I am not a farmer or a landowner but the Foot and Mouth outbreak here in Devon affected my family and me more than most.
How many farmers had less than 24 hours to vacate their homes; possibly never to return? How many landowners gave their children an hour to pack one small cardboard box of toys before being forced to leave their homes like World War II refugees?
The hell that my wife, children and I had to endure can only be imagined. The misery was down solely to the arrogance, rudeness, thoughtlessness and sheer bullying of one organisation - MAFF.
On the evening of 5th April a representative of the MOD phoned me and asked if I would be available the following morning to speak to regarding some roadworks on the lane that runs outside our house. This, needless to say, seemed strange so I contacted some of my neighbours who joined my wife and me at our house the following day.
As we sat in our sitting room we were told that: MAFF and the MOD were to tarmac 'our private' lane for a distance of approximately 600 metres, from right through a field gate to an area of 100 acres which was culm grass, tarmac the huge portion of that 100 acres, dig 18 burial pits each the size of a football pitch, slaughter animals on site and then bury up to 400,000 animals there. These animals would be transported to the Ash Moor burial site in upwards of 10,000 lorries, each passing within 6 ft of our front door. The MOD Officer strongly advised us to leave as soon as possible as life would not be "worth living" and that work would start the next morning - less than 24 hours hence.
In a direct line these pits were to be and three are within 200 metres of our house. All this information given to us in such an unexpected manner was met by stunned silence. I am an ex-Metropolitan Police Officer; it takes a lot to upset me. In the room with me was an ex-Army Officer who has spent many years in Northern Ireland, two farmers, a nurse and a couple more of our neighbours - not a group of people to be easily shocked but we were.
The Army Officer (who through the next few weeks of upset and mayhem we were forced to endure was the only honourable person we dealt with) did not know the lane that it was intended to tarmac was private. He organised at our request a Public Meeting the following morning - the 7th - at Petrockstowe Village Hall.
At the meeting attended by many hundreds of people and media I tried to speak on three occasions but burst into tears of sadness, frustration, helplessness and anger each time.
After the meeting I had an appointment at our house with a surveyor. He told me point blank that our 130-year-old lodge house would not stand the vibration of 10,000 lorries and that was always hoping that one did not hit the house. The house would not be habitable again - ever. Once this ill-conceived, panic driven, dangerous experiment was revealed to the general public in all its horror a tide of opposition began.
Meetings started with MAFF and Imerys, the French company that own the local clay works upon which the land covered by Ash Moor stands to try to find an alternative access route that did not necessitate coming past our house. The company sold MAFF the land and if they had also given them access to the clay works in the first place instead of making them try to come down the private lane I would not have had to cuddle my three children nightly as they cried themselves to sleep. Negotiations lasted for over a week during which time my wife and I had to find a house to move to - MAFF didn't - prepare our children to not only move but possibly never to return and to take turns sleeping as the lack of trust we had in MAFF led us strongly to believe they would just steamroller a road past our house in the middle of the night.
At 8 a.m. one morning the week following our first notification of this whole project, my two sons ran into our bedroom crying that there were lorries and workmen outside our house. There were in fact steamrollers, a JCB, a tarmac machine, lorries, vans and lots of people. Before I could stop them, the JCB took the top six inches off the lane. I was told point blank they were there to turn our un-metalled lane into a tarmac road. Our solicitor was quickly on scene and work ceased though calming a distraught 13, 10 and 6 year old took a lot longer.
To now cut a very long, frightening, upsetting story short. MAFF finally gained access to the clay works but at what cost? Financially, who knows? Emotionally, we know. My children had never seen me cry before April 2001. They have now. Lots.
If it were not for the fact that my wife and I love each other so very much and support one another to be good parents, I dread to think how this could have affected my family. Short term: my children didn't eat, sleep, learn, play or do anything 'normally'. I sympathise with every refugee I see on the News now; like them I was living in fear for my family and home.
Long term: I don't know what effect it will have on any of us but like the 'Sword of Damocles' the Ash Moor pit is still hanging over us ready to be used on the whim of politicians.
No one knows what we have been through. To lose your animals must be soul destroying but to have your home ripped out from under you at a moment's notice is mind, body and soul destroying. Many, many farmers, some unknown to me, phoned to give me support and for that we will be eternally grateful. If it were not for our friends - who knows what might have been - or will be.
Mr Tomlinson, Petrockstowe