Giving chase

James Prior

In North Dorset there is a corner of England known as Crichel Down. It was acquired in 1938 by the RAF as a bombing range. Little did anyone believe that this rabbit-infested sheep run would become a political cause célèbre. In 1938 the down had little value, and it took a war, and a revolution in agricultural practice, for the land, and many thousands of acres like it, to become the productive farms of today. After the war, in 1948, the range was no longer required. Having been gradually cleared of unexploded bombs, it was handed back in 1950 to the Ministry of Agriculture, who began to farm it seriously – and, with rationing still very tight, there was a full throttle for maximum production. The Ministry of Agriculture decided that the land – about 700 acres in all – should form a new farm, and began immediately to prepare a scheme for a farmhouse, cottages and buildings. Naturally, enquiries were made by local farmers, seeking a tenancy or to purchase the land. Although, as early as March 1950, an enquiry had been made by the Marten family, who owned the Crichel Estate and were former owners of about half the land, it was over two years later, and after a change of government, that they demanded the right as former owners to re-purchase the land. Thus was the scene set for one of the most intriguing and one of the serious rows of the first postwar Conservative Government.

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[*] The Mystery of Crichel Down by I.F. Nicolson, Oxford, 298 pp., £30, 13 November 1986, 0 19 827492 0.