Think you’ve got potty neighbours? Try living next door to our lot!
A four-year row over a parking space has left the losers with a £200,000 bill. And the result’s an even colder war in the cul- de-sac
FOR MOST people, colourful plant pots, gnomes and humorous garden ornaments represent little more than a good-natured attempt to brighten up a drab patio.
But bricklayer Grant Shortland and his shop assistant partner Melanie Heritage will forever see the bare backside of a mooning gnome as something altogether more troubling – an enemy weapon in a destructive four- year battle with their next-door neighbours.
It is a battle that cost them their health, their reputation and almost their sanity and has left them living Somerset’s version of the Cold War.
For them, the cheeky trouserless gnome and ornaments such as a 2ft wooden mushroom were part of a four-year campaign of harassment – thanks to an extraordinary dispute over a shared yard and driveway, which resulted in hundreds of police calls, emails and visits to their Somerset home, a baseless accusation of assault against Melanie and, for Grant, DNA swabs and imprisonment in a police cell.
At one point, the police even installed CCTV in the disputed yard in an attempt to quell the warfare.
It is some comfort, of course, that last week a High Court judge ruled in their favour, concluding that their neighbours, middle-class Christopher and Susan Hill, had deliberately placed the ornaments and pot plants, a barbecue, children’s toys and a table and chairs to cause ‘maximum inconvenience’. And it is a huge relief that it is the Hills who have been landed with the legal bill, estimated at up to £200,000.
But whatever brief satisfaction they might derive from the judgment, it is as nothing to the fear that the misery of the past four years now threatens to become a waking nightmare, as victor and vanquished are forced to continue living cheek by jowl. Neither side, after all, shows any sign of selling up.
‘We still look down at the floor whenever we see them in the yard,’ says Melanie. ‘Crossing it is extremely difficult. It’s very much a no-man’s land. At the moment, we would be fearful of entering into any conversations with them for fear of reprisals. It will be a silent to-ing and fro-ing from now on, but even that’s a step up for us.
‘ We may just about be able to acknowledge their existence in years to come, but there will always be a bitter taste between us. Would we ever be civil again? Never say never but I think that for them it would be like trying to swim the Atlantic. It’s a long way back, isn’t it?’
It’s certainly not hard to see the problem. Even when The Mail on Sunday paid a visit to the battle of the pot plants last week, someone came to the Hills’ door and stared at us whenever we ventured out into the yard.
So how did Britain’s most toxic (and some would say petty) neighbourhood feud become so catastrophic for all involved? Grant Shortland could have had no inkling of the heartache and stress he was to suffer back in 2006 when he bought a ‘wreck’ above a boutique in Wincanton’s high street.
Access to the property was from the rear, with an agreed right of way across a gravel yard belonging to the neighbouring house – which the Hills bought in 2009. At first the couples were friendly but relations started cooling in May 2013 after Grant had agreed to the building of outer and inner gates on the yard to keep the Hills’ young daughter safe.
He became frustrated by the couple’s insistence on closing them even when their daughter wasn’t outside – which meant Grant and Melanie were obstructed whenever they tried to reach their own front door.
‘They used the inner gate like an Iron Curtain,’ Grant says.
‘I think Mr Hill would have liked us to have our passports stamped every time we went through.’
Grant says the Hills also began to leave ‘obstacles’ all over the yard, where he parked the car, meaning he had to move them every time he wanted to drive out. ‘The pots plants were four rows deep at one stage,’ Grant says. ‘They looked like guards standing to attention.’
After his requests for the obstacles to be removed were ignored, Grant posted a letter through the Hills’ door, whereupon things became a great deal more serious.
‘Two hours afterwards, there was a knock at my door from a police officer,’ Grant says. ‘ I was told I wasn’t to talk to Mr or Mrs Hill again. Any correspondence was to be done through solicitors.’
From that moment, Grant and Melanie say t hat whatever t hey did resulted in texts, emails, calls and visits from the police. As a result, they began filming themselves on their mobile phones every time they left their home as evidence.
‘We would go out with our heads down, open the gates, move the pots, drive out and then put the pots back and close the gates. It was taking us 10 minutes. Imagine living with that for four years?’
‘It’s like you’re trapped within your own home,’ Melanie, 54, adds.
When it rained, puddles appeared in the yard, forcing the couple to walk up the Hills’ path. ‘But then Mr Hill would put stuff on the path. You have to negotiate them or move them, but, if you move them, then you can be accused of criminal damage.’
One frequent offender was a gnome in the act of pulling down his trousers. But the worst was a carved wooden mushroom, which Grant and
‘Grant was arrested – for drilling a hole’
Melanie were accused of damaging. ‘It would be laughable if it wasn’t so upsetting. We had to take photos of this mushroom, where it was in position and where bits had been taken off,’ Melanie says. Grant says the situation became so fraught that he and Melanie took to emailing their police liaison officer before leaving the house.
‘I’d say, “I’m going to move the table in 15 minutes because I’m going out”. He would email back and say “thanks for letting me know”.’ Then, in August 2014, Grant was arrested – for drilling a hole. As he explains, the outer gate had started to swing shut, so he decided to put a screw and hook into a wall of another neighbouring property – not the Hills’ – to secure it.
‘I cleared it with the person who owned the wall. I drilled a hole and put the hook in,’ Grant says.
‘When I came back in the evening, i t was removed and t he hole cemented up. Next morning, I redrilled the hole. This happened every day for a week.’
On the Friday, PC Katie Maun came to his door and arrested him. Grant was hauled off to the station and thrown in a cell after having his fingerprints and DNA taken. ‘They locked the cell door, as if I was a criminal,’ Grant says.
‘The WPC said: “Why have you been fixing screws to Mr and Mrs Hill’s wall?” I told her it wasn’t their wall. Her face dropped.’
Grant was eventually released without charge. Following a subsequent internal police investigation, he was issued with a grovelling apology. There was plenty more to come – such as the time Mr Hill accused Melanie of assault and harassment at the Co-op supermarket where she worked.
‘Mr Hill literally picked up a loaf of bread, paid and left. It was on CCTV,’ Melanie recalls. ‘The next day, my manager called to say Mr Hill had reported that I had barged into him on several occasions and verbally abused him and that he was going to the police.’
The following day, Grant was accused of driving at Mr Hill. ‘Again, Mr Hill was told not to exag- gerate by police,’ Grant says. He adds that he feels the police were biased against him because he is a burly, s haven- headed manual worker and his accusers are middle-class professionals.
‘The Hills are teachers. We’re a bricklayer and a shop worker,’ he says. ‘Their house is lovely. Ours is not. I’m an oversize man and, well, a business partner of mine used to say to people, “You need to go and find Grant, he’s the one who looks aggressive.” But I’m not. I sob at soppy movies. But the police viewed us as the problem and acted like the Hills’ private army, sent to harass us at all hours for complaints as ridiculous as moving their wheelie bin.’
They say the stress of the last four years has been immense. ‘I used to be a lot thinner,’ Grant says. ‘We’ve both piled weight on from comfort eating. The Hills appear extremely nice, pleasant and almost overly agreeable. But any reasonable person would say they’re bloody potty.’
‘There’s a part of me that feels very sorry for the Hills because we’re human beings,’ he adds.
Not that the Hills quite see it like that, of course. Science teacher Christopher, 42, and dance teacher Susan, 37, told The Mail on Sunday that they do not wish to engage in a ‘slanging match’. They did, however, say the case had taken a terrible toll on them and on their eight-year-old daughter.
They said that Grant and Melanie often called the police themselves and that their car was often parked where it shouldn’t have been.
There is just one thing on which both sides of the wall agree, and that is the uselessness of the police, who spent countless hours ringing, writing, emailing and visiting both sides of the dispute – more than 200 ‘interventions’ – without a single crime having been committed.
In his ruling, judge Paul Matthews suggested the Hills had been attempting to boost the value of their home by getting rid of the right of way across the land, commenting that Mr Hill had a ‘strong sense of entitlement’.
Avon and Somerset Constabulary said they were unable to comment.
The court ruling means the Hills must permit Grant to drive across the yard and now have to ask Grant and Melanie’s permission before putting any pots out, though the judge said he hoped Grant would be magnanimous.
‘It would be a shame if the yard were suddenly to become devoid of colour and of life,’ said the judge. ‘But it is a matter for him.’
‘The police acted like the Hills’ private army’
FOUR-YEAR ORDEAL: Bricklayer Grant Shortland and his partner Melanie
COURT RULING: The neighbours, teachers Christopher and Susan Hill, and (left) the disputed yard area