In the cold days of January 1992, direct action started at Twyford Down. Local residents were growing frustrated at campaigning against an extension to the M3 motorway through Twyford Down and across the water meadows next to the river Itchen. Work was about to start and they wanted to act fast, believing that there was still chance to save the Down.
One of the locals, a former Tory party councillor, sought out a meeting of the UK’s first Earth First! group in a squat in Brixton and asked for their help. Twyford Rising tells this story in full and explains the background to Earth First! – a radical environmental group that grew out of the defence of old growth forests in North America.
The over-night occupation of a bridge a near Twyford Down and the blockading of diggers, including one activist ‘locking on’ to the machine with a bicycle d-lock around the neck, was the very beginning of direct action at Twyford. Such scenes had never been seen on a UK construction site before.
The right to peaceful protest is a traditional and legitimate expression of a point of view. Peaceful protest is public, open and visible. It is designed to inform, persuade and cajole. It may be a nuisance; it may even be intended to be. It is often noisy and inconvenient. But it is a legitimate form of public expression.
Peter Thornton QC, supporting Twyford protestors in the High Court 1993
In December 1993, I was driving a van not far from Twyford Down. I was listening to the news and suddenly had to pull into a layby. The anger and fear at the words I was hearing rendered me momentarily unable to drive.
Those words were then Home Secretary Michael Howard announcing his Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. It was a catalogue of erosions of liberty – targeting hunt saboteurs, environmental protestors, squatters, travelling people and ravers among others. Yes, it even singled out electronic ‘music characterised by a series of repetitive beats’.
At the time Howard made his announcement, I was working with Road Alert!, a campaign group co-ordinating support for the anti-road protests that were sweeping across the UK. A few days after Howard’s announcement, we issued a press release condemning the ‘fundamental attack on civil liberties’ posed by the Bill, including ‘the biggest increase in police powers’ since the Second World War.
We also quoted Michael Mansfield QC, a leading human rights lawyer who worked with the Birmingham Six, the campaigns for justice for striking miners assaulted by police at Orgreave in 1984, the death of football fans at Hillsborough stadium in 1989 and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by armed police officers at Stockwell tube station in London.
Mansfield called the 1993 Criminal Justice Bill ‘the most oppressive piece of legislation in memory’
The following spring, an alliance of different groups involved in opposing the Criminal Justice Bill decided to stage a large summer demonstration against it. The groups wanted to gather not in London, the traditional stage for large rallies, but at a place relevant to the actions and lifestyles targeted by the Bill. Stonehenge, site of free festivals and solstice celebrations, was discussed as a possible location, but Twyford Down was chosen as being equally relevant, easy to access and with the potential for using the broad sweep of Plague Pits Valley for a rally. The mass trespass into the Cutting would be the final such protest before the new road opened to traffic.
And now, so many years later, I find myself facing the same rage and fear, as another Tory government tries to further erode the right to peaceful protest and assembly. There seems now to be stiff competition for Mansfield’s ‘most oppressive piece of legislation’.
So much of what we value as a nation stems from protest – worker’s rights, the right to join a trade union, the rights of women and working class men to vote, the right to have gay family life taught in schools, for men and women to have equal pay for equal jobs, the right for black people to have equal rights across society, the right to walk in the hills, to rally together and so much more.
Without the right to protest, not only do we risk making further improvements in all of these and more, but we risk losing the fragile gains we have made.
Two live events centred on Twyford Rising are coming soon – please come along, ask questions and join in!
The first is on Feb 19th 2021 and is in support of the campaign to stop the road across the Wensum Valley west of Norwich. Just like Twyford Down, this is a lovely and ecologically diverse landscape – there are chalk streams, rolling hills, woodlands, marshes and a large colony of rare bats. For more information and to join the webinar, visit Stop The Wensum Link | Norwich Environmental Campaign. More information on their Facebook page.
The second is on Feb 24th 2021 and is a book launch with readings and a discussion hosted by the wonderful October Books, who are selling the books mail order. Check out their website for info and booking – October Books Events | Eventbrite
Here are a few of the comments from readers – all anonymous but true!
‘Just received the book…and finished the book…and that was such a journey. I didn’t sleep much last night playing a heap of it back through in my head again. Beautifully put together, and the love for the land and the amazing group that came together just comes shining out of every page. Thank you so much for creating the book – it keeps it real, and a part of my history (and our collective history) that I can now, so much more easily, share with others…I learnt a heap from the stories too’
‘Congrats on your book – much learning and insight for me. I really like the historical and political context you describe (most of which I did not know), and the many quotations, which give a great sense of the reality of the people involved and of what it was like being there. The photos are just superb too.’
‘Helen, your book arrived as a perfect Christmas present on Christmas Eve. I’ve already read it! It will be a classic, capturing perfectly both the spirit and the importance of Twyford Down’
‘Looks bloody lovely’
‘Looks amazing….great work’
‘Book arrived – only just put it down realised I had not had breakfast…kind of makes you feel joyful and sad at the same time’.
‘An amazing achievement, bringing together lovely quotes, history and inspiration’
‘Full of hope’
Thank you all … keep the nice words coming!
For information on ordering copies of Twyford Rising, please head over to the contact and ordering page.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.