All is not well in beautiful Sark

I'm on the back of a horse-drawn carriage in one of the oddest corners of the British Isles, and the driver is talking about a revolution.

''See that there windmill,'' he gestures. ''It was burned down 200 years ago by the people of Sark, in protest against the Seigneur.''

He nods in a kind of grim, weatherbeaten approval at this vignette from the history of political arson. ''And see that vineyard over there,'' he says, in an accent that sits somewhere between Cornwall and France. We do - it's not in great shape.

''Dying on the vine,'' says our chatty pessimist, Danny. ''That was good grazing land bought up by the Barclay brothers.''

We're on Sark. It's the tiny cousin of the Channel Islands, technically part of Britain but not the UK - a fief of the Queen run by her ''Seigneur''. The island only became a democracy in 2008. Before that it was a feudal relic.

Danny and his countrymen have long had an uneasy relationship with the Seigneur - an inherited title which includes ownership of the island.

In the 16th century, the first Seigneur was given Sark by Queen Elizabeth I for a peppercorn rent in exchange for defending it in the name of the English Crown (before that it was an island of pirates who set false lights to wreck passing ships). Like many other feudal lords the Seigneurs weren't exactly generous in sharing the money generated by the island's meagre resources.

Sark is tiny - you can ride a bicycle from end to end in an hour or two, depending on your energy and skill at dodging horses and tractors. It's a beautiful haven of wildflowers, seabirds, sheep and winding country lanes, accessible only by ferry and home to about 600 people. But all is not well on newly democratic Sark.

Billionaires Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay bought Sark's even tinier sister island Brecqhou in 1993, erecting a mock-Gothic castle with two swimming pools and a helicopter pad. They thought they were buying a virtually independent state (tax haven) - but discovered it was actually part of Sark, so they had to comply with pesky Sark laws such as the ban on motor cars, and some unhelpful tax and inheritance rules.

But the Barclays didn't make a mint in media, retail and property by losing fights.

The logic is simple. If Brecqhou is part of Sark, then they just have to take Sark, too.

The Barclays have reportedly bought about one-third of the island, putting their money into the hotels and the vineyards.

It's like the history of the modern world, from the mire of feudalism to raw Darwinist capitalism, was compressed into a few years. No wonder Danny is grumpy.

Nick Miller is the Europe correspondent.

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