? Around mid-morning of last Tuesday we received a telephone call from
Nick Graham at Higher Fonstone Farm near Canworthy Water in North
Cornwall. He explained that a dispute with SW Water had led to a police
request to search his premises for firearms, and that he had been trying without
success to arrange for a solicitor to be present at 2 pm when a police sergeant
and two firearms officers were due to arrive. He was very concerned about
Didi who was not eating and was in no state to cope with such an intrusion into
their privacy. He asked if I would go over to provide moral support and to
act as a witness to events, which I agreed to do.
Rosie decided to
accompany me. We arrived in good time, around 1.40 pm to find Nick waiting
at the remotely-operated steel gates that have barred the farm entrance since
their traumatic FMD experience. He let us in to join Didi at the
farmhouse, where they outlined how this extraordinary situation had
developed. SW Water were working on an old water main that ran under the
road outside their farm entrance, and had informed Nick and Didi that it was
necessary to dig a trench across two of their fields adjoining the road in order
to locate and make connections to a second water pipe that lay beneath.
This would entail removal of some of the young trees that have replaced their
slaughtered livestock. Experience with MAFF/DEFRA had taught Nick and Didi
to question exactly what was going on and to deny access until they understood
A map was sent showing the claimed line of the water pipe,
but this was years out-of-date and failed to show that the roadside hedge had
been removed and rebuilt at a new position several yards further back into the
field, to improve visibility for road traffic at the nearby bend. The
water pipe almost certainly now lay on the road side of the field boundary,
beneath the wide grass verge that had been created by this change.
Heavy-handed visits and correspondence from SW Water further inflamed the
situation. A disgruntled official reported to the police that an implied
threat of firearms had been made. In fact the only gun on the farm is a
low-powered airgun owned by their son and properly used through a local shooting
club. Didi's distressed state could not cope with the situation and she
had sunk to a low ebb without eating for several days.
sergeant telephoned as we sat in the kitchen hearing all this.
Arrangements had changed and they could not arrive until later in the afternoon,
but could not commit to a time. Nick asked what would happen if he refused
voluntary access and was told that a search warrant would be obtained. I
spoke to the sergeant in an attempt to clarify the situation, pointing out that
I had been told that SW Water had since withdrawn their complaint and had
confirmed that no firearm threat was made. He was unable to discuss
details but said that even though the complaint had been withdrawn, the decision
to search the premises was out of his hands and could not now be called
off. He was concerned to keep the situation as low-key as possible and
would ring again shortly before they arrived.
We made the best of the
waiting time, enjoying a tour of the outbuildings and newly-planted woodlands
that now cover much of the farm since their decision not to restock. It
was a lovely sunny afternoon yet Didi was visibly anguished. We decided on
a plan; Rosie would drive Didi back to our home and collect their son Sam at the
end of the school day. Thankfully, Didi agreed (she suffers from
agrophobia and rarely leaves the farm). I would remain on the farm with
Nick. The police rang to announce their arrival in twenty minutes, so the
ladies drove off while Nick lit a small bonfire of rubbish for something to
do. He became uncertain of his position and rang a solicitor for advice;
this was to refuse voluntary access and ask the police to exercise their
The police rang again and were approaching the farm
entrance. It was made clear to Nick that he must not attempt to bring the
airgun to the gate, it must be left where it lay for the police to locate upon
entry. It was also made clear that neither of us must be holding anything
in our hands that could be misconstrued as we approached the gate. We
rounded the corner of a barn to approach the gate from the farm side.
Spread across the width of the lane were five officers in black anti-stab vests
with bulging pockets, one plain clothes man carrying a kit-bag, with more
officers vaguely there in the backgound behind a large white van. There
was a tense atmosphere and hands were held poised by vest pockets.
walked slowly to the gate, the full gravity of the situation began to dawn on
us. These officers were not only armed, they were mentally prepared to
We walked right to the gate and somewhat awkward greetings were
exchanged. The sergeant whom Nick had dealt with by telephone stepped
forward to request access. Nick asked if they had a search warrant and was
told that one was following in another car, to arrive in ten minutes time.
We stepped a few paces back from the gate to discuss the situation. Nick
was visibly shaking by this time (I probably was too) but he was terribly
unhappy about granting voluntary access after their experience during FMD.
We talked it through, he made his decision and we walked back to the gate
together. Nick told the police he would wait for the warrant to arrive and
would expect them to exercise their legal powers at that point. They
agreed to wait at the gate, whereupon we retired to the farmhouse kitchen
It was well over half-an-hour before the gate intercom signalled
that the warrant had arrived. For a second time, we walked empty-handed to
the gate, carefully watched by armed police. Nick was handed the search
warrant through the gate and read it slowly. I read the phrase "suspected
illegal firearm" over his shoulder. At length the sergeant requested
permission to enter and Nick agreed. The gates swung open. We were
asked to step outside the gates and were searched. The sergeant explained
that five officers would enter the premises accompanied by a sniffer dog to
search for firearms. Their names and numbers were all recorded on the
search warrant as a record. Nick told them where the airgun was located
and they disappeared from view into the house and outbuildings. We were
invited to wait inside the white van with tea and biscuits, accompanied by the
sergeant and two constables.
After a few minutes, another officer walked
down the lane and requested permission to enter the premises to assist the
search team. Nick and I looked at each other, then asked if more police
were positioned out of sight on the road. The sergeant confirmed that this
was the case, with an Inspector controlling the operation from his car.
Nick asked the two constables if any police present were armed, to which they
answered no, they were simply wearing standard issue anti-stab vests. Nick
climbed out of the van and walked round to the front, where the sergeant was
leaning on the bonnet filling in paperwork. Asked the same question, the
sergeant confirmed that the six officers we had first seen were "covertly
armed", that is, their firearms were held out of view. The constable
looked uncomfortable and explained that the search team and van had been brought
in from outside the area as a TAG team (Tactical Aid Group I think he
Time passed and I used some of it to discuss the situation with
the sergeant. He was aware of the FMD trauma that Nick and Didi had
suffered but pointed out that the original implied firearms threat was reported
not by just any member of the public, but by a responsible SW Water
official. In that context, they had a duty to take the report seriously
and to investigate throroughly, otherwise they would be held responsible should
any harm result. I pointed out that whatever inappropriate words may have
been used in the heat of the moment and allowing for Didi's state of mind, no
firearm had been produced to threaten anyone at any time, and I suggested that
this level of response was completely over the top. He replied that this
was the lowest level response possible in the circumstances, and that he had
been anxious to avoid "containment", which would involve surrounding the
premises with armed marksmen and communicating with us via
After a considerable time, the search team eventually
regrouped at the farm entrance. The team leader told Nick that the airgun
and ammunition were perfectly legal and would be left on the premises; however,
there was one item they had found that caused concern. We walked a few
yards to an open-fronted shed where a toy sten-gun was produced from the dust
and cobwebs in a corner. This was clearly home-made from a short length of
steel tube with a handle and butt welded on to give the profile of a hand-held
weapon - the sort of "gun" that any young child might play with. In all
seriousness, it was suggested that this could be misconstrued in the wrong
circumstances, and the request was made for this to be surrendered to the police
for destruction. Nick burst out laughing and signed his agreement.
The police had been polite and professional throughout the operation, and now
left the farm, the gates closing behind them. We walked back down to the
kitchen to unwind over an!
other cup of tea.
As we drank this the
telephone rang. It was a concerned neighbour who had see the police
presence up on the road. She had seen four other police vehicles, in
addition to the TAG van, and some of these additional officers were also
armed. Nick reassured her and rang off. We discussed this and
finally realised that the police had indeed come fully prepared for
"containment" - an armed seige. It seemed surreal, unbelievable, that all
this could really have arisen from the incompetence of SW Water.
back to Bridgerule to meet up with Rosie, Didi and Sam. Nick had scarcely
begun to outline the afternoon's events when Didi stopped him - she didn't want
to hear it, this was too much to cope with, they would put the farm up for sale
in the morning. Nick agreed at once. This they did the following
day, finally driven to leave their home of eighteen years.
days after the event, I can still scarcely believe that this actually
happened. But I was there, and it did happen just as described here.
I have tried to speak by telephone with the SW Water official concerned but so
far he has not returned my calls.
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