If You Newbury
Like I Newbury…
SQUALL 12, Spring 96, pp. 34-36.
A wide cross section of environmental activists have gathered to fight the mighty third battle of Newbury. Neil Goodwin reports back from the trenches and treehouses.
‘It seems just now to be happening so very fast;
That it isn’t going to last,
And that will be England gone;
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
And all that remains for us;
Will be concrete and tyres.’
PHILIP LARKIN ‘England Gone’ (1972)
After months of build-up the Third Battle of Newbury finally began on January 9. Four hundred fresh-faced Reliance security guards were driven up from London to face the assembled elite of Britain’s anti-roads movement. Veterans from four years of nationwide road protests (Twyford Down, the M11 Link, Solsbury Hill, Thanet Way, Stanworth Valley and the M77 in Glasgow) had drawn their line in the Berkshire mud.
The first day of clearance work was thwarted when campaigners staked out the security guards’ damp and dismal accommodation, waited for their seven coaches to arrive at its one and only access road, and blocked them in with two twenty-five foot tripods. The hordes of press that flocked to the area complete with satellite dishes and radio cars did the rest. “It just wasn’t the police’s day,” said the voice-over on the national news, as viewers saw film of a police “Evidence Gatherer” videoing the surreal scene with the lens cap still on.
One-nil to the campaign, with dozens of activists arriving by the hour, and a fax from the Ogoni people of Nigeria pledging solidarity. The visitors camp set up to accommodate the newcomers contained a caravan - a veteran from the women’s peace camp at nearby Greenham Common.
“I bet it’s bugged,” said one man as he boiled a kettle inside. “MI5 must be well confused. Years of anti-nuclear stuff coming through, then years of silence, and now the tape recorder’s going all weird about roads.”
Outside, in the communal kitchen area, a national newspaper journalist had arrived with two bottles of whisky, and got so stoned on home-grown she forgot how to write. “This one’s on Lord Rothermere [the paper’s proprietor],” she announced, handing the whisky around at the start of what turned out to be just one of many long sessions around the camp fire.
Back at the security compound the party was going with less of a swing “Strictly No Alcohol” and, even more perversely, “No Smoking”. Fearing insecurity from the security, phoning home was also banned. Four hundred miserable, and soon to be very muddy, security guards, with two cold showers between them and two cases of suspected food poisoning didn’t make for a very effective army at the beginning of this battle for Newbury. By the second day, the first mutineers among their ranks had already packed their bags and gone home.
Day Two began with people locking themselves onto vehicles and buildings outside the Reading coach station contracted out to Reliance. Faced with the prospect of hundreds of children not being able to arrive for PE or double maths that morning, the company backed down. Site clearance work did take place, though, in fits and starts, over the next few days aided by the Criminal Justice Act.
The DoT still have to contend with 14 highly organised and well defended “sky villages”. Underground lengthy tunnels have been dug “Viet Cong” style, while above, some tree houses, like the “Mother Ship” at Kennet camp, are large enough to sleep as many as fifteen people, complete with woodburners for warmth. One man is occupying a 120 foot high Canadian Pine with a thirty foot extension ladder lashed to the top. Needless to say, climbing harnesses have become as essential as good boots.
In Newbury passions are running high. With three Sites of Special Scientific Interest, rare heathland, ancient bogs, wildflower meadows and the River Kennet, one of England’s most beautiful and unpolluted rivers, due to be bulldozed, even the DoT’s own Landscape Advisory Committee has admitted that the bypass would be “massively destructive of a largely intimate landscape unable to absorb the impact of a major highway”.
“It would be in the nature of a desecration to build a road through a site of such profound significance in our national history,” says the actor and battlefield historian, Robert Hardy, referring to the two Civil War battlefields that cross it’s path.
“I am appalled by the way English Heritage are rewriting history, claiming the battles were skirmishes in two isolated fields which will only be slightly disturbed,” says Mark McCraig, a Newbury local. “We know that the armies of Charles I and parliament, fifteen thousand aside, fought a desperate battle. Casualties were anything between four and eight thousand. It was a turning point in English history. The front line of fighting would have covered over two miles, much of the landscape and hedgerows have remained unchanged.” His sentiments are shared by the “Sealed Knot”, the local historical re-enactment society, which regularly relives the 1643 battle in period costume.
Twelve archaeological sites will be destroyed; of these only a Mesolithic flint carving settlement directly linked to the temple at Avebury is to be properly excavated. A Roman villa, beneath the protesters camp next to the River Kennet and Avon Canal will be lost without record. Most noticeably the serenity of the proud and ancient setting of Donnington Castle will be lost forever as traffic pours past within a few hundred yards.
Newbury’s traffic problems reflect a global dilemma. Like countless other towns and villages its narrow streets have reached saturation point, choked by a continual flow of thunderous fume-belching traffic. Beleaguered citizens scurry along the pavements, nervously negotiating hazardous junctions. The tranquillity of this market town, now just a distant memory in the minds of elderly residents, has been tom apart.
Newbury’s first by-pass, built in the 1960s, encouraged the town to sprawl out, which in turn generated more traffic. Sainsbury’s recently built a superstore on one of its many roundabouts, cancelling out what little remained of the relief road’s effectiveness in easing congestion. Planning permission has already been sought for the building of five thousand new homes along the route of the new by-pass, a development which could introduce a further eight thousand cars into the local area. Far from solving the town’s traffic problems the new road will actually make matters worse.
“This road is about the financial and political gain that politicians, developers and landowners can make from it,” says Andrew Wood, from Newbury Friends of the Earth. “Arguments for the road simply cloak those vested interests. Those that support the by-pass are into portraying the opposition as outsiders, troublemakers and dole scroungers rather than arguing and debating the facts.”
There is a strong suspicion amongst campaigners that the scheme’s final go-ahead had more to do with internal wrangling amidst the Conservative Party than the interest of Newbury residents. A third of the route crosses the Hampshire Northwest constituency of Sir David Mitchell MP, who gave unexpected support to John Major in last July’s leadership elections. The next day he posed a parliamentary question in support of the by-pass. In his final act as Transport Secretary, Brian Mawhinney cancelled the year-long review of the scheme he had initiated the previous December and lit the blue touch-paper of protest.
At one stage David Rendel MP, who won a landslide victory for the Liberal Democrats in 1993’s Newbury by-election, arrived at the protest site and bore the brunt of local anger to the Western route. It has since been revealed by the Sunday Telegraph that Rendel encouraged local business leaders to orchestrate a letter writing campaign in favour of the by-pass to counter opponents which had dominated his postbag by a margin of eight to one. A recent questionnaire sent out to five hundred local businesses by the Newbury Business Club revealed a majority of those replying opposed the road.
Fred Gibson, a 72 year-old former private in the Essex Regiment, gave his war medals to a tree-dweller as “a mark of respect”.
“It’s absolutely crazy for Mr Rendel to say that most business people support the Western route," says Keith Berry, managing director of an electronics company. “Something has to be done about the traffic - perhaps by putting the A34 into a tunnel - but the cost of destroying nearly nine miles of such beautiful countryside is too high a price to pay."
Preliminary clearance work has now, as Squall goes to press, entered its sixth week. A mile long swathe has already been cut through Penn Wood at the Southern tip of the route. Reliance has exhausted £150,000 of its £500,000 budget. The Criminal Justice Act has claimed over 250 arrests (including a pantomime cow called Buttercup), and the policing bill already exceeds £1 million.
It has emerged that Thames Valley Police have been forced to ask the Home Office for extra funding, having been misled over the starting date for construction work. Charles Pollard, the Chief Constable, said that when his force was planning this year’s budget, the government announced that the bypass would not be going ahead “in the immediate foreseeable future" and therefore no provision was made for the current joint operation with Hampshire police, which is expected to cost more than £ 12 million.
Under the headline “Newbury bypass may be scrapped” a recent front page article in the trade journal Construction News has given the clearest indication yet that soaring costs and growing opposition are undermining the confidence of contractors in bidding for the scheme.
One of six potential bidders has warned: “I’m not sure local people are keen on the scheme and I get a feeling of a change in its political worth. Put that with the possibility of a high tender price (£20 million more than when it was originally tendered in 1994), and I’m not sure it will go ahead." Another bidder is reported as saying: “There’s a risk factor, due to the protesters. Some subbies have already pulled out after seeing the protests in the newspapers."
“We’ve raised the financial and political stakes of this road," said Rebecca Lush, from Road Alert. “Some have said that this is the last stand of the road protesters. That is rubbish! It’s the last stand of the desperate road lobby and their polluting, alienating car culture."
On February 11, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace co-ordinated Britain’s largest ever anti-roads gathering. Six thousand people, including TV celebrities and distinguished locals, turned out to walk the proposed route. At one stage, Fred Gibson, a 72 year-old former private in the Essex Regiment, gave his war medals to a tree-dweller as “a mark of respect", recalling how two of his friends had died in the Second World War “fighting for this green and pleasant land".
The rally was followed by a national day of action which saw demonstrations at the offices of Tarmac, one of the potential bidders for the scheme; Brays, the private detective agency; Mott-McDonalds, the design engineers; and Blue Arrow, the agency responsible for security recruitment. Clearance work had earlier been called off when most of the vehicles used to ferry the guards, experienced “mysterious defects”.
At the culmination of four years of “No compromise in defence of Mother Earth”, The Third Battle of Newbury looks set to dominate Britain’s environmental protest movement in 1996. And with the promise of an impassioned defence of every copse, hedgerow and meadow along the route, if you knew Bury like I knew Bury you'd also get down here and get your arse up a tree.
HANDY TIPS FOR THE WOULD-BE ECO-WARRIOR
In response to the wanton destruction that is now taking place on a daily basis, the “Third Battle” office is urging people to make their way to the protest site immediately, rather than wait around for the inevitable camp eviction. Here are some handy tips to bear in mind should you decide to take part:
1. This is a rural gig, so bring what you expect to find: tarp, rope, bow-saws, local A-Z, water containers, pots, pans, kettles & plates, torches, push bikes, food, mobile phones etc.
2. Find the Third Battle offices in town and sound out the most suitable camp to populate. The visitor’s camp is a good place to find your feet and get into the buzz (and mud), but try to establish yourself on route as soon as possible.
3. Sleep deprivation may be the cheapest trip on the market, but it makes for burnt-out ineffective protesters. Avoid getting voided-out by getting your head down on a regular basis.
4. No guilt tripping the office bods. There’s no offence intended but they don’t want to know about your lost dog, the £2.50 you need to get to Swindon or so-and-so’s tat pile; in the same way you don’t want to know about The Guardian’s fax number when you’re half way up a tree.
5. Contractors have been colour coded for our convenience. WHITE YELLOW and RED hats are security. Orange hats are either tree surgeons or surveyors. GREEN hats could also be surveyors, though the ones carrying cameras are from Brays Detective Agency. Don’t forget: CARELESS TALKS COSTS TREES.
6. If you are arrested, call out your name to the nearest legal observer. In the nick, beyond giving your name and address, exercise your fundamental right to silence. Phone a solicitor, and ask for a pen and paper to write down the details of your arrest. Carry a good book around (preferably not Eco-Defence!) to read in the cells.
So far the majority of arrests have been for Aggravated Trespass (Section 68), usually for pushing against the security lines. At the time of writing, Thames Va|ley police seem to be operating a voluntary system of issuing warnings first. Two arrests under Section 68 seem to result in bail conditions banning access to within 1km of the arrest site.
7. Above all, keep it peaceful. The gutter press would love to trash us. The State wants us to get all balaclava’d-up so that we alienate potential support. Peace, dignity, determination and humour are our strongest weapons.
We have already become more possible than they can powerfully imagine. See you there.
The Third Battle of Newbury
01635 550552 (24hr recorded info line) or
01635 45544 / 45545
NEWS OF THE SKEWS - a look at the Daily Mail's hysterical coverage of Newbury - Squall 12, Spring 1996
NEWBURY BYPASS: Battle-lines Drawn - Ian Freeman introduces the contesters in the Third Battle of Newbury - Squall 11, Autumn 1995
Pro-Newbury Bypass Lobby Grows - Momentum is gathering for the Newbury Bypass - Squall 10, Summmer 1995
For a menu of many other Squall articles about the Anti-Roads Movement, including protest camps, Reclaim The Streets and more click here