A personal story
May is one of the loveliest months, the promise of summer very real now and weeks of it still to come. It is a good time for falling in love, serenaded by bird song and surrounded by hawthorn blossom and buttercups. Perhaps that is one reason why I fell so deeply in love with Twyford Down on a May afternoon thirty years ago next week.
Those were the early days of the protest – before people went to prison, before the great cutting through the chalk hill was begun in earnest. I’d seen a poster somewhere for a rally on the Down – it was probably hand-drawn in pen and photocopied – a reliable means of spreading news in the days before the internet. With a couple of friends I’d walked out of Winchester, followed the river and the slow waters of the canal, stepped under the old brick tunnel that ran beneath the Winchester bypass and out into the broad sweep of Plague Pits Valley, sloping between St Catherine’s Hill and Twyford Down. Then it was up through thorn scrub and out, onto the light, airy top of the Down. We gathered on the ridge between two of the dongas trackways – deep ruts in the land created by the long ago footfall of cattle and people and sheep.
The rally began with some music, the drumming and singing followed by speeches. To be honest, I wasn’t listening. I was too busy falling in love with the short, soft turf and its flowers of cowslip, rock rose, wild thyme and orchids almost ready to bloom. Spiders and ants clambered through this, their whole world and bees thrummed around us. I took off my boots, for to walk on this land in heavy boots felt wrong, sacrilegious, perhaps. Nothing else mattered in that moment, except the vow to myself that I would do what I could to protect this land and its life.
When the speeches ended, a great stream of people flowed down the hill to where construction workers were blocking up the canal as part of the preliminary works for the road. Wading into the water, swirled white with chalk, we pulled at the dam with our hands until, for a while at least, the waters ran free again. Those early actions were not only part of the beginning of the Twyford story, but are part of the foundations of the modern environmental movement – born from frustration and love and from the horror of what was happening in front of our eyes. As Chris Gillham, the co-author of Twyford Rising, says ‘spring never came again to Twyford Down’. By December that year, the dongas were to mud and slicks of wet, bulldozed chalk.
The memory of what happened to the Down is hard, it sparks in many of us grief not just for the loss of one place, but of the all the places around the the globe ripped up, bulldozed and razed. As poet John Clare wrote in the early 1800s, ‘where profit gets his clutches in, there’s little he will spare’; in the case of Twyford Down, there were just three minutes to be saved off a road journey. And yet, when I read passages of Twyford Rising aloud, there is a story of hope among the sorrows – hope that we can live different lives and the see the world in new ways. Hope that is, in the end, as lovely and needed as the warm days of May.