Friday, 03 December 2021

Car park for churchgoers created in estate copse

Car park for churchgoers created in estate copse

AN estate owner is turning a copse on his land into a car park for worshippers at the neighbouring church.

Ian Wason, who bought Harpsden Court with his wife Gigi two years ago, has felled scores of trees and levelled the ground at the 0.8-hectare plot, off Harpsden Way, which he says was overgrown.

This will allow it to be used by people attending the Sunday morning service at St Margaret’s Church opposite the estate.

The car park will be able to accommodate about 30 cars in dry and warm weather.

Mr Wason, who attends services with his wife and children Clementine, seven, Josephine, five, and Madeline, two, says this should stop members of the congregation parking on the verges, which causes “chaos”.

He says that currently people walking through the village have to step into the road to get around parked vehicles.

The parking area, a natural clearing which had become overrun with brambles, won’t have an artificial surface so doesn’t need planning permission and will be reseeded with grass and wildflowers when it next rains.

It will be closed and gated when not in use but could also be used as an overflow facility for film and television shoots held at Harpsden Court. A recent film shoot involved more than 20 vehicles.

Mr Wason, a company director who grew up in Medmenham, says the church has been asking him for parking space since he and his wife bought the estate and 13th-century house, which is Grade II* listed.

He has also cut down trees which were overhanging the public footpath on the verge nearest the copse, which had forced pedestrians into the road.

Earlier this year, several residents complained to the Forestry Commission as they believed he was felling trees illegally and destroying a habitat for owls, badgers, deer and other species.

But following a site visit, a commission officer said he was doing nothing wrong and there were no preservation orders in place and that the work would have benefits in the long term.

Mr Wason says the copse was overgrown with sycamores, which spread quickly through self-seeding. These were stopping other trees such as oaks, cherries and beech as well as bluebells, snowdrops and daffodils from flourishing.

He has planted 1,000 new saplings including hornbeam, dog-rose and hazel plus 200m of hedgerow along a new fence which marks out the public footpath so it should look less bare in years to come. He also plans to plant 100 larger trees.

He has carried out much of the work himself, hiring contractors only for the more complex tasks.

He also cleared 30 tons of waste, including an old boiler, parts of an old tractor, scrap metal and piles of gravel and building rubble.

Mr Wason, who is a Conservative councillor in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is also restoring the main house and grounds, including the old walled garden. When the coronavirus pandemic is over, he hopes to open the grounds to the public on occasions. Harpsden Court used to host the village fete.

Mr Wason said: “After two years of blood, sweat, tears and money restoring Harpsden Court back to its former glory as a family home, I seemed to have inadvertently kicked a hornets’ nest on this.

“In terms of my straw poll of public opinion locally, most people think I should get a medal but it seems a few have a differing view.

“The Forestry Commission think I’ve done a marvellous job and suggested waiting to see how much light gets through to the ground before carrying out careful and selective thinning.

“I wasn’t there when they visited and was surprised to hear I’d been reported but they agreed the work was all part of forestry management.

“It’s slightly annoying that the complainant couldn’t just pick up the phone as they know we’re here and I’m very happy to discuss anybody’s concerns.

“Before the work started, nobody could walk along that footpath because it was so overgrown and there were so many cars on Sunday mornings.

“I was worried about our liabilities and, more importantly, didn’t want anybody to get hurt.”

Mr Wason says the estate is his family’s “forever home” after returning to Britain from South Africa and they want to be a part of the community.

He said: “It’s a dream come true to own such a beautiful property and we feel very lucky.

“It’s not like we’re some wealthy outsider who has bought the place and then hidden themselves away — we are very much part of this community, as it should be.

“I plan on being carried out of Harpsden Court feet first and have no intention of doing anything negative to the environment.”

Kester George, chairman of Harpsden Parish Council, said: “I understand what Ian is trying to accomplish and think he and his wife have done an excellent job of restoring the estate, which I’ve been hugely supportive of, but I do very much regret the current impact on the copse.

“It is a much-loved feature of the village and I hope that it is only temporary and that within, say, five years it will be back to the woodland it was, if not better.

“There are some potential advantages to what he has done but some in the village are very sad at the disappearance of the trees.

“We are in discussions and he knows I’m sorry that he felt this was necessary.”

Rev Robert Thewsey, rector of Harpsden, Shiplake and Dunsden, said there had been concerns about parking on verges for some time because drivers often speeded up past the church.

He said: “We had been talking about converting part of the graveyard into a parking area but were advised that would affect the historic fabric of the church so it wasn’t an option.

“We’ve had ‘slow’ signs out ever since.

“Ian’s gesture is incredibly helpful as it makes things far safer for parishioners.

“We did drop a small hint when the family first moved in and they’ve always been supportive of us.”

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