Ratty and co threatened by polo centre plan near Wind in the Willows river, campaigners say

Patrick Sawer
A new polo park in the spot which it is claimed inspired Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows may obscure view of the Chiltern Hills - COPYRIGHT : JULIAN SIMMONDS

It is one of the most evocative scenes in children’s literature, Ratty and his friends in The Wind in the Willows messing about in boats as they explore the banks and waters of the River Thames.

But plans by two Anglo-Jordanian tycoons to build an exclusive polo club will stop rats and other wildlife from reaching the stretch of river that inspired Kenneth Grahame, campaigners have warned.

They say the famous book's setting is being marred by the fencing around the controversial 307-acre riding centre.

The classic Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame Credit:  

Locals who love walking along the riverbank where Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger enjoyed their adventures fear the plans by two Anglo-Jordanian tycoons who own the land near Pangbourne could also ruin treasured views of the Chiltern Hills.

Trees planted to screen the private equestrian centre and polo grounds being built by Hussam and Mutaz Otaibi are already starting to obscure their views of the Chiltern Hills from the Thames footpath.

A tall wooden fence, behind which have been planted dozens of saplings and semi-mature trees, has already been erected along the boundary of what will become Springs Equestrian Centre.

Residents said hedgerows have been torn down, non-native trees planted and that the fencing will block the routes used by wildlife to get to and from the waters.

The riverbank where Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger enjoyed their adventures Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS

Katharine Syfret, from Pangbourne, said: “Nothing can come out of the river except birds and get through the fencing. Water rats and all sorts of things are now not going to be able to get to and from the river.”

Campaigners maintain that views of the Chilterns have already become obscured and that this will only worsen as the trees mature fully.

And to make matters worse, they say a number of traditional footpaths used by locals for hundreds of years have been blocked off by the centre’s new boundary.

Kenneth Grahame would be spinning in his grave.

John Jamieson

Since the paths do not enjoy official status as designated public footpaths landowners can fence them off at any point.

At an angry public meeting on Thursday evening villagers complained that the landscape which inspired Grahame’s book is been ruined by razor wire and fencing.

John Jamieson, a local resident, said: "Kenneth Grahame would be spinning in his grave.”

Another man, who gave his name as Don, said: "My view from where I have lived there for 40 years and that of all the other people will eventually be totally obscured [by the planted trees], which is a shame."

The Equestrian Centre is the brainchild of Hussam Otaibi, 44, who describes himself as having “a passion for horses”, and his brother Mutaz, 46, a self-declared sports and car enthusiast. Hussam is also a trustee of The Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts, one of the Prince of Wales’s charities, set up to give disadvantaged young people access to professional arts venues.

The brothers run the Floreat Group, a London-based  finance, marketing and private client management group for the super-rich.

There was controversy in 2015 when the group appointed former Employment Minister Esther McVey as a special advisor just five months after she left the Government.

She was hired to work one week a month "information gathering, performing due diligence and research" as part of its aim of attracting new clients among some of the wealthiest families in the Middle East and Europe.

Investments handled by Floreat - the Latin for ‘let flourish’ - include public and private equity, real estate and private debt, and the group boasts it has carried out £500 million worth of transactions in the last 12 months alone.

Annie Murray, said she had recently been ordered to leave the area by Springs Equestrian Centre staff and was followed out by a car.

She said: "This family need to learn how to work with this community because there has been a very strong feeling that we've come in here, we have money and we can do what we like, which is not a great attitude."

West Berkshire Council said much of the work taking place - including the fencing - is classed as ‘permitted development’ and does not require specific planning permission, as long as the materials used are deemed acceptable and the fencing no more than two metres high.

But locals have urged the council to begin negotiations with Springs Equestrian Centre to ensure ramblers and dog walkers can continue to enjoy access across the land.

A parish council report stated: “The paths which are now blocked are tracks which local people have trodden for many years, but are neither public nor permissive footpaths. We are aware that many of you may have walked paths in this area over the years, but they are not currently shown on the definitive map.”

Representatives of the Otaibi brothers have defended the development, saying it will improve the area, and that they are laying a public footpath for locals between the centre’s boundary and the Thames.

Jeff Dummett, of Springs Farm Services Ltd, said the fences had been erected to prevent damage from rabbits and deer and to "provide security from instances of fly-tipping, poaching, trespassing and to protect their private residence".

Mr Dummett said the landowners had a "well-thought" landscaping strategy, having commissioned an "extensive" landscape ecology study of the site.

"The landowners have a passion for horses and they intend to maximise this enjoyment ancillary to their own private use of the property. It is not a commercial operation, it is not a riding school, there is not third party coming here, there are no paying people coming here to use the facilities," he said.

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