Norfolk villagers claim Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, has stolen over 3,000 acres of public common land

Locals’ uprising against the ‘Lord of the Manor’: Stately home Holkham Hall at centre of bitter row after Norfolk villagers claim its owner the Earl of Leicester ‘unfairly’ took over 3,000 acres of public land

Ryan Prosser 01 Jan 2024 –

Holkham Hall, which covers 25,000 acres, is owned by Thomas Coke, the Earl of Leicester

One of the most prestigious stately homes in the country is at the centre of a bitter legal row over the ownership of part of its vast 25,000 acre estate.

Holkham Hall, valued at more than £200 million, is on the north Norfolk coast and owned by the Earl of Leicester and the huge farming estate is run by Jake Fiennes.

But the picturesque marshes of Burnham Overy Staithe, near Brancaster, are at the centre of an extraordinarily fierce row in which villagers are challenging the power and influence of the local ‘Lord of the Manor’.

Locals claim that more than 3,000 acres of land is legally common land. They say the Earl of Leicester, of nearby Holkham Hall, has ‘unfairly’ claimed the part of the area as his own and that the land is being wrongly treated as private property.

Sailors and boat users are charged for moorings and launchings on the popular waterways and the fees are claimed by the Burnham Overy Harbour Trust which leases the land from the Holkham estate.

The eighth Earl of Leicester, Thomas Coke – an elected hereditary peer in the House of Lords, who was the Page of Honour to Queen Elizabeth II – insists the land is lawfully part of his estate.

In recent weeks, the dispute has been played out at Norwich Magistrates’ Court but the battle ended in defeat for the villagers, after a tribunal panel ruled against them. But they have vowed to continue their fight.

With average house prices of £1 million, the stretch of fashionable coast around Holkham has been dubbed Chelsea-on-Sea because of the growing number of Londoners buying up second homes or holiday lets.

The Scolt Head and District Common Rights Holders’ Association was set up forty years ago and has always argued that the land belongs to Burnham Overy Parish Council under historic Enclosure Acts that date back to the 18th century.

But the villagers say the Earl unlawfully registered the land to the Holkham estate in 2012 and has leased it to the Burnham Overy Harbour Trust which is wrongly charging people for moorings and license fees to launch boats.

Rod Cooke, secretary of the Scolt Head and District Common Rights Holders Association, accused the Holkham estate and Trust of ‘usurping from property that doesn’t belong to them’.

Common land has been taken from us and is being used as private property and there is not supposed to be any commercialisation of common land and they shouldn’t be profiting from it.

‘What they’ve done is unlawful and there’s no way common rights holders can get justice.

‘We’re perfectly happy to manage the common with everyone, but the Earl of Leicester, who calls himself the landowner, and the Trust won’t talk to us- they don’t believe we have any role in the management of the land we own.’

But Holkham estate says it successfully registered ownership of an island in Burnham Overy harbour, traditionally called the 77 Acres, with HM Land Registry between 2009 and 2015.

It denies any ownership of the Scolt Head Island nature reserve, which it says lies with the National Trust and with Natural England.

Peter Mitchell, managing director of the estate, said: ‘Ownership of the this land was challenged some four or five years after it was registered.

‘Holkham looked back into the estate records and agreed at the time the possibility that the ownership of the 77 Acres may not have been legitimately held by the previous owner, who sold a large block of land around the Burnhams to the Holkham estate in 1922.

‘If that counter argument were shown to be true, ownership would most likely have tracked from its status as unenclosed land into ownership by the parish council or the district council.’

The estate says that it has worked closely with the parish council over the last few years and that the authority came to the conclusion that they ‘neither needed to, nor wanted to, take on ownership’.

‘The Holkham estate therefore decided at that time that it should not transfer ownership to the parish council, but instead continue to take responsibility to manage this important area of natural habitat.’

The Scolt Head and District Common Rights Holders Association reported the Burnham Overy Harbour Trust to the Charity Commission thirty years ago but in 2019 the Commission said it was not going to take any action over the complaints. He said both had been ‘unlawfully contravened by the Commission and Trust’.

Mr Cooke submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Commission asking for correspondence between the regulator and the Trust.

However, it withheld some information, arguing that if it was to disclose correspondence from trustees public confidence in charities could be lost through fear of consequences.

Mr Cooke appealed, but it was this case that was dismissed at a tribunal at Norwich Magistrates’ Court in recent weeks.

‘We could take the Trust to court for trespassing on common land, but when you’re dealing with organisations with thousands of pounds we simply can’t take them on because we don’t have that sort of funding,’ Mr Cooke said.

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