The price of rural tranquillity was set at almost £1m by a high court judge yesterday for a couple who complained that their lives had been ruined by RAF Harrier jets screaming over their 17th century manor house. Farmer Darby Dennis and his wife Catherine painted a picture of cowering dogs, terrified children bursting into tears, and daily life left in tatters by the racket.
The couple complained that £7m had been wiped off the value of Walcot Hall, a Grade 1-listed limestone mansion set in more than 1,000 acres of Cambridgeshire countryside. They were awarded £950,000. They also argued that they have been unable to pursue the customary fundraising activities of a stately home, such as holding shooting parties and hiring out the hall for film and fashion shoots.
The judge, Mr Justice Buckley, agreed that the noise was something "no one should be called upon to endure" after the couple said it was impossible to hold a conversation, talk on the phone or do the gardening while flying was in progress.
But life at Walcot Hall, near Stamford, will be no quieter for the Dennis family in future as the judge also ruled that the RAF must be allowed to go on flying.
There has been an airfield at Wittering, two miles from Walcott Hall, since the first world war but the first Harriers arrived in 1969. The base was redeveloped and is now a purpose-built operating and training base for the vertical takeoff fighter jet.
Mr Dennis, 51, moved to Walcot Hall as a boy when his father bought the estate in 1963. The judge said the hall, which was built in 1678 and is attributed to John Webb, was a beautiful building.
The couple first complained about the Harriers in 1985, launching legal action in 1996 after what their solicitor claimed was 11 years "battling against the Ministry of Defence, who have done precisely nothing about it".
The noisiest exercise from the couple's point of view was an "emergency circuit", when pilots come in to make a slow landing and fly almost directly over the house. "It is only the singular beauty of Walcot Hall and its immediate surroundings, and the fact that Mr Dennis was brought up there, and his hopes for the future of the estate, that has enabled the family to endure it," the judge said.
In the first legal challenge to the RAF over noise nuisance, the couple were seeking not just compensation but also a declaration of unlawfulness, which would have put an end to the flying.
But while they deserved compensation, the judge said the public interest demanded RAF Wittering should continue "the serious matter of training pilots to fly extremely expensive aircraft in combat, as safely as possible". However, the judge warned that the MoD might have to think again about plans to fly a new generation of aircraft, said to be twice as noisy as the Harrier, from RAF Wittering.
"The argument that such a level of noise, which would cross the threshold of potential damage to hearing, should not be inflicted on residents anywhere, would be strong.
"To put it bluntly, the MoD would be well advised to train pilots for the future carrier-borne aircraft in wide open spaces the USA can provide, or reconsider location of training fields here."
Afterwards, the couple said they were "delighted" with the ruling, though it fell short of the £10m compensation they had been claiming. Mr Dennis hoped his rural idyll would be restored when the Harrier is phased out in 2012. "Maybe after a few more years of Harriers, we will have some relative peace and quiet."
The couple, whose three children are now 19, 17 and 15, said visiting children had sometimes been reduced to tears of fright by the noise. Extracts from the diary of the couple's PA, Eileen Richardson, were presented in court as evidence. One read: "Dogs cower when out with CD (Catherine Dennis): Harriers extremely noisy all day . . . 3.35pm Harrier over - extremely low - very frightening."
Although the judge described the couple's plight as extreme and said he believed the case was unlikely to prompt further legal actions, the ruling was welcomed by noise abatement campaigners. John Stewart, of Hacan ClearSkies, said: "I think it opens the way for people to take up such issues, not only regarding the MoD, but also over civilian aircraft . . . It does suggest to me that for the first time people could challenge in court with some chance of success."
The couple were awarded their costs and both sides were given permission to appeal, the MoD on liability and the Dennis family on the amount of damages.
The couple's solicitor, Richard Buxton, said: "This is a real legal breakthrough. It shows people do not just have to put up with government doing what it likes."
An MoD spokeswoman said: "The performance of our Harrier pilots in the Gulf is a testimony to the excellence of the essential training they receive at RAF Wittering.
"We regret the disturbance to the Dennis family and to local residents by flying at Wittering and we will continue trying to minimise disturbance so long as the effectiveness of training is not compromised."