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A Moment in History

Twyford was one of the steps in the process that has enabled your ordinary, respectable, middle class, whatever, to say: ‘No, this is enough I’m not taking it anymore. And I don’t care what you say’ and just stand in the way.

Bee, Dongas Camp

I saw some grainy, shaky video footage of the Twyford Down protests recently, taken on a day when people were stopping bulldozers next to a nearby A road.  What struck me was that the cars looked so old fashioned.  It brought back how long ago all of this was – although to those of us who lived through those times, the past can feel like yesterday.

Realising how many years have passed, how car design has altered, made me think of how the times have changed too.  Then we were living in the shadow of the 1980’s and the Cold War, which the peace camps at Greenham Common and Molesworth bore witness to. The Miner’s Strike and the Poll Tax demos were still fairly recent events, as were the police assaults on travellers at the Beanfield and Stoney Cross. This is all part of what made the protests at Twyford Down happen and was the background many of us had grown up with.

Women who had been part of Greenham and people from other, older, protests often joined us on the Down and on the bulldozers.  Many brought knowledge of the law, rights on arrest and stories to inspire.

Alongside Greenham, the Miners Strike, the Beanfield and more, Twyford has a place in the history of rebellion in Britain. Twyford earns this place not just because of what happened there, but because of what happened afterwards.  Within a year of the destruction of the lovely, rippling Dongas trackways, road protest camps had been set up across the land.  In time these would spread to camps and protests at airport expansion sites, open cast quarries and fields of genetically modified crops.

In the book Twyford Rising, many people talk of how Twyford was the first place they heard discussions on capitalism or climate change, where they learnt about ecology and the tactics of campaigning.  People speak of how Twyford was the spark for their own lifetime of activism and of how it inspired future generations of activists.  People involved in direct action on climate change, fracking and HS2 are heirs to the Twyford legacy – even if they have never heard the name Twyford Down.

Understanding such history can inspire us now, help us keep going as activists and enrich our understanding of the times we live in.

I hope you will read Twyford Rising and take note of an interview with Oli, who became involved at the Down through the Manchester Earth First! group:

I think it is important to keep pointing out that the best way to understand it all is to go and DIY, that being a part of the resistance is more meaningful than reading ‘and we resisted’.

The media constructions I have seen make it seem as if everything was very clear, very basic even, when of course it’s all very difficult, creative, spontaneous.

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Trespass into the Twyford Cutting, 1993

More than one road through one hill

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In completing Twyford Rising, I have realised that it is more than a series of memories about a place and a protest.  The book is also filled with inspiration for current campaigners and is vital to understanding the contemporary environmental movement.

From the very start of the book, it is clear that many of the people involved knew that they wanted to stop more than this one road through one hill.  Many felt that the very values of western society needed addressing to ensure wild places like Twyford Down were cared for and protected.

John Stewart, who today is a leading light in the campaign against the expansion of Heathrow airport, had been opposing damaging road building schemes for long before direct action started at Twyford.

Interviewed for Twyford Rising, he said:

Many of the people who got involved were not aiming to change transport policy in particular, but were more concerned with affecting a wider change in society’s values … Twyford Down captured the mood of many young people dissatisfied with society and inspired them to take action.

In another interview, Larf  from Somerset stressed that focusing on just roads and cars was ‘missing the bigger point’:

A lot of people think it’s about roads and cars, whereas roads and cars are a small part of the big thing. That’s the whole problem and if it’s not all tackled, then there’s no point.

Colin wrote a long memoir about his time at Twyford and echoes Larf when he says:

It’s to do with lifestyle, one that works. This one’s going to strangle itself slowly unless you do everything you do with respect for the land that’s supporting you.

These are just a few of the interviews in the book that ask searching questions about how we live, what we value and how we relate to the natural world.  These questions are addressed through both political and spiritual lenses, creating a rich tapestry of ideas that resonate down the years and bring a deeper understanding to the global environmental movement that Twyford help bring into being.

Start Saving Your Pennies!

The crowd-funding to print Twyford Rising, land and resistance, is scheduled to start on August 5th 2020.

As well as being able to buy signed first editions of the book, there will be some lovely extras like posters of the front cover and mounted prints of the some of the images. Super-supporters who are able to give more can sign up walks near Twyford Down and writing workshops.

I am excited that this is happening at last and will be in touch soon – right now I am off to a protest at the Norwich Western Link road – the story goes on!

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Times of isolation

In the past few weeks many of us have experienced some degree of isolation and will no doubt have been relying on mobile phones and internet connections to stay in contact with family and friends. It is almost impossible now to remember a time without mobiles and apps, live-streaming and social media.  Yet, for the camp and protestors at Twyford Down in 1992, none of these things existed.

The sense of isolation from the rest of the world was felt in many ways – the camp was high up on a hill and not accessible by vehicles. The camp was largely hidden from view, lost in thorn scrub and the ancient trackways known as the Dongas. Without internet or mobile phones to rely on, communication was hard – the nearest phone box was nearly a mile away at a petrol station.  Finally, the mainstream media and environmental groups had walked away from the protest, creating a sense of political isolation.

Amongst the many memories collected for Twyford Rising, is one by Potty Phil, a student who joined the camp in the summer. Phil remembered how Oxford Friends of the Earth  recognised the problems the camp faced with communication and raised funds to buy an early mobile phone:

This was 1992 and no-one on camp had used one before, let alone had their own. We were all very excited, passing it around and wanting to have a go. We were told it only had a limited charge and must be kept for emergencies.

In order to test the phone worked, a call was arranged for four o’clock one afternoon. However, the intrigue gradually evaporated as people went off to cook, chop firewood, collect water, milk the goat or stoke the fire under the kettle for a cup of tea.

Phil recalls what happened when the phone rang at four:

Everyone ran for it, the first person went to answer it…still ringing…”How do you answer it?” “I don’t know!  Quick, give it here…what do you do?  Oh no!” 

It was passed around everyone and nobody could work out how to answer it before it went silent!

The phone never really worked then or later.

In our current time of isolation, I have been able to finish writing Twyford Rising and am currently waiting for a reply from a publisher – if that fails, then I will be crowdfunding in July.

Please watch this space or get in contact via this page or the Twyford Rising Facebook page.

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Dongas and Dragons

On a May morning, twenty-eight summers ago, I first walked on Twyford Down.

At the top of the Down I slipped off my boots, for to walk on this land with shoes on seemed a sacrilege, such was the diversity of life on the high chalk hill. I trained as an ecologist, but science alone was not enough to explain the deep resonance of place evoked on Twyford Down. Perhaps it was the mix of peace and space, wildness and history and the curious ruts of the long abandoned tracks that were known as the Dongas.

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Look closely at the picture and you can see the hollow ways of the old tracks.  They drop away between the people and the thorn bushes behind them, leaving rounded ridge between. Like most of the photos collected for the book, this is a snapshot someone took.  It isn’t posed, it is a little blurry. It shows nothing more than a few people sat in a circle, a tipi behind them in the sun.

The cloth and stick creature in the foreground is a dragon – a foil for direct action, as people would walk onto the motorway construction site underneath it, dancing and chanting to stop work.  There are memories of these actions in the Twyford Rising book.

There are other mentions of dragons in the book: these include the ritual landscape of the South Downs, with its burial mounds and lost stone circles, which was said to represent a mighty dragon. A dragon-shaped ditch defended the camp and later, the huge machines used to excavate the Down were likened to mechanical dragons.

This is rare picture of Britain’s first road protest camp. The hill, that place of sunshine and flowers, is gone now. Instead there is a chasm, half a mile wide and almost as deep, echoing with noise.  There is also a legacy that continues, for that summer on the Down casts a long shadow on radical politics today.  This legacy is where Twyford Rising ends….but more of that another day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographs from the past

As part of the writing the Twyford book, I have collected well over 200 images taken at the time – some were unearthed from attics and basements, some were damaged, blurred and grainy prints.  All were old style film photographs from before the digital age.

Out of all those collected, only 32 can make it into the book….down to the last 38 now, so nearly there!

Those I have chosen tell a story in their own right – a story of innocence and passion, of a beautiful place and of the courage of those who loved it and tried to defend it.  The photos take my words and those of those interviewed for the book to another level, making the book a lovely thing to look at and making the stories told come to life.

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Forgive Us Our Trespasses

At the tailend of 1993, then Home Secretary Michael Howard announced his Criminal Justice Bill.  It contained a direct assault on travellers, squatters, ravers, free festivals, hunt sabs and environmental protest, turning trespass from a civil offence into a criminal one, outlawing lifestyles and limiting the right to protest.

Opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill became another strand of the protests at Twyford Down and Twyford Rising, the forthcoming book about the protests, details the oppressive sections of the Bill, as well as the incredible rainbow alliance of groups who joined together to resist them.

In spring of 1994, a meeting of many of the different groups involved in opposing the Criminal Justice Bill, decided to stage a summer protest against many of the clauses it contained. The groups wanted to hold the rally not in London, the traditional stage for large demonstrations, but at a place where the actions and lifestyles targeted by the Bill had actually occurred. Stonehenge, site of many free festivals, was discussed as a possible location, but Twyford Down was the obvious choice and the planned mass trespass into the Cutting would be the final protest before the new road opened to traffic.

Twyford Rising includes stories from those involved in organising the mass trespass, including the frentic networking at Glastonbury festival, which led to a squatter being asked to speak on one of the main stages.

Amongst the speakers on the day was Benny Rothman, a diminutive octogenarian who had been a leader of the mass trespass onto Kinder Scout in 1932 – an action that helped create the right to roam movement, leading to the creation of National Parks of England and Wales and ultimately to rights of way legislation.  The action also earned Benny a prison sentence.

After his visit to Twyford Down, Benny wrote to the organisers with his thoughts:

I arrived at the Twyford Cutting a day before the scheduled Mass Trespass in opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill and this gave me an opportunity to look at the site where such destruction of the environment had taken place and where the history of the fight to oppose this devastation had been made. It also gave me the opportunity to meet up with the people who had led this now famous campaign of opposition.

The Cutting of broken chalk rocks to carry the road stood out glaringly white, in the surrounding sea of green vegetation. Already some of the road had been surfaced and work was in progress with tarmac carriers, rollers and earthmovers moving on the new surface. What was the most outstanding activity was the constant movement of four wheeled vehicles carrying Group 4 security guards endlessly. No wonder the contractors were putting millions of pounds aside to maintain this picture of warlike hostility to any opposition…like an army of occupation in hostile territory.

Twyford Rising tells much more of Benny’s story and the unfolding events of the 1994 mass trespass, as well as the sub-culture of protest and lifestyles spurred on by the Bill – a movement that became dubbed ‘DIY Culture’ for its ethos of living on little money, re-using the waste of mainstream society and creating a life poor in means, but rich in life itself.

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Mass Trespass, Twyford Down 1994.  Photo: J Cooke

Spring 1993

During January and February, while we were at Tichborne and Bramdean, we had lots of discussions around the fire as to what we could do next at the Dongas…some people were at one extreme of wanting to go back and confront the workmen everyday. Others needed more time to rest and get over what had happened to us at Twyford Down.

Colin, Donga’s Camp

 

After the eviction of the Donga’s camp in December 1992, it seemed to some as if the campaign to stop work at Twyford Down was over.  Yet, out of this moment of desolation came Twyford Rising: the phase of the the campaign that would keep the direct action going, draw in more people from across the UK and inspire direct action protests across the world.

Simon Fairlie:

Timothy Leary, when asked, …”whatever happened to the flower people” answered, “they went to seed”. To be involved in the Twyford Rising campaign was to watch those seeds germinate.

Throughout February, March and April construction work was interrupted several times a week and local offices of Tarmac and Mott MacDonald (the civil engineers for the road) occupied. Twyford Down Alert! had been set up to co-ordinate and support actions and they called for several national days of action at weekends, which temporarily swelled numbers at the small camp set up nearby.

One of the most effective tactics to stop work remained the simple act of “locking on” – protestors attaching themselves to machinery with strong bicycle D-locks and waiting to be removed, sometimes by the fire brigade. Arrests were frequent, as were continued physical assaults by the Group 4 security guards, including pinching and twisting of skin and frequent sexual assaults on women, earning them the nickname “Grope 4”.

Emma:

One specific day I remember was sometime in the spring of 1993, very early in the morning. The CAT 45s – huge yellow earthmovers – had moved on to the hill. Their smooth yellow metal gleamed in the early morning sunshine, set off against the dusty white chalk of the Down. They had yet to start work for the day. It was a very small action. Becca and I ran on to the site. Becca ‘locked herself on’ under the front of one earthmover, between the front wheels, with a black metal bicycle D-lock – the kind you’d use to lock up your bike outside the post office. I locked myself on by the neck to the footplate on one side. It was the best spot I could find. Some workers arrived, then the police. They politely asked us to unlock ourselves and we politely declined.

The sun rose a little more and the early morning sky turned from pink to blue above the flat white chalk as the two of us sat locked to the yellow earthmover. The workmen and police ambled around trying to decide what to do. What they actually did was to painstakingly unscrew, bolt by bolt, the entire top metal section of the machine. The footplate, it turned out, was part of a much larger piece of the chassis of the bulldozer – a little like an outsize yellow cheese grater. They asked me to stand up, while they supported the metal frame at all four corners. I remember being stood in the hole in the middle of this heavy piece of yellow metal, still attached to it by the neck, as the policemen edged me and my new outsize necklace to the side of the worksite, before they hacksawed my D-lock off. I remember Becca cheering and laughing as she stayed fixed under the front of the bulldozer, and the policemen ambling around some more wondering what on earth they were going to do about her.

The two of us stopped all removal of chalk from the site for several hours.

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Photo credit: J Cooke

Behind the scenes

American writer Maya Angelo wrote that those who have an untold story carry a heavy burden.  The untold stories of the Twyford Down protests and indeed the subsequent road protests can be hard to tell, because these are not the stories of bravery, of the hardships of living outdoors or the determination to stop construction work by any means necessary. They are not tales of glory or derring-do; they are not accompanied by eye-catching images.

Instead, these are the stories of the endless hours spent writing leaflets and press releases, posting newsletters, travelling to meetings and festivals or conferences to try to drum up support and media attention.  In the years before social media, before even the internet and mobile phones, these took hard and constant work.

This part of the Twyford Down protests have been captured in the forthcoming Twyford Rising book, in an effort to tell the story in as many voices as possible

John, South Downs EF!:

The reason so many people turned up was ‘cos we’d done an obsessive amount of networking, mailing FoE groups, spending a fortune on the ‘phone. This was never recognised and hasn’t been in many protests since.

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In 1994, octagenarian Benny Rothman spoke at a Twyford Down rally; Benny had been one of the leaders of the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932 – an action that helped lead to the creation of Britain’s national parks, but also landed Benny and his co-leaders in jail.

Benny Rothman’s account of his visit to the Down includes an evocative recollection of visiting the campaign offices:

I could see how difficult it was for them to carry on, with only scrap furniture, no real tables, old gift computers and office equipment. They had very little more than tremendous enthusiasm to carry them forward. They were young in years, but already old in experience, in touch with protest groups from all parts of the country…their office was answering calls from all parts of the country, organising and arranging press interviews, drawing posters, checking arrangements for the 1001 minor events which were due to take place. Far from being eccentrics, they seemed to be very down to earth, intelligent youngsters…it was of course all done on a shoestring.