Talking about property and the housing market long ago supplanted our national obsession with the weather, but I am amazed to find out how early in life this fascination with bricks and mortar begins. I happened to overhear a revealing conversation on the subject between our friend’s seven-year-old son and our own four-year-old daughter, while on holiday abroad last week. There they were by the pool, chatting about ice creams and swimming and other urgent matters, before suddenly, the conversation turned to yes property. ‘Is your house big?’ asked James out of the blue. After a long pause for thought, Alexia replied confidently: ‘Yes’.

James wanted to know exactly how big. My daughter again pondered his question carefully before replying: ‘It’s got an upstairs’. As a child brought up in a London flat until recently, she presumably regards any house with more than a single storey as impressive. Soon they moved on to discussing how many bedrooms each of their homes boasts. ‘One,’ reported Alexia. And just as I was waiting for James to ask whether she felt the country-property market had peaked, and how much she thought we had made on our house since buying it, a shout from the kitchen for lunchtime brought their exchange to a premature close.

My wife and I have had our fill of the bullies from the local planning authority over the past two years, and my heart sank soon after we got back from the holiday when she told me that, while I was out on an errand, a woman from the council had dropped by our house to inspect ‘some repairs to a shed’. The woman didn’t know which ‘shed’ or where she was supposed to be looking, but told my wife vaguely before she drove off that she would be back in a couple of months to complete the inspection. Mysteriously, she didn’t leave her name or any details of her department.

I am hoping to wrap up the restoration of our dovecote/cart shed within the next month or two, so having this sort of uncertainty dangling over our heads like Damocles’s pointy sword makes me feel very uneasy. So I asked our project manager to ring the council and find out what is worrying them. He spoke to each department in turn enforcement, building inspection, and planning but they all denied having sent an officer. Moreover, they assured him they had no concerns whatsoever about our project. ‘Call the police urgently,’ they advised.

Having been plagued by council inspectors who only caused us unnecessary trouble, it seems now we have a phantom one on our hands bent on mischief. If we succeed in completing the dovecote/cart shed conversion on schedule despite this hitch, we will soon be wondering what to tackle next. The obvious project is the piggery, an acre or so of concrete sties, sagging asbestos-clad sheds and dangerous wooden feed towers. We are not at all sure what to do with this ghastly mess, however.

So to help us with ideas, we have started a competition that all our overnight guests are obliged to enter. They must suggest a solution, no matter how crazy in fact, mundane suggestions such as converting the piggery into stables or grassing the lot over are not permitted and thus far proposals include a mushroom farm, a drive-in cinema, a roller disco and a paint-ball war zone. Could we be sitting on a gold mine?