Guerrillas in sensible shoes prepare for the Battle of Twyford Down

The Guardian, July 18 1992

Up on the great green mound, high over the valley and the plains that sweep down towards the sea, it seems as if in the whole world, there are only two sounds. There is the wind rummaging in the grass just as it has done every day for as long as the land has been here, and there is the beast.

You can hear it everywhere, the ceaseless growl, the rumble of phlegm in its throat but, most of all, the cacophony of feasting from its lipless mouth as it tears the living flesh off the back of the great green mound and chews it to pulp in its iron jaws. This is the sound of a beast at peace, relaxed and happy, gorging on the spoils of the battle it has won.

It thinks it has won. Down in the valley, in amongst the rows of houses that look so small from the top of the hill, there are people – small people, perhaps, ordinary people, no doubt – who disagree. They know how hard it can be to fight this beast, because they’ve been fighting for more than 20 years, but they say the battle is not over and they’re going back for more. And this time, it is different.

Ever since the early 1970s when strangers in Whitehall first decided to build a motorway from Winchester to Southampton, twisting a tarmac belt around the throat of the Wessex hills, they have fought within the law. Now they have lost, but more than that, they feel that they have lost unfairly to an enemy which lied and cheated and played the kind of dirty tricks that were last seen when MI5 took on the peace movement. So now, they say, they will fight without the law.

Alan Weeks is the most respectable of men. He has grey hair and a grey suit, spectacles and an umbrella in case it rains. He is 59, he is single and he has spent his life working as a local government official. In his capacity as secretary of the Winchester City Residents Association, he regularly attends meetings of the Police Liaison Committee. Now, listen to Alan Weeks: “I cannot countenance the destruction of this landscape. I believe it would be immoral to sit back and let it happen and so I am now prepared to take direct action which may break the law. I do not know personally whether I should lay down in front of the bulldozer or set it alight, and I do not want to injure people or damage property, but it is my view that there is no other option for local people but direct action.”

Or listen to David Croker, an active member of the Conservative Party since he was 16 and, for the last 13 years, a Conservative member of Winchester City Council. He is now 60 with a pipe and a baggy sweater and this year, for the first time, he refused to pay his party subscription: “I have never deliberately broken the law in my life, but the law doesn’t seem to apply when it is imposed in an arbitrary way, when the police are manipulated. If the law is inconvenient, they ignore it. In Eastern Europe, with all its terrors, the people rose and overthrew their government. It ought to be a darn sight easier to do it here. How else is a citizen supposed to take on the state?”

There was a time when these people still trusted the system and put their faith in the law. In 1980, they thought they had won when they pushed the motorway away from the edge of Winchester, but they soon discovered they were still losing when the motorway chose a new home a mile away, on Twyford Down. They still thought they would win in the end. After all, Twyford Down was protected: it harbours two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, two Scheduled Ancient Monuments and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Surely, they said, the law will not permit the beast to chew a path 400 foot wide and 100 foot deep through all this, blocking up rivers, uprooting oaks and chestnuts, smearing tarmac over the camomile and poppies. They were wrong.

They fought with tactics which the beast has seen a hundred times. They signed petitions, wrote letters, showed slides, wrote pamphlets, held rallies, wrote appeals, hired lawyers, wrote cheques. They raised £100,000 and took on the Department of Transport fact by fact, point by point. The department said local people wanted the road; they paid for a Harris opinion poll, which proved the opposite. The department said that 27 species of butterflies and 9 varieties of wild orchid could be transplanted from Twyford Down to another location; they went to English Nature (formerly the Nature Conservancy Council) who said this was nonsense. The department said that their alternative route, through a tunnel, could not be built; they proved it could be.

Radical campaigners warned them it was pointless, but they decided to co-operate with the public inquiry, in 1985. As witnesses, they felt they were treated like criminals, but they persisted. The inspector closed the inquiry without hearing from crucial groups – the Countryside Commission and English Heritage – but they forced him to re-open the hearing in 1987. They believed they fought and won on every point – traffic flows, economic forecasts, geological surveys, cost benefit analysis – but when the report was finally published in 1990, they had lost all the same. They appealed to the European Commissioner, who was appalled to discover that the department had conducted no Environmental Impact Assessment, and last autumn he ordered a halt to the plan. The Department of Transport ignored the order. The protestors went to the High Court and begged for help, but Mr Justice McCullough took the department’s side.

Looking back, David Croker believes that they never really had a chance. “I don’t come to positions lightly, but you sit back and you look at all that has happened and you have to conclude that the system is rigged. Most people trust the government but we have to wake people up to the fact that you can’t trust them. They will stop at nothing to get their way.”

David Croker has seen some dirty play. He believes his telephone has been tapped, and it appears that this is not merely the paranoia of an angry man. On one occasion, he was in the campaign office in Winchester talking on the phone to a supporter and later discovered that at home, in a village five miles outside the city, his wife had heard the entire conversation on her phone. On another occasion, using the office phone, Croker heard a conversation which two supporters had held several days earlier.

“I was listening to a recording. They run them back and it was possible to hear it. We had a security chap in to sweep the office for bugs and we had to go out into the street when we wanted to talk privately on a couple of occasions. It’s not going to make any difference to the way I behave, but it indicates the sort of tactics they are prepared to stoop to, it makes you disillusioned.”

They also believe that the road lobby put a “mole” amongst them, an apparently loyal supporter who attended their meetings and then suddenly lost interest. Months later, at a hearing of the pubic inquiry, they discovered that the department had managed to obtain the minutes of all their meetings. They looked closely at the minutes, found that they were photocopies and discovered that a private letter had been accidentally scooped up with them. It was written to their supposedly loyal supporter, who, they now discovered, had a close relative working in the Department of Transport. Recently, one campaigner discovered that a close relative who works in Whitehall had also been pressed to supply information on the campaign.

These people are now not only desperate but deeply indignant. In their new willingness to engage in civil disobedience, they are drifting into an unexpected alliance with Earth First, the radical movement for direct action to protect the environment. Their supporters have set up a teepee at the foot of Twyford Down and are trying to attract national support for a campaign of non-violent resistance. Now they are being joined by this middle class rebellion of guerillas in sensible shoes. The first skirmishes have already begun.

The battle field is an ancient water meadow at the foot of Twyford Down, where a 300-year-old canal, known as The Navigation, meets the thick, brown River Itchen as it curls slowly past the sleeping cattle on its route southwards to the Solent. The Navigation is being buried alive. Men with hard hats and bull dozers have dug a deep trough, laid a cement floor, constructed a drainage pipe with a three-foot diameter and once they have coaxed the old canal to flow into the pipe, they will bury it all in crushed chalk and tarmac and launch their motorway upwards, over its grave, up Twyford Down, from whose great green side they have already torn a deep flap of flesh.

In March, the men, who work for Mowlem Construction, struggled to work with the Navigation’s water slapping round their ankles, but then they went upstream and opened old ‘swallow holes’ in the side of the canal and released the water into the meadow, so that their site was dry. Protesters went and repaired the holes. Mowlem went and opened them. The protesters went back and repaired them again. Mowlem called the police. The police stood guard while Mowlem re-opened the wounds in the canal’s bank. Dr Chris Gillham, an intensely reasonable physicist, saw them and, sensing trouble, he tape-recorded the conversation which he then had with the police.

So it is a matter of record that when Dr Gillham asked them on whose authority they were damaging the bank of the canal, the police replied that they had the permission of the National Rivers Authority. But Dr Gillham called the NRA, in Winchester and in Romsey, and discovered that neither of them had sanctioned any such work. Dr Gillham went to the North Walls police station in Winchester and asked the inspector the same question. The inspector failed to answer and kept him waiting so long that he had to leave, so it was the next day before Dr Gillham finally cornered the inspector and recorded his claim that the work had been authorised – by the same NRA official in Winchester who had already assured Dr Gillham that he had done no such thing.

The chairman of the parish council lent his boat, Olive, to the protesters so that they could sail up the Navigation into the teeth of the bulldozers. Juliet McBride, a legal executive with four children, from Southampton was arrested in April and held over night for towing Olive towards the drainage pipe. In June, she went back to the site and found a young man sitting in front of the Navigation, with a mechanical digger burying him up to his waist in crushed chalk. She climbed on to the digger and made it stop. When it started again, she clambered into its bucket. The driver lifted it high and dumped her hard onto the ground. She stood on the Navigation bank, where a Mowlem lorry emptied broken chalk over her shoulders. The police arrested her for breaching the peace. An hour later, they arrested a second woman, Blue Joyce, for refusing to leave the site.

After a night in the cells, the two women were brought up before Winchester magistrates who accepted the unusual argument that they were breaching the peace because they were provoking the men from Mowlem to the point where they might do something violent. They were told they would be bound over to keep the peace. Blue Joyce, who has small children, agreed. Juliet McBride refused and was promptly committed to Holloway for six months. A barrister friend went to the High Court and got her bail, and she is now waiting for more court hearings to decide her fate.

Last week, Weeks and Croker and their allies met to talk tactics. They met, too, with John Tyme, a veteran of 60 motorway inquiries and the most implacable enemy of the road lobby. His advice was clear: “I’m afraid you must break the law. You must disrupt the building of this road so frequently that it becomes unprofitable to proceed. You must continually bleed the government’s confidence. You must organise nationally, bring others down here. It will not be easy but the only way to do this is to break the law.”

Around the campfire, outside the Earth First teepee, the atmosphere is a reproduction of the earliest days at Greenham Common, the same angry passion, even some of the same people, and the same sense of a long struggle finally coming to a head, an urgent desire here and now finally to stop the beast.