Nothing much happens in the somnolent West Dorset hamlet of West Milton. Buried under steep hill pastures, nearly half its cottage homes are owned by Londoners who motor down in big 4x4s for the occasional weekend, get bored, work up a boundary dispute and go away again.
Its pub, the Red Lion, and village post office ceased trading decades ago. Its little church was demolished amid furious controversy in 1974. (The redundant stonework was acquired by a brewer in Bridport, five miles away, and used to build a big, pantile-roofed house known locally as the West Milton Hilton.) The dwindling population ages as gracefully as its rheumatism permits in a community known as God’s Waiting Room.
Now comes salvation, of a kind. The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday have flashed the Associated Newspapers chequebook and bought the hamlet’s Leat Cottage, Grade II-listed, snugly thatched, as a prize in its summer promotion campaign. Headlines have been trumpeting the good news. “WIN. £325,000 dream cottage. Complete with trout stream. It’s our most beautiful ever.” West Milton agreed: it was the most exciting thing to happen since old Mrs Jackman was chased by a wild boar while tending her pet donkey.
But have the promotion boys at Northcliffe House bought themselves a bit of a pig in a poke? In a “sought-after village”, where properties are snapped up within days, Leat Cottage had been on the market a year and in the hands of three separate estate agents before its London owners agreed to sell it at roughly £50,000 below the original asking price.
“We didn’t know until after the sale that the gentleman who bought it for cash was from the Daily Mail,” says Martin Bowen-Ashwin of the estate agents Humberts. “From our point of view, it was a very marketable sweet little riverside cottage, your Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall type of thing. Obviously, there are drawbacks, it being by a river. I’m sure the Daily Mail will concentrate on its upsides. To be frank, if you’re winning it for free you’re not going to complain, are you? You can always sell it on.”
This certainly seems to be the policy of Britain’s most trenchant newspaper. Its marketing launch describes Leat Cottage as having three bedrooms although most would say it has two. Other problems loom. A bright red concrete mixer on the lawn signalled the arrival the other day of a crew from UKTV Style to shoot an “inspiring” five-part make-over series – apparently without listed planning consent. Maureen Pearce, West Dorset District Council’s listed buildings officer, has now written to the organisers asking for an explanation.
Leat Cottage is also one of the noisiest, least private and gloomiest properties in the village, bounded on two sides by busy farm lanes and dominated by a sun-blocking hill that coughs up landslips after heavy rain.
At one end, a narrow road bridge is scarred by the bump and grind of agricultural lorries. On the third side, parallel to the river, a public footpath crosses a water meadow to nearby West Milton Mill where, in 1973, the Mail‘s depressed rural columnist and BBC broadcaster Kenneth Allsop shot himself. During West Dorset’s awesome winter storms, the “trout stream” becomes a boiling torrent, its yellow flood bursting across its meadows and the road below the bridge.
A couple of weeks ago, preceding UKTV and witnessed by a small group of camera-toting villagers crouched in the riverside undergrowth, an impressive cavalcade rolled into West Milton to prepare a television commercial for the newspaper group. The media people brought cameras, lights, actors playing a radiantly happy family of prizewinners, and enough flowers to fill a village hall. The gorgeous blooms, still in their pots, were transferred to the garden’s arid borders and then – to gasps from the nosies in the undergrowth – a string of plastic wisteria was pinned under the cottage’s thatched eaves.
Meanwhile, technicians stomped through the thick riverside nettle beds, swearing as they flattened a space for the trout fishing shots.
There used to be trout in the dream cottage’s waters and may still be – I caught the occasional one when I lived in the village a decade ago – but the film crew must have looked at the overgrown ditch trickling into the ponging weir pool downstream and decided to take no chances.
They brought their own, six fine specimens, from a local trout lake, and stored them close to hand in a submerged holding cage. As I left the busy little rural set, the actors playing father and son, neither of them looking particularly radiant, had been led to the river bank to shoot a triumphant fishing scene.
The boy held the rod gloomily over the water while a man in waders, crouched below the camera’s vision, hauled on the line to make the rod jiggle. So perhaps the crew didn’t need the real fish after all. And anyway, it’s only a dream, isn’t it? I wanted to ask Des Nichols, the director of promotions at Associated Newspapers, about this. I did phone him – but he was too busy to return my call.
Peter Dunn, formerly of the Sunday Times and the Independent, is a journalist based in the West Country