Battle of the Hay Bales: ANTONIA HOYLE investigates neighbours at war
Battle of the Hay Bales: The oh-so British story of neighbours at war… on one side a stately homeowner who claims his trees have been chopped down. On the other a frail pensioner whose view he’s blocked with hay bales
- Maxine Turner’s, 78, view from her Norfolk bungalow is blocked by a hay wall
- Her son John, 50, said millionaire neighbour Stephen Bett, 69, acted out of ‘spite’
- ‘Mr Turner has no right to a view,’ the former Tory police commissioner said
- Mr Bett accused Mr Turner of chopping down his tall conifers – which he denies
Maxine Turner’s three-bedroom bungalow on a quiet cul-de-sac in Norfolk is a modest 1960s build, her cream, ceramic-tiled floor and blue, floral sofa unlikely to win any interior design awards.
What marks, or rather marked, the property as special is — was — the view.
It backs on to the 2,000-acre estate of her millionaire neighbour, Stephen Bett, and for the past 38 years Maxine enjoyed her morning cup of lemon tea watching the sight of hares and horses capering across the glorious parkland meadow at the bottom of her garden.
Not any more, however. Now, the frail 78-year-old widow, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and a degenerative eye condition, is treated not to a panoramic vista through her French windows, but the ugly sight of 37 hay bales, stacked 8 ft tall in front of her back garden and stretching 60 ft across almost its entire width.
‘The house is all about the view, that was a pleasure to my mother,’ says Maxine Turner’s (right) son, John Turner (left), 50, who acts as his mother’s live-in carer during the week
The view of bales that can be seen from Maxine Turners garden in Thornham Norfolk
‘To put those hay bales there was an act of spite,’ Mr Turner added
John Turner (left) who lives with his mother Maxine Turner, 78, as her carer, said she has been deprived of the view she previously had of the horses in wealthy landowner and former Norfolk Police and Crime Commissioner Stephen Bett’s (right) parkland meadow in front of his 18th century mansion
The gargantuan barricade marks the latest instalment in a neighbourhood squabble that to outsiders may seem farcical, but for those on opposing sides of the hay-bale wall, feelings are very real and raw.
‘The house is all about the view, that was a pleasure to my mother,’ says Maxine’s son, John, 50, who acts as his mother’s live-in carer during the week. ‘To put those hay bales there was an act of spite.’
From the other side of the haystack, Stephen Bett, a former Conservative councillor and Norfolk’s Police and Crime Commissioner from 2012 to 2016, is resolute.
‘Mr Turner has no right to a view,’ he says. ‘It’s on our property. He thinks he is entitled to a view, but he is not. To be honest, I don’t particularly want to see these people in their gardens, barbecuing and putting their washing out. Why should I have to look at what they are doing? Their privacy doesn’t seem to interest them — but I prefer my own privacy.’
What’s central to this argument is not the gigantic hay bales, but rather a row of conifers, which mysteriously vanished last month in an act of village vandalism.
Around three years ago, Stephen, a 69-year-old married father of three, planted a row of conifers along six of the properties that border the family’s estate in the genteel village of Thornham.
A satellite image showing the location of Mr Bett’s Norfolk estate and home, Thornham Hall, and the location of his elderly neighbour Maxine Turner’s bungalow – which has had the view of his ‘hundreds of acres of meadows’ blocked by the hay wall
Now, the frail 78-year-old widow Mrs Turner (right), who suffers from multiple sclerosis and a degenerative eye condition, is treated not to a panoramic vista through her French windows, but the ugly sight of 37 hay bales, stacked 8 ft tall in front of her back garden and stretching 60 ft across almost its entire width
‘Mr Turner (pictured) has no right to a view,’ Mr Bett says. ‘It’s on our property. He thinks he is entitled to a view, but he is not. To be honest, I don’t particularly want to see these people in their gardens, barbecuing and putting their washing out. Why should I have to look at what they are doing? Their privacy doesn’t seem to interest them — but I prefer my own privacy’
The saplings grew into 10 ft-tall trees, and his mission was accomplished — his privacy was established. Until last month, that is, when the conifers across Maxine’s border, her two adjacent neighbours’ properties and part of the two neighbours’ borders next to them, were mysteriously hacked down overnight. The culprit left no clues and the police told Bett they were powerless to investigate.
If Stephen believed John or his mother responsible, he did not say so. What he did do, however, was stack two rows of hay bales vertically, slap bang in front of Maxine’s home — and only Maxine’s home.
An infuriated John, who fiercely denies cutting Bett’s trees down, pushed the top row of bales over in a temper. Not to be outdone, Stephen used a digger to manoeuvre the bales back, but horizontally, so that they cannot be moved.
And so the story of the wealthy landowner, his hay bales, and the blocked view began to make headlines as far afield as Australia.
While Stephen has the law on his side, and his conifers are clearly victims of a crime, many believe his behaviour petulant and his response disproportionate, while others are asking: who on earth did cut down those trees?
John, a part-time gardener, swears blind that, although he was annoyed the conifers obscured his mother’s view, he didn’t sneak out in the dark to hack them down. ‘I’ve never broken the law. I didn’t cut down his trees. I’m not that sort of person,’ he says. He insists he is a ‘fragile’ man who suffered a breakdown after his father Frank died of Covid in January last year, aged 89, and whose depression has returned as a result of the unedifying saga.
‘I’m upset for my mother more than myself. I’m a bundle of nerves. I was in Tesco thinking ‘These people are looking at me and judging me.’ This morning I was in tears mowing the lawn.’
Talking in Maxine’s living room, the hay bales backlighting his head are a constant reminder of the war waging between him and the upper-crust neighbour over the field.
When Maxine and Frank bought their bungalow in 1984, Bett’s 18th-century mansion was owned by Stephen’s father, Henry, and when the couple asked him, a few years later, if they could replace the 4 ft-high hawthorn hedge that bordered their land with a 2 ft box hedge, Maxine, diagnosed with MS in her 20s, says Henry agreed. ‘He said, ‘Yes, you’ve got a lovely view – why not enjoy it?’ ‘ she recalls.
As years passed, the families shared a camaraderie that continued after Stephen took over the estate when his father died, around the year 2000.
As a little boy, Stephen’s son, Henry, who’s now 33 and works for the Betts’ arable farming business, would play with Maxine’s mobility scooter in her garden and Maxine, a retired secretary, sat on the parish council with Stephen.
Stephen is not new to controversy. In 2013 he was found to have claimed expenses of £3,000 for driving between his home and his work HQ in Wymondham while Police and Crime Commissioner. He said he had done nothing wrong but would return the money so as not to ‘tarnish the reputation of policing in Norfolk’.
Nonetheless, says John, ‘we always got on, until the conifers went in’. Maxine says the arrival of a gardener to plant the 18 in saplings around 15 ft back from her box hedge came ‘completely out of the blue’, while John, who lives with his partner of ten years in nearby Docking, understands better than most that conifers are perfect hedge fodder because they grow so rapidly.
The Betts’ decision to block off their land is especially bewildering given that their home, around 50 yards away, doesn’t face their neighbours’ gardens and their only risk of witnessing the Turners’ washing would occur from the drive that cuts through their meadow. In any case, Maxine insists she prefers to dry her laundry on a rail inside.
It wasn’t as if Maxine could pry on Stephen’s domestic shenanigans either — to get a glimpse of his mansion she would have to crane her neck from the corner of her garden. John says residents in all six houses whose views stood to be obscured by the conifers were upset. Quite how upset is hard to verify.
One neighbour John asks to speak to me while I’m visiting, declines to get involved, while another, who drops by with a lavender plant for Maxine, is also reluctant to join our conversation.
Maxine says she wrote a letter to Stephen on behalf of everyone impacted to request the conifers were taken out. ‘He said they are staying,’ she recalls.
A neighbour apparently consulted the council. When a boundary hedge reaches 6.5 ft, councils can invoke high hedges legislation to request the owner cuts it back, but the conifers were set too far back from their garden to qualify.
‘It was upsetting to see someone deliberately obscure a view and it was slowly disappearing,’ concedes John, not least because Maxine — diagnosed with macular degeneration in 1999, only had a finite amount of time to enjoy it.
At 7am on the morning of July 2, Maxine looked out the French windows, and noticed the conifers were gone. ‘Mother said, ‘John, the trees!’ ‘ he recalls. One of his neighbours, he adds, laughed and said ‘Wahey!’
Then the whodunit started. The neighbour in question asked John outright if he did it. Although he thinks he accepted his denial, he realised everyone would assume it was him. ‘I’m the youngest. I’m the one that’s capable. It looks like me because it was in front of my house.’
Indeed. Yet John is so obviously the prime suspect that, as he says: ‘If I was to have done it, I’d be a complete idiot. But then you’ll say that’s a double bluff.’
He insists he wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to have cut 95 trees down in the dead of night without his chainsaw, that was kept at his own home, and neither Maxine nor John, both sleeping at the house, heard a thing.
‘I’m sure someone would have heard, unless they were out there all night with a saw — that’s what we surmised,’ says John. So who does he think is the culprit?
‘I don’t know,’ he says, refusing to blame either neighbour. ‘Someone who doesn’t like Stephen? Or someone who doesn’t like me.’
The view of hay bale wall that can be seen from Maxine Turner’s garden in Thornham, Norfolk
‘He [Mr Bett] has only placed the bales outside my mother’s home and not any of the other neighbour’s houses because he wanted to upset us,’ Mr Turner (pictured) claimed
‘She has lived here for 40 years and has never seen anything like it. Until now the bales always used to be somewhere else on his land,’ said John Turner
He looks me straight in the eye as he speaks and I think that he is either one of the most audacious liars I have ever encountered, or he has been set up by someone, for reasons that are unclear.
Stephen, who was on holiday at the time, alerted the police, who said unless he could prove who did it, there was nothing they could do. One can certainly understand his frustration, if not the scale of his response.
A week later, Maxine was home alone when she saw the 37 hay bales that had been kept elsewhere on the Betts’ land had been moved in front of her home. When John saw the sheer size of the blockade, he got angry.
‘I felt it was personal. My mother was being attacked,’ recalls John. He admits he flew into a ‘fit of rage,’ and hammered on Stephen’s front door to confront him, but was greeted by the housekeeper.
Stephen, still on holiday, later said that John was ‘extremely abusive and intimidating to a young lady working for us who had no idea what he was talking about. My son found her in floods of tears and all the doors locked in the house because of his actions’.
John denies intimidating her, but admits it wasn’t his finest hour.
‘I lost my temper. There was a lot of swearing. I apologised and said I was very upset.’
He then stormed back across the meadow and pushed over the bales on the top row — each weighing around 600 lb. Maxine, watching from her sofa, was amazed he had the strength.
The Betts called the police, who arrived shortly afterwards, but let John go with a telling off.
A week later, when John was out, a digger arrived to restack the bales — this time horizontally, so, while 3 ft lower (now 8 ft), they were sturdier and impossible to dismantle.
Shortly afterwards, John bumped into Stephen in the village shop.
‘I went up to him and asked, “Why are you being so nasty?” ‘ he recalls.
‘I said, “We’ve always been nice to you, and then you do this to my mother.” He said he was fed up with our washing and our barbecues. I said we don’t hang washing outside and we don’t have barbecues.
‘He said, “Yes you do.” He said 95 of his trees had been cut down. I said if it were me, I’d have cut the lot, and I’d have done it years ago. But I’m not that sort of person so I didn’t. I said I was fed up. He said he was fed up. Then I walked off.’
Two days later, John received a letter from Stephen, acknowledging their ‘neighbour dispute’ and adding: ‘I believe you were thinking of selling your mother’s house in due course. You will no doubt inform the selling agents of this issue as such things are disclosable by law when it comes to selling a house these days.’
Stephen has said he meant no malice by the letter, and was just ‘stating a fact’, while John, who has no plans to move, says: ‘I took that as a threat.’
Depressed, his sadness was compounded by the knowledge that his mother’s sight is declining rapidly, and this might have been the last summer she could have enjoyed her glorious views.
He has, however, undertaken a final act of rebellion: he’s had three barbecues in his mother’s back garden. “We never had barbecues before, but I bought three disposables to say, ‘OK then, maybe we do.” ‘
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