Country houses for sale

Sandy Mitchell: The demise of the planning officer

Sports Day at my children’s primary school was thrilling enough, what with the photo finish in the four-year-olds’ skipping race, but it was the breaking local news that made my day. I heard the scoop as I walked past a knot of school mothers after the big race, and one of them mentioned a familiar name horribly familiar. ‘He’s been sacked,’ said the woman, wide-eyed.

‘Sacked? You’re sure?’ responded an older lady, bringing her hands to her face with a gasp of delight. They were talking about the local planning officer, the very one who sent me a letter out of the blue during our restoration of the manor last year, to tell me the council was bringing criminal proceedings against me. Something to do with listed-building regulations. (After I had consulted lawyers and spent anxious days drafting a response with the help of our architect and then, after sending our response, waited weeks in vain for a reply from the planner, I finally discovered that he had sent his bombshell letter in error.)

Such is the power of the planners to make our lives a misery and each of the playground mothers had a tale of woe to tell that I won’t be surprised if tonight in the village I see an effigy of this grisly Robespierre burning on bonfires, and figures stripped naked to the waist dancing in the light of the flames. The Terror is at an end. Hurrah!

There is another cause for celebration. The work to restore and convert our chart shed/dovecote next to the main house is coming on wonderfully. The horrible concrete roof tiles have been ripped away, new foundations laid, and all the rotten-plank cladding torn from the outside walls. From here on, the building should start to look better with every passing day. And seeing our cheerful carpenters strip the building bit by bit so that now only a bare lattice of beautiful old oak beams and rafters remain has been like watching that scene in the film Witness, where the Amish stride into the fields with their hammers and saws to raise a barn only this time in reverse.

Our builders must never get wind of this, but I am enjoying the cart-shed project so much that I secretly want them to slow right down and stay working here for months and months. All in all, Champagne corks would be popping here if it were not for the ha-ha and its steady collapse. We thought we could save oodles of money by fixing a special plastic honeycomb held in place with long iron pins against the sheer earth bank, instead of building a solid retaining wall.

But now the plastic is sagging between the pins and we are wondering what to do. Hammer in twice as many pins? Fix a Hessian carpet against the face of the ha-ha, and seed it with grass? Or, as someone suggested on site this week, do what highway engineers do on motorway embankments and spray on grass seed mixed with liquid adhesive and hope that will stick the whole lot together.

I fear that Gordon, the Scotsman helping us create a garden, was right when he took one look at the ha-ha today and gave his dour verdict: ‘Just build a wall.