by Mark Hix demolished as a result but I do think the council and Marilyn Bolton should come clean about what happened particularly as she has benefitted financially from the deal.”
Nigel Marsh also does not want the celebrity chef caught up in this shenanigans but is determined to get a solution and not be stopped by a brick wall.