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.


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.

dragon I Clarke


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.

selecting images (2)

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.


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”.


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.


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.


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.

January 1994

On January 3rd, 1994, over a hundred people trespassed into the Twyford Cutting to ‘First Foot’ it in traditional Hogmany style.  A circle of coal was laid down to draw attention to the potential for the road to be an accident black spot, with its hazardous combination of 3 junctions in less than 2 miles, plus a bend and a steep gradient.  Three years later, the warnings would be sadly realised and the Twyford Cutting was named, by a number of newspapers, as the most dangerous stretch of motorway in Britain.

local Creation Spirituality group led a short ceremony and the following is part of the litany they read on the day:

Let our cry against this devastation, our revulsion at the destruction of Twyford Down,

bind us to heal and protect the Earth.

Twyford Down – open hearts, change minds…

may the hideous image of the scar inspire the fight for the environment.

The fight against other roads.

These were to prove auspicious words, for 1994 was a year in which protests against road-building swept England, from the M11 in east London to Solsbury Hill near Bath, Wymondham in Norfolk and Stanworth Valley in the north west England.

The media images, the stories we tell of the time are full of heroism, but there was another side to the story that rarely gets told, one that starts in that cold.  January of 1994, when Road Alert! was formerly launched to support the new and growing direct action movement against roads.

The Twyford Rising book tells this story as well as the stories of the actions and camp on the Down itself, for all these threads make up the rich tapestry of those timesjc9.

Helen B, Road Alert!:

Whenever I see films or pictures of the road protests now, I know that there is an untold story of how so many of those involved at Twyford Down and others who came afterwards, worked to breaking point to make all those campaigns happen. At the Newbury bypass, it was 2 years of Road Alert! working with the local campaigners before a tree house went up in the branches, or a tunnel was dug. It is easy to miss this bit – it is not glamorous or photogenic, it doesn’t have the pleasurable, outdoor elements of building the tree houses and walkways or the derring-do of jumping on bulldozers – although we did all those things too. It involved endless nights of faxing press releases, endless phone calls to journalists and solicitors, answering enquiries from students, press and people wanting to know how to help, where to go; it involved staying up all night to meet a deadline for a newsletter or leaflet, printing them on a shoestring budget, writing them on ropey old computers in scruffy, badly lit offices and getting them to every event and meeting you could think of. It was often fun, sometimes inspiring, always hard work.

Tim, Road Alert!:

We would spend ages just faxing one press release; we had a long list of numbers for media and campaigning groups and would be faxing into the night most nights – phone all day and fax all night. Today it would all be over in minutes. It easy to forget how much technology has changed things.

Yellow Wednesday, 1992.

By the end of November 1992, work to excavate the huge cutting though Twyford Down had resulted in the clearance of flower-rich turf and trees across most of the Down and on the water meadows below.

The only the very top of the hill remained, protected by the camp huddled on the ancient Donags trackways.

On Wednesday the 9th of December, just before sunrise, the destruction of the Dongas trackways began. The unprecedented use of security guards, clad from head to foot in fluorescent yellow clothing gave the day its name – Yellow Wednesday.

David Bellamy, present for part of the day, later described the brutality of the eviction as “the worst violence I have witnessed against environmentalists anywhere in the world”.

Katy Andrews remembered:

Outnumbered? It was bloody hopeless and I think although we couldn’t admit it, we realised it. They had four minders assigned to mark each protestor, men at every gateway and entrance, a line of men along the top of the Dongas, men to guard each earth-moving machine and more to spare.

 Several protestors got through the main cordon and onto and under the machine. But while we were doing this, the contractor’s subbies ran a bulldozer and two low-loaders around us at great speed and almost unnoticed across the trench, crashing through our fence onto the Dongas…for three hours we stood in front of shrubs, lay down or threw ourselves in front of bulldozers and earth-movers.

 By 11.30, when the press and TV arrived, the precious turfed area of the Dongas SSSI was surrounded by a two-tiered fence of coiled barbed wire and the security men were everywhere.

The following days saw police brought in to carry on the eviction and ensure the removal of trees, bushes and turf.  Consequently, these days became known as Black Thursday and Black Friday.  A few people clung onto the final handful of trees, until these too were removed.

Alex remembers:

On Thursday, there was razor wire on top of the barbed wire and every time we tried to break through, even if we were successful, security guards would almost immediately catch us and forcibly remove us from the areas. Attention centred on the gate, where flatbed lorries were coming in and out, loaded up with the turf. We tried to take it off and put it somewhere safe.

 It was hard to sleep with the security lights and generators only a few feet away. On Friday, I woke to find that all of the turf had been removed. The Bulldozers levelled the wood and the Dongas to bare chalk: three thousand years of history, destroyed in just three hours. They set fire to the green wood they had just smashed: huge clouds of smoke totally surrounded the tree-sitters … defending the remaining trees.

By the weekend after the eviction, the Dongas Tribe was homeless, injured and traumatised; the precious turf of the Down, rich with rare flowers, had been either turned to mud by machines or stripped off in an attempt to re-locate it nearby.


Diggers & security guards on the dongas, 9/12/92.  Photo A Weekes.

Tickling a dead elephant

The protests at Twyford Down, indeed most of the environmental resistance of the 1990’s, took place before the internet or mobile phones were in common usage.

Spreading word of the protests, letting people know what was happening and even getting press coverage was hard, hard work.

Instead of emails and social media, campaigners relied on stalls at gigs, knocking on doors, leaflets and posters, information at festivals and a huge network of free-newspapers, information sheets and zines distributed across the land.

Sending a press release involved standing by a fax machine for half a night, sending it to one media outlet after another, often with no response.

Simon Fairlie, one of those involved in the protests, likened this to “tickling a dead elephant”.

He describes the scenes at the Twyford Down Alert! offices – one that will be familiar to many for campaign offices:

Much of our time was spent stuffing envelopes — recycled ones where you had to scrub out the old address and stick them up with sellotape. In 1993, email and the internet were in their infancy, and Facebook and Twitter were unheard of.  Instead we had snail mail, a list of addresses and a phone tree. The protest camp was carrying out minor acts of direct action on a daily basis. But the big national days of action were advertised by sending out photocopied posters to a list of several hundred activists throughout the UK. 

It was hard work, compared to sending out an email circular, but it was fun, and it was effective.   People came from all over the country in their hundreds to participate in acts of civil disobedience. On one occasion, on one of the marches   I overheard a resident of the protest camp saying, “Isn’t it magical how all these people have come down here spontaneously?” Little did they know the long office hours spent getting them to come.  The success of this postal campaign has made me rather sceptical of claims that social media help to foment protest. What matters is word of mouth, and it doesn’t make much difference what is the dominant medium by which that word is conveyed.leaflet3 

The other main activity was sending out press releases — again a more time-consuming business than is now the case, as they were either sent by post or by fax. We sent out about two a week and for over two months the mainstream media wouldn’t bite. I remember the excitement when we got a little mention in Private Eye about Winchester schoolboys on the protest, and The Guardian gave us a few column inches. But mostly it seemed we were sending these press releases off into a black hole.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

img189 copy

On July 4th 1994, the largest ever protest was held at Twyford Down, protesting not just about the building of the road, but about the Tory Government’s Criminal Justice Bill, which would criminalise the lifestyles of travellers, squatters and ravers in an unprecedented way. Trespass, in form of aggravated trespass, would become a criminal offence if the trespasser was aiming to stop “lawful” activities such as construction work or fox-hunting.

The principle speaker on the baking hot summer’s day was Benny Rothman, a diminutive octogenarian who had been to prison in 1932 for leading the Mass Trespass onto Kinder Scout in Peak District. That action had heralded the start of the rambling movement, as the working classes of England’s industrial cities demanded the right to enjoy the freedom of the hills.


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.