In Defence Of Stanworth Valley
The eviction of No M65 protesters from Stanworth Valley at the beginning of May saw over 60 arrests. The eviction took five days, a testament to the effectiveness of tactics employed by activists. Ian Freeman documents the eviction and history of the protest, Catherine Grivas offers a personal account of the experience (see below).
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pp.22-23
by Ian Freeman
Thursday May 11th 1995 saw the first anniversary of the No M65 campaign and the moment was marked by a mass trespass of the route.
With 75 people bail-restricted from the site due to the previous week’s eviction of Stanworth Valley, the 20 or so unaffected protesters marched peacefully along the five-mile scar in the Earth that Amec, and MacAlpine have so far managed to gouge out of the South Lancashire countryside. Cuerden Valley Nature Reserve is now criss-crossed by three motorways and, not surprisingly, local people now understand the need for direct action.
Exactly a year previously, Lancaster and Liverpool Earth First! began the action against the M65 by first occupying a farmhouse on route and then moving into Cinder Path Woods. Despite persistent direct action, protesters were unable to stop the cutting of trees. By June 21st ‘94 only two trees remained occupied. They were under siege for two weeks whilst the sheriff got the paperwork right. By August 2nd the woods were completely destroyed.
Subsequently, a camp was established in Stanworth Valley and the first significant action involved Greenpeace providing two JCBs to dig up roadworks and a hundred people to wear ‘Trees not Tarmac’ T-shirts and plant trees. By the end of the summer the first platforms were up in the trees and by April this year, after one of the wettest winters this century, 41 tree-houses had been built with 6km of polypropolene rope strung between them forming what was to become an effective system of walkways. The Tofu Love Frogs appeared and together with Tragic played a stompingly good gig in the valley.
The legal battle to stop the destruction of Stanworth Valley ended on April 26 and that weekend more than 300 activists gathered to defend the trees. In a defiant party mood, last minute preparations made way for Beltane celebrations. With music all around and the forces of doom and destruction gathering on the hill, the contractors compound was stormed by naked protesters leaving Group 4 in an embarrassed quandary.
Monday morning (May 1st) saw the start of the madness. The Sheriff hired a team of climbers to do the dirty work, although this didn’t stop bailiffs endangering lives with crazy stunts. People defending walkways, some 70-90ft high, had them cut from underneath them. Without any warning people were grabbed and had their harnesses cut. Astoundingly, bailiffs with no knowledge of safety procedures were sent into the trees with knives, an immediate betrayal of the Sheriffs pre-eviction agreement. No-one had expected the Sheriff to stick to his word, but no-one expected aerial knife fights. In one incident someone was stabbed in the hand. In another, someone was dragged down with a rope round their neck resulting in rope-burns. It is pure chance that there were no deaths or serious injuries.
Adrenalin flowed, tempers flared and the media put out distorted reports of violent resistance which they subsequently admitted were lies. Indeed, it was the unsafe procedures used by bailiffs that were violent. Despite a brutal first day, only five tree-houses had been taken and 10 people arrested. Some of the cut walkways were replaced. Although 53 vehicles had pulled up that morning, along with a lot of costly ‘he-man- power’, to hack down the woods, all they gained at the end of the first day was a pathetic amount of ground and they were still unable to get the cherrypickers in.
First light on Tuesday and you could already feel the temperature rising. The dawn chorus was drowned by cries of “Aruga!” followed by machinery; the chainsaws were early. More madness on the walkways, absurdity on the ground, a helicopter in the sky, cameras out of shot and, up in the trees, a different world. The Sheriffs climbers moved in again and took another six tree-houses, but they still hadn’t cleared a way to the valley floor.
The cargo nets which had been so effective at Claremont Road proved difficult to defend and despite spirited attempts to delay the bailiffs with interesting knot workshops, at least five people were mauled and removed. Wednesday night and Liz’s tree on the west bank of the valley was re-occupied and walkways replaced. With over 50 arrested by now and some re-arrested for breaking bail conditions, they had now cleared a way for the big cherrypicker to get to the valley floor.
Unleashed chainsaws ripped through the valley, carelessly (or purposefully?) felling trees onto inhabited trees to screams of “murderers”. Bulldozers gouged the earth, hitting the shallow roots of beech trees, also inhabited; more screams, then silence.
Thursday morning and what seemed like security, but later turned out to be police, were seen cutting walkways with blades tied to poles. A man with a chainsaw was in the trees, and then for some reason decided to scamper down. It emerged that some particularly enthusiastic and successful protesters had been isolated in readiness for the day’s operation. However, before the cherrypicker arrived, all the walkways had been replaced and improved.
The walkway leading out of the compound was well-defended and, together with the whole system, remained an extremely effective means of delaying the eviction and providing escape routes for those who needed to get out.
Friday evening and it was done. Over 120 people had been removed from the trees, over 60 arrested and all (plus 13 arrested in February whilst defending six houses further along the route) invited to a serious party in, on, under, outside and around Blackburn courthouse on June 13th at 1.30pm.
The local population of Blackburn had been won over. Support came flooding in from local people. Free bus rides led to free chips and free beer and almost led to popular uprising. Visible proof that you can’t kill the spirit beamed out of those woods; people made the connection that this is not a game. Lives were put at risk because lives are at risk; at risk from big business ravenously consuming our environment, creating more transport chaos, more pollution in the pursuit of profit.
So far, the No M65 campaign has added an extra £2.2 million to the cost of this senseless road. And the campaign goes on with actions planned and more and more people coming out to defend their environment. The anti-roads movement has gained strength and support from Stanworth Valley and the whole country is, perhaps, realising that we can do something to stop the madness.
Skills and harnesses are now focussing on the new DBFO road near Exeter, with Sequoias and giant Oaks inviting offers of occupation and the private sector planet- wreckers taking a second look at the cost involved. Let’s make it unworkable. VIVA STANWORTH.
by Catherine Grivas
Lancashire Under-Sheriff, Andrew Wilson’s assertions that protesters had been violent was widely circulated in media coverage of the Stanworth Valley eviction.
What constitutes violence is a matter for debate. There is no doubt for me, having spent two days and three nights in a tree-house hearing the continual sound of trees being chainsawed, the hideous crack as the trunk finally gives way followed a couple of seconds later by the crash of branches hitting the ground, that this was the most disturbing and technically violent aspect of the eviction.
I did see behaviour I considered constituted violence; a stray boot connecting with the hard hats from the protesters after some unnecessary pulling and twisting from the Sheriff’s men. I was surprised by the Sheriff’s men (and they were all men) undertaking to evict 60 feet from the ground without adequate safety harnesses, nor being clipped onto anything. The speed and ferocity with which the sheriff conducted the first day of the eviction could only exacerbate the situation. How does one respect or respond to those who will put people at risk, those who don’t seem to respect themselves?
The whole eviction was very emotional, I saw and cried plenty of tears, but it was underpinned with humour and positivity. At times I had the feeling of being a spectator at some dangerous and exciting sporting event. The reality of losing an old wood is sobering. It is only a consolation that we cost the Department of Transport a lot of money. Money they won’t be able to spend on more roads. I feel a massive amount of frustration at the arrogance of a state that will continue to build roads against the wishes of a large percentage of the population.
On one of my many visits to Stanworth Valley I met a local retired couple who had attended the initial public planning meeting for the M65. They registered their opposition to the road extension but felt it had been a waste of time going through the “proper channels” as “those in power had already decided they were going to build a road and did not want to enter into discussion about it”.
This was my first environmental campaign, I doubt it will be my last. The environment is only one aspect of what people in Britain today have to fight for. We are also deserving of jobs, education and housing, respect, liberty and justice. Being part of the No M65 campaign has introduced me to many people from a wide range of backgrounds. Their resourcefulness, commitment and positivity is enlightening. A common criticism is that we are idealistic. As the campaigning group Earth First! say, there can be no compromise in the defence of Mother Earth, there is no future without her. It’s not about idealism, it’s about realism.
ROAD WARS (Squall 8) - Nationwide round-up of road protests including: Solsbury Hill, Stanworth Valley, Newbury, Pollock, and Cardiff Bay - Squall 8, Autumn 1994.
ROAD WARS (Squall 9) - 'Free State Of Pollok' against the M77 in Scotland, 'Sky Village' at Stanworth Valley, plus the spectre of more - Squall 9, Jan-Feb 1995
For a menu of many other Squall articles about the Anti-Roads Movement, including protest camps, Reclaim The Streets and more click here