The Land Comes Alive
On April 23rd, St George’s Day, 300 land activists descended onto a disused airfield in Surrey. Over the course of the following week a demonstration of possibilities took place, highlighting what could be done if access and use of the countryside were not the exclusive preserve of the wealthy few. Jim Carey spoke to some insiders and reconstructs the story.
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pp. 26-27
Right up until the night before, everyone thought the ‘Land Is Ours’ Occupation was to take place on St George’s Hill in Surrey. It certainly made historical sense. In 1649 the Diggers had chosen the spot to squat and cultivate crops, an action designed to establish the rights of people to occupy land and grow their own food. In 1649 however, St George’s Hill was a stretch of wasteland. Today it is an exclusive golf course and private estate, with million pound mansions and private tennis courts to match.
For the months preceding the occupation, several national newspaper references announced that a land action was due to take place on St George’s Day - April 23rd, and that it was to be a historically thematic occupation based on the the activities of the Diggers. It didn’t take much guessing to arrive at St George’s Hill as the most likely site. Indeed, up until the night before, everyone thought it was.
“Are you going to the action on St George’s Hill, oops I mean St George’s Day,” was the common joke.
And so as a small group of initiators unfolded the map of Surrey that night, a vital decision had to be made about whether to go to the place now so obvious.
Right from the conception of the idea, it was decided that one of the most important features of the occupation was that it should be a proactive rather than a reactive action. That it would show what the culture could do, rather than simply criticising the Government for there efforts to prevent it being done. In keeping with this theme, the opportunity of demonstrating the potentials of a piece of waste-ground over the course of one week seemed preferable to battling with the police in a short-lived ritual occupation of St George’s Hill.
The decision had to made in secrecy. The world and its dog thought the convoy would be heading to St George’s Hill on April 23rd and so, provided absolutely no information leaked out about the new site, it was a good decoy.
Consequently, many of the protesters transported to the new site at Wisley airfield in Surrey, arrived in surprise; the necessity for secrecy meant that it could not have been done any other way.
Whilst the convoy of coaches made its way from London, two people did a final reccy of the site. A police helicopter had buzzed overhead earlier but otherwise the area seemed clear.
And then suddenly a police car appeared at the other end of the long airstrip. Had they guessed? The two recciers sidled off between the crops and made their way back through an adjacent farm to the front gate. When they reached the entrance, the police car had gone, suggesting they had only been checking the site as a ‘possible’.
By this stage, the front gate, which had been unlocked the night before by activists, was wide open and a farmer was burning some grass nearby. Fortunately, he drove off the site in his tractor but had left the gate open as if intending to return shortly.
Over the radio it was possible to hear that the convoy was being trailed by the police, and that they had stationed motorbike officers on the bridges over the A3. However, a third reccier, cruising the locality and visiting local police stations, reported there to be no build up of riot vans at any of the stations in the area; although he had noticed a police car continually driving up and down the road on the southern perimeter of St George’s Hill.
At one stage, as he was looking for Woking police station, he stopped to ask a man in a green jacket where the police station was.
“No problem,” says the man. “I’m going there myself, give me a lift and I’ll show you.” As he prepared to climb into the car, the third reccier noticed the dark blue trousers and shiny shoes and lunged over to remove the stacks of ‘Land Is Ours’ literature strewn over the front seat. Fortunately, the policeman was too busy balancing a tray of McDonalds breakfasts to notice the stack of leaflets go flying into the back of the car. “Much going on today,” asked the redder, recovering his composure.
“No not really,” says the policeman. “Very quiet today actually”. Intelligence indeed!
It was looking good - but had the farmer who was burning the grass gone to tell the police about finding the front gate unlocked that morning?
Tugging gratuitously at several roll-ups, the two recciers by the gate were still waiting anxiously when three Ford Sierras pulled up to the gate. “Is this the site?” cried the driver from a hastily unwound front window.
“Yes, but where the fuck’s the convoy?” came the reply from one of the recciers. They didn’t know - they were from the Guardian newspaper. No convoy, no occupiers but three car loads of Guardian journos and photographers!!? How did they know? Apparently they had been given maps, but if they knew, who was going to be arriving next - the convoy or the police?
A cavalier packed with police top brass pushed its nose into the gateway preventing its closure
To some relief, it was the convoy that came sailing through the gate five minutes later, accompanied by yet more journalists, satellite vans, TV crews, radio cars and unlock the gate one more time... here come yet more journalists. The gate keepers locked the gate and waited for the second convoy due in from Fleet service station, whilst the first convoy, with attendant media entourage, swept off into the distance to set up at the far end of the airfield.
In the meantime, the farmer returned in his tractor to bum more grass. A little bemused, he carried on his business. He enquired as to what the activity was all about, was told about the Diggers and access to the countryside and seemed content enough as long as he could continue to come in and out to bum his grass.
Whilst opening the gate to allow him out, a cavalier packed with police top brass pushed its nose into the gateway preventing its closure. As one of the gatekeepers tried to close the gate, the cavalier unexpectedly edged back and then, when the gate had been closed, sped away with the policemen inside, smiling?
The next the gatekeepers heard was that a police road block had been erected, meaning vehicles coming from Fleet were now unable to get through.
Up until this stage, all vehicles allowed on site were asked to unload and drive off again. It was an attempt not to give the authorities the opportunity to pull the ‘no more than five vehicles’ section of the Criminal Justice Act.
The next arrivals were the top brass police again, this time accompanied by a flat capped man described as the land leaseholder - John Maiklam. His identity was checked before he and the police were allowed on site. They disappeared up to the end of the airfield to speak to the activists who were setting up.... Silence.
Then the news came over - a deal had been reached, the occupiers stated they would occupy the land for a week and leave it better than they had found it. The land leaseholder had said OK. The police road block was lifted, the Fleet convoy arrived and all vehicles were allowed on site. The opportunity had been established.
That night a procession snaked its way on foot from the Wisley site to the St George’s Hill golf course three miles north, planting a tree on the spot where the Diggers had squatted. There were plenty of police in attendance although they did not intervene. Special Branch photographers skulked round the site, directed by their earpieces to photograph protesters for the great unaccounted files kept no one knows where, for reasons no one knows what.
The planted tree was fed with white wine before the procession made its way back through the woods in the pitch black and pouring rain. There was some seriously deep sleep had that night.
The next morning, at the first of the many talking circles that were to become one of the most impressive features of the occupation, a traveller stood up:
“Either we say to ourselves that we’re content just to hold the site and eat biscuits for breakfast in the pouring rain. Or we’re going to act as if we’re going to be here a long time and make sure that we sort the place out and really live here.”
The decision was made. This was a proactive site.
By the end of the week a kitchen, a bread oven, wood chipping walkways, a willow dome and several allotment beds had been constructed. A local woman had lent a bath tub to the site, which was placed near a stream. Water channelled into the bathtub was heated by a fire constructed underneath, providing an unexpected hot bath in the middle of nowhere.
One of the quiet celebrities of the occupation was a 63 year-old allotment holder called Eric, who travelled down from nearby Sutton, in order to help construct allotments on the site. His considered and earth-oozing espousal of working the soil on an allotment rubbed off on everybody. The occupiers were down there for a reason - and one of those turned out to be learning more about that reason. Access to the land - a reconnection with something fundamental but missing for so long.
“I’m pretty simple on top,” explained Eric holding a vegetable. “But this organic onion is 10,000 words - I grew it on my allotment”.
The occupiers travelled out to nearby shopping centres giving out leaflets and meeting members of the local population to explain the reasons behind the occupation, as well as the historic local precedent set by the Diggers. Many locals returned the extended hand, visiting the site with their families. Also visiting the camp during the course of the week was the local Vicar, who brought his guitar down to the site and played along to Billy Bragg’s on site gig. The result was an almost unanimous local support for the aims and conduct of the occupation, a fact the multiple media attention could not ignore.
And boy did they not ignore it. Newsnight, Channel 4 news, Sky News, BBC South-East, London Tonight, Radio 4’s Today programme, World Tonight, Costing the Earth and Farming Today, Radio 5 Live, Southern Counties Radio, The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Observer, New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, BBC Wildlife Magazine, Time Out, Dutch United Press and German TV.
It’s always a difficult situation having the media poking its camera lens into your life and, indeed, some of the more media-cynical occupiers of the camp felt uneasy about it. To a large degree the successful construction of the camp was due to collective experience gathered through festivals and traveller’s sites. The idea of living for a week in a media display case sat incongruously with some people’s idea of being in the countryside with a set of bender poles.
Broadcast descriptions of the camp as “the ragbag army - cut to the shot with the daisies in their hair, Dave,” didn’t help that unease. Neither did headlines such as: “There are pixies at the bottom of my field”.
However, during the powerful talking circles that genuinely ran the camp in an unhierarchical way, these concerns were voiced but a concensus was reached that a big part of such a campaign is to seek publicity for a vital political issue. Although much of the important politics of land issues went unreflected by the media coverage, it did serve to reintroduce the whole issue of land - a subject which up until now has commanded nowhere near the amount of attention it warrants.
By the end of the week a kitchen, a bread oven, wood chipping walkways, a willow dome and several allotment beds had been constructed.
In a sense the ‘Land Is Ours’ occupation warmed up the issue as a media topic, leaving the subject open to be populated with the hidden truths behind land exclusivity and access. At one talking circle held in the middle of the week the police were invited to attend.
One officer did not fully understand the response he received after admitting that the police “had not managed to gather much intelligence about the intentions of the occupiers,” a comment that dissolved the circle into an unrestrained bellyfull of ironic laughter.
On the Friday night, the Golf club on St George’s Hill gave unexpected permission for the camp to perform a play written and first performed on Twyford Down. Definitely not par for their course, and one more demonstration of how smooth the whole operation was proving to be. Once again most of the camp marched up the Hill - did the theatrical business on a fairway - and marched back down again.
On the final day the entire camp was deconstructed and all except the willow dome and the allotments were taken from the site. Every brick transported in to help construct the site was carted back up the hill. It was hard work but made for a tidy and well-sorted action, against which very few could complain.
The land was indeed left better than it was. The publicity surrounding the land issue was left better than it was. The protesters’ knowledge of how to construct a smooth-running occupation was left better than it was.
Timing seemed to fall miraculously in place throughout the entire course of the week - maximising its potential as a powerful example of all that is possible. The land must want to be ours.
The New Lords of the Land
No sooner had the Wisley / St. George’s Hill action ended than another intriguing leaflet was going around Oxford. ‘YOU HAVE NOT BEEN INVITED TO A 24 HOUR PICNIC’ it said.
Uninvited picnickers assembled on May 27th and set up camp at Shirburn Hill, beautiful chalk downland near Watlington, with stunning views over the Thames Valley. It’s part of 4,000 acres which the so-called “Viscount” Parker, the self-confessed “9th Earl of Macclesfield” claims to “own”.
Parker allows no access to this uncultivated land, and even opposes conservation management. It is crossed by one footpath, which he tries to obliterate, regularly removing the signposts. Hostile and paranoid, even by the standards of the aristocracy, Parker delights in personally evicting “trespassers” and has even been disowned by the Country Landowners’ Association.
Having seen nothing of the alleged “earl”, the picnickers went to see him, with The Independent and Small World in tow. Crossing the drawbridge of his crumbling moated castle, and banging endlessly on the portal, they eventually encountered him. All he would say was “I’m rather busy just now, but you will be removed in due course”. He expected the police would do this for him. No such luck. Old Bill reckoned there was no damage being caused (without even coming to check) and they had better things to do.
The next day he tried again, sending a bunch of “Park Rangers” to see off the intruding “morons” (his description). It seems they ranged no further than the pub, because - as Parker gleefully told the Press Association - they reported that no trespassers could be found and “they must have left”. The handful of locals resolutely asserting their right to use the footpath could have told him different. Nobody within half a mile could have missed the deliberately conspicuous site, now swollen with supporters from the Rambler’s Association and others. When the Oxford Times assured him the land was still occupied, Parker was livid, but too late. Twenty four hours having stretched to 30, the picnickers were lazily packing up a happy camp.
They say you know a revolution is really happening when the police change sides. Hasn’t happened yet, but the “earl” and his ilk, deserted and deceived by traditional allies and flunkeys in this case, are beginning to look a little isolated. Times are changing!
Viscount Paton, 27th Earl of Shirburn Hill (On behalf of the other 26 Earls)
Fruit Of The Earth - The wine and wisdom of Sutton Eric, at the Land Is Ours occupation at St Georges Hill - as told to Jim Carey and others - Squall 10, Summer 1995.
Past Plots and Future Fields - Shim Solomon looks at the continual erosion of access to land and enclosures in Britain over centuries, right up to today's CJA - Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995.