A BITTER legal battle between locals and a one-time lord of the manor over a wild stretch of moorland this week ended in final defeat for the villagers in London’s High Court.
The five-year-long dispute – which turned on 360 acres of fell land at the highest point in Lancashire – pitted five residents of the village of Ireby against ex-banker, Peter Burton, and his partner, Susan Bamford, who own nearby 17th century manor house, Over Hall.
Eric and Angela Walker, Carole Scott, Edward Mills, and Christopher Balchin, challenged Mr Burton’s title over imposing Ireby Fell – which looms over Mr Burton’s house and which is registered as common land.
Although Mr Burton, 61, and his partner have respected walkers’ rights of access to Ireby Fell since taking possession, the five residents insisted he should not be recognised as its proprietor.
They took Mr Burton to court challenging both his right to the lordship of the manor of Ireby – which dates back to the Domesday Book and for which he paid just £1 – and his title to Ireby Fell.
At one point the villagers even enlisted the help of the Knights of St John to press their claims relating to the fell – which they insisted nobody owns.
The villagers’ case came before a Land Registry deputy adjudicator in August 2010 who ruled that Mr Burton, 61, cannot now style himself “Lord of the Manor of Ireby” because the title has lapsed.
But he confirmed Mr Burton and Ms Bamford as “proprietors” of the fell, noting they had spent time, money and effort on maintaining the land in good order, assuming an “active and responsible role”.
Adjudicator Simon Brilliant said it would serve “no useful purpose” to overturn Mr Burton and Ms Bamford’s title to the fell, which they had registered in 2005.
“It is far better that the fell should be owned than left in limbo,” he explained.
Although the row over Ireby Fell was prompted by a “serious conflict” between Mr Burton and some of the villagers, the adjudicator said he had formed a high opinion of both him and Mr Walker.
Mr Burton moved into Over Hall 12 years ago after retiring from the banking world, and has since poured money and effort into renovating the Jacobean manor house. The five villagers appealed the adjudicator’s decision before Deputy Judge Jeremy Cousins QC, who rejected their case in the High Court on Tuesday.
The judge said there was “ample material before the deputy adjudicator which entitled him to make the findings which he did as to (Mr Burton and Ms Bamford) having taken possession”.
“The evidence demonstrated that by no later than May 2007 they were in control and had taken possession of the fell,” he added.
Mr Burton did not challenge the adjudicator’s finding that his manorial title had lapsed, meaning that there is no longer a Lord of the Manor of Ireby.
Mr Burton is believed to be chasing the villagers for his legal fees.
Explaining his motivation, Mr Walker, 74, said outside court during the hearing: “It started off as a gentle thing, and then we got together to see what we could do, and the whole thing blossomed into full-scale litigation.” The retired nuclear industry engineer said he enjoyed walking his dogs – a springer spaniel and retired guide dog – over the disputed fell.
Mr Balchin added: “Ireby’s a lovely place, people come and see it and think they would love to live here, but they don’t know what’s been going on.”
None of the parties were in court on Tuesday to hear the ruling.