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.

AW7

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.

January 1993

CT5

January can be a bleak, dark month at the best of times and as 1993 dawned, it was especially so for those who had been evicted from the camp on Twyford Down and for all those engaged in the campaign to stop the motorway through the Down.

Some of the Dongas Tribe set up camp nearby:

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

Yet, just as the first signs of spring can be found in January, so there were glimmerings of what the campaign would become in the year ahead: work was often disrupted on the construction site and local campaigners began organising for a complaint to the European Union, based on breaches of environmental legislation.

Then The Ecologist magazine ran an editorial lambasting environmental organisations for failing to provide adequate support for the Twyford campaign – leaving local residents, the camp and  direct activists stranded and isolated from national support.

The Dongas have put the entire spectrum of the British environmental movement to shame; their conviction has exposed the hypocrisy of pragmatism. “This is our home now and we’re staying here. This is a national issue. It’s about trashing the planet. We live here on the land and the land gives us hope and energy. We are totally optimistic we can stop it.”

From The Ecologist, January 1993

Support from the The Ecologist and its staff would play an almost unseen but very vital part in the shaping the protests of the year ahead.

Perhaps most significantly of all, Twyford campaigners began to make links with other groups fighting road schemes across the country and realisation dawned that this was so much more than one road through one hill. The Government’s road programme would have far reaching effects on many communities, along with 166 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 800 Scheduled Ancient Monuments and 12 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Emma and I swore on a full moon after the conference that we would do everything in our power to stop this destruction.Becca

In the forthcoming book, January 1993 stands out as a time that was quietly important, with many layers of story woven together as more and more people travelled to Twyford Down and were inspired by the actions there.  Although many campaigners felt battered and exhausted after the December eviction, the determination to carry on and the links that were made in January were, perhaps, when the real foundations of the 1990’s environmental protests were laid.

The Autonomous Territory of Twyford Down Dongas

 

In the late summer of 1992, as the days grew shorter and the nights grew colder, the little camp on the Dongas trackways at Twyford Down was becoming well established.  Yet the camp was isolated – being physically remote and increasingly cut off from support from the mainstream environmental groups, who had stepped away from the direct action of the spring and moved on to other causes they felt they were more likely to win.

A glitch in letting the main contract to build the road led to construction work being delayed, so work on gouging out the hillside of Twyford Down had not yet began.

Chris Gillham, a local campaigner who had supported the early direct action said:

“By late summer, the joyful life on the Dongas, spiced with frequent excursions against the activities of the preliminary Mowlem contract, was something akin to a phoney war. There was a sense of risk taken without any real sense of the consequence, a sense of shared excitement, hope and bravado that seemed to dare a response, but seemed not to contemplate what would come.”

Media attention was also slow and hard to grasp, so, one warm, lazy September afternoon, in an otherwise inconsequential campfire discussion, someone jokingly proposed a declaration of independence. The text of the declaration was drawn up as a skit on the American model, but with a ludicrous appeal to royal patronage, on the grounds that the Prince of Wales was rumoured to have appealed to John Major to save Twyford Down.

The Autonomous Territory of Twyford Down Dongas

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that natural beauty is the heritage of all people, but the property of none; it is for no person to mar or destroy and its stewardship rests with those who would protect it, succour it and pass it on entire and unsullied. In this Age, the pursuit of limitless material wealth has impoverished the spirit of this Nation, such that many have forgotten where true wealth lies. All the institutions of the State before the Crown, have been so far corrupted that they are no longer capable of protecting even the most precious places of this land. Indeed, what they have become is the very instrument of destruction of what is in their sacred trust. By this betrayal of their stewardship, they surrender the right, before any moral or spiritual tribunal, to govern the fate of such places as this.

These great turfed chalk trackways of Twyford Down, known as the Dongas, are unique in the landscape of Europe and yet they represent, quintessentially, the place of man and woman in Nature. This place once was marked too heavily by humankind, but Nature, through long ages, has wrought a great wonder of healing and redemption here. And now Her Majesty’s Government proposes a crucifixion here, deeming it expedient that this place should die for the wealth of the Nation. Knowing ourselves to be unworthy of the task, but seeing none other prepared to accept the burden, we present here in the Dongas this day, the 15th of September 1992, do, therefore, take up the stewardship of this most precious place. We believe that it is our sacred duty to hold and defend this place until such time as one worthy of its stewardship relieved us of the burden. To this end, we hereby declare the area of Twyford Down, known as the Dongas, an autonomous territory, within the realm of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

 This autonomous territory shall be under the governance of a couple of its residents, to be known as the Council of Stewardship. Insofar as the natural well-being of the area is not imperilled by weight of numbers, free right of access will be granted to all those the Council deems to be of good intent. The Council of Stewardship does not recognise the authority of Her Majesty’s Government in Westminster within this territory. We speak no treason. It is our profound belief that, if Her Majesty were fully apprised of the nature and extent of the betrayal by Her Ministers of the sacred trust to protect the lands in Her realm from needless harm, she would not forswear the trust as they have done. We beseech Her Majesty to take upon her person the burden of stewardship Her Government has abandoned, or to place it upon His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales. We hold it in readiness.

Local press were invited to the camp to hear the Declaration being read by Sam, one of those camped on the Dongas:

Sam read aloud the document on behalf of the Donga folk, in specially commissioned media-circus assembly on Camp. But because the statement didn’t threaten to use Semtex in its’ fight for sanity and because none of the protestors present suddenly smoked wacky-baccy…the event gained very minor coverage

From “Quollobollox Visits the Dongas”, Graeme Lewis

Despite the lack of support from the environmental establishment, despite the lack of press interest and despite the very few people actually involved in the campaign at this stage, direct action was continuing. Becca recalls:

Work had started literally at the foot of the Dongas – 3 to 4 minutes run away – at the old Victorian sewage works, known as “Bar End”. It seemed obvious to stop them; work has also just begun on establishing the Bushfield site, which became Tarmac’s nerve centre. This was on the hill opposite the Down, across the River Itchen.

One day, a group of us decided to go and stop them working at Bar End. We ran down with face paint and masks (James Weeks, Clerk of Works, had started to film and photograph everyone) drums, tambourines and cameras. It was so totally easy – no security guards in those days and a police policy of non-intervention. We might have to put up with the occasionally lairy worker, but compared to subsequent road protests, this was simple. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop my first experience of direct action being terrifying: dump trucks with wheels as high as me, bulldozers with huge tracks, Nicolai being lifted high in the air in a digger bucket, swigging dashingly from his hip flask. I hid behind a tambourine and shook it nervously.

Once we discovered we could stop them relatively easily, we tried to go down as often as we could.

 

A piece of protest history…..

35 years ago, the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common in Berkshire was a constant image in national media and a beacon for both women’s activism and peace campaigning around the world.  The slogan “Greenham Women are everywhere” was used to sum this up and peace camps grew up at American military bases and nuclear weapons sites across the country; some lasted only a day or weekend, others longer, but none were as long lived or well known as the Greenham camp.

The Greenham camp was small by the summer of 1992, as activists were moving onto Twyford Down and starting to take direct action against the early stages of motorway construction.  Perhaps inevitably, women who lived near Twyford Down and who had been part of anti-nuclear protests at Greenham and beyond, became involved from early on, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge on rights on arrest, non-violent direct action, building benders and living outside in all weathers, as well as that undefinable thing – the spirit of taking direct action, of walking into a place and feeling, deep within  you, that what is happening is so very wrong that you will stand up and try to stop it.

I think there was a precedent for what was going on at the Down and that was what happened at Greenham (Common). A lot of the inspiration for doing the camp on the Dongas was what happened at Greenham. Because that was a massive movement that changed people’s lives and that just had an incredible effect on the whole of society and send ripples all over the world.

Sam, from Dialogues with the Dongas

Greenham Common was not the only thread of protest history that was woven into the early days at Twyford Down; people involved in the huge and anarchic squatting movement of the 1960’s were there alongside New Age Travellers, who had their own experiences of living outdoors and in conflict with authority.   The then fledgling UK Earth First! was there too, in the form of local groups and individuals who were part of this growing network of people prepared to take direct action against environmental destruction and frustrated with mainstream environmental groups.

That’s what I like about direct action, ‘cos it was saying bollocks, you know, it was like looking at authority and saying bollocks to you, we are going to play it our way, ‘cos your way is crap and it hasn’t done any good.

Debs, from Dialogues with the Dongas

 

Dam Busters

25 years ago, in the early summer of 1992, the protests at Twyford Down had undergone a fundamental shift; the long standing campaign of local residents, backed by Friends of the Earth was starting to draw in new people and direct action was happening almost daily.

A major focus of these early protests was the attempt to dam the Itchen Navigation – a canal that was still, legally, a navigable waterway.  Olive, a small rowing boat, was used to block the construction of the dam – frequently a dangerous task.

Stories from this time, collected for the Twyford Rising book, tell of optimism and the excitement of something new happening, for this was the first time such protests had taken place in Britain.  The stories tell of an eclectic mix of former Greenham Common peace women standing alongside students, New Age travellers, local residents and Earth First!, a network for radical ecological action then recently established in the UK. The sense of changing times is palpable throughout.

I remember two or three of us going down to the Itchen at night and opening up the weir to flood the construction site. We did that regularly.

Anon

Twyford Rising blog launched

The Twyford Rising blog has been set up to promote a forthcoming book telling the story of the first of the British anti-roads protests, which began at Twyford Down in Hampshire in 1992.

Over the coming months, the blog will post previews of some of the images and stories collected for the Twyford Rising book and provide updates on publication.

After several years of collecting and editing material, Twyford Rising is now close to publication.  The stories and images gathered together tell the history of the protests in the words of those who were there, weaving a rich tale of magic, music and politics.  The quotes reveal a deep love for the land, along with the trauma and grief of its destruction and the inspiring resilience of those who carried on the struggle against the loss of Twyford Down, despite the impact on their lives and their freedom.

Information and contacts for donations for funding the publication of the Twyford Rising book will also be posted.

Please share this blog with anyone who might have a tale to tell, or who wants to learn more about the beginnings of environmental direct action in the UK.