Waveney bolthole for WikiLeaks chief
PUBLISHED: 11:48 17 December 2010
A QUIET corner of the Waveney Valley is under the spotlight of the world's media after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was yesterday granted bail at London's High Court.
The 39-year-old whistleblower, who is wanted in Sweden for alleged sex offences, will be staying at Ellingham Hall, making himself an unlikely Christmas guest.
Assange will be swapping his jail cell at Wandsworth Prison in south-west London for the elegant Georgian mansion set in 600 acres of rolling parkland.
Ellingham Hall is the home of Captain Vaughan Smith, who served in the British Army before setting up the Frontline Club in London, in 2003, to champion independent quality journalism.
The 10-bedroom property has been the Smith family home for more than 200 years.
At the High Court yesterday a senior judge rejected an appeal against a lower court’s decision earlier this week to release Assange on conditional bail pending moves to extradite him to Sweden.
Ellingham Hall was given as a bail address for Assange at a court hearing on Tuesday after supporters agreed to post a £200,000 cash deposit.
But he was told he would remain behind bars after Swedish authorities said they would fight his release ahead of a full extradition hearing next year. But yesterday Mr Justice Ouseley granted Assange conditional bail at the High Court.
Assange’s lawyer Mark Stephens said they were “utterly delighted” to win bail, adding that his client was the victim of a “continued vendetta”.
Speaking to the Journal earlier this week, Capt Smith apologised to residents for any disruption they might face.
He said: “It may well be that Ellingham has never been the focus of so much interest nationally before and it may never again.
“This is one of the biggest stories of the decade, so a sleepy, peaceful and tranquil place like Ellingham ends up right in the spotlight.
“I apologise to anybody impacted or disturbed by the press arriving. I will try to speak to any neighbours who might be surprised by this as soon as I can to explain what is going on. I think I should explain why I have brought this upon them.”
Capt Smith, 47, lives at the hall with his Kosovo-born wife Pranvera and two of his four children. The idyllic estate can be hired as a wedding venue, offering romantic lakeside ceremonies.
The couple divide their time between Norfolk and London, where they founded the Frontline Club, in Norfolk Place, Paddington.
Capt Smith has joined other high-profile backers by putting forward £20,000 in sureties to help Assange reach the £200,000 required.
A former Grenadier Guards Captain, he is an investigative journalism champion, as well as a restaurateur and sustainable farmer.
He was adamant about his decision to stand by Assange.
“I wanted to make a personal stand; I considered it very important,” Capt Smith said. “I want to make a stand for tolerance.”
His faith in Assange appeared unshakeable as he insisted he had “no concerns” that the whistleblower would “do a runner”, pointing out that there were strict conditions on his bail.
Capt Smith has admitted that harbouring the former hacker could put his own safety at risk as Assange has made powerful enemies and has received death threats.
Asked if he could now be a target, Capt Smith said: “If I do, I do. I have still got to make a stand.”
Capt Smith told the Journal that he did not feel Assange was being fairly represented in the media.
“I know him very well and am very familiar with what is going on,” he said.
“He is not this Machiavellian, cold, string-pulling person. He is entertaining, intelligent, amusing and self-deprecating. He is very good company.”
Capt Smith said that he and his wife have a mixed low-impact farm at Ellingham Hall producing free-range chickens and vegetables for the Frontline Club’s restaurant.
Capt Smith said that Assange has been to Ellingham Hall before.
There has been a mixed response from local people to the news.
Lawrie Cannard, chairman of Kirby Cane and Ellingham Parish Council said: “It is nothing to do with the parish council. It is a private matter and things will take their course.”
Norfolk county councillor Tony Tomkinson, who represents Ellingham, said: “I think it will put us in the spotlight a bit. Mr Smith is absolutely free to have anyone as a guest in his home. I know both Mr Smith and his father. They were the squires of the village who are very well respected; Mr Smith, Vaughan’s father, particularly.
“Vaughan has spent a lot of time in the Army and travelling with his career filming, so he is not as well-known in the village as his father. They are an extremely well-respected local family, but with regard to their connection to Assange, I have no feelings at all.
“I would regret having the world’s media camped on the doorstep of Ellingham but if that is so, so be it.”
Mr Tomkinson added wryly: “He would not get high-speed access to broadband from that house. We do not have high-speed broadband in Ellingham.”
It is reported that Capt Smith became friends with Assange after the Australian chose the club for a press conference to launch his first batch of US military leaks earlier this year.