Battle of the lone pine

The Guardian Weekly April 6 1996

By Jay Griffiths and John Vidal

The war of the woods is nearly over. Bulldozers press inexorably on along the route of the Newbury bypass. But on one day last month, the trees struck back and the protesters won brief, symbolic victory

The CB radio crackles into life at 5.30am. All night, from the highest platform in the pine, Greg has been keeping watch for bailiff climbers. He is freezing. His gloved hands fiddle clumsily with the yellow knobs. Now he can make out the message: «Hello, Reddings Copse, there are reports of police activity in Skinners Lane. Security convoy moving south. Climbers and police, too. It's you today, Reddings Copse.»

Greg, who was once selected for training as an RAF officer, has spent five months living in treehouses in the copse, waiting for this moment. He connects as alarm to a car battery. The siren shrieks over Berkshire and in treehouses all along the nine-mile route of the Newbury bypass other radios relay the warning of the coming evictions.

There are 250 or more oaks and birches in Reddings Copse but there is only one Corsican Pine. You can see this, the tallest tree on the bypass route, five miles away, towering over the surrounding trees, river and heathland. Nearby oaks are 80 feet tall, gnarled and crooked. The birches are 60 feet and slight. The pine, almost 15 feet in circumference at its base, is 150 feet tall and ramrod straight. From its top, you can see the swathe of felled trees where the A34 bypass will run. On the horizon, through the chill clammy late-winter air, you can make out open farmland that was once a battlefield where the Roundheads fought the Cavaliers in 1643 and again in 1644. The Kennet canal to the west are just visible through the mists.

One tree with no branches for 75 feet; one rope running down the tree. You winch your way up, heading for a square of candlelight showing through a trap-door 105 feet above you. Hanging in the middle of blackness, you can hear no voices, either from above or below. Once up in the branches, you clamber past the bucket which is used to haul up food, water, wood and tools. Past the yellow peril of the piss bucket, and the Union Jack pinned on the side of the tree. The last to arrive pulls up the rope and shuts the trapdoor. You are in the lowest treehouse in the pine. The first up has lit the woodburning stove and put the kettle on.

Built of old pallets and doors, beams and branches, this treehouse is roped to the tree, fortified on the outside with barbed wire and cosified on the inside with blankets and sleeping bags. Even the walls are carpeted. The space, about three metres square and divided by branches, is part radio station, part larder, part sleeping area. Twenty feet higher up this multi-storey protester-park, a second treehouse sleeps two, and has a precarious lookout platform in front. On this crowsnest, the bitter chill of one of the bitterest of winters is keener than anywhere.

Inside, the main treehouse is snug: 18 people are sleeping over branches, under branches, around each other. When you wake, you can hear the birds underneath you and a crying wind in the nearby oak and birch woods. Sometimes spiders crawl over you and soft snows of pine dust fall through the branches.

Another day and another battle in this very uncivil theatre of modern civil war is about to start. In the pine, eviction is here and happening in the form of 50 police vans and a dozen buses full of security guards who are arriving in the copse.

The frontline of the Third Battle of Newbury has shifted every day since January when the tree fellers moved in to cut down 10,000 trees. Protesters came from all over Britain to occupy trees and set up camps. You get dolees on this protest, and you get children of the aristocracy. You find university graduates and local teenagers who are threatened with expulsion from school. You see products of the sink estate system. There are some full-time protesters, there are a few full-time troublemakers, and there are locals who provide the protesters with food, baths, drinks. Clearing the nine-mile stretch of trees and people has cost the state at least £40,000 a day for more than 10 weeks.

Hundreds of policemen from two forces and the most sophisticated technologies have been needed to clear at most 500 people armed with little more than sticks, rope and cooking utensils. The town of Newbury is increasinly polarised, but the expected backlash against the protesters has not materialised except from local vigilantes who broadcast their hostility on CB radios and occasionally torch hedges or cut rope bridges near camps. This morning it's mild: «Support the bypass...fell a protester.» It's a child's voice. «Sick,» says Greg.

When the contract work to clear the trees began, there were just six aerial «villages». In a few weeks this grew to 28 with more than 120 treehouses. Some were no more than «twigloos» -- small platforms with hazel whips bent over and covered in blue plastic, sleeping two at most. Others, like the «Mothership» at Kennet camp, stretched across nine or 10 trees, with separate kitchens and sleeping areas, able to accommodate up to 20. All bar one or two have now been destroyed. But as one camp went, others sprang up.

Two hours after Greg has sounded the alarm, the police and bailiffs are in Reddings Copse and Scouse Mick is in full voice at the very top of the pine. When he isn't bellowing oaths over Berkshire, he works on a rented permaculture smallholding with a small son. Below him are four police horsemen and 100 officers. At least 1,000 security men have surrounded the area and blocked off the road. A fluorescent yellow line of guards stretches down the old railway embankment into the freezing mists. Professional climbers, employed by the bailiffs, have arrived and shinned up nearby trees to cut rope walkways connecting the Corsican Pine to other trees.

Mick is joined at the top of the tree by Tata who, at 28, has given up work after 10 years to live at Newbury. «Why in God's name would you want to destroy your own country?» she yells down from the branches. Scouse Mick is more basic: «This is your land,» he hollers. The echo comes back seconds later, «Your land...your land

Thirty feet below them in the main treehouse, 15 people are on a war footing. Howie has whitened his face with chalk from Twyford Down, appropriate as he is one of only two veterans of «Yellow Wednesday», the battle in December 1992 when the first direct-action road protesters challenged the Government's £23 billion road-building programme. John is relieving himself into a plastic container. Mike fills rubber gloves with magnolia silk emulsion, Seamus and Alice make flails with lengths of cheap blue plastic rope and six-foot staves to jam up chainsaws. Fire extinguishers are passed up to the top platform, rope is passed down. The pine is being dressed urgently in barbed wire, and anything that can be thrown at the bailiffs is being prepared: disinfectant (appropriately pine-scented), rice, urine. Protesters find lock-on points where they will attach themselves to delay the eviction. Two men consider chaining their necks around the trunk of the pine. Padlocks, handcuffs, chains and D-locks are ready.

Even as they prepare their defences for the coming battle, the CB speaks again. A giant cherry-picker, reputedly the largest in Britain, if not Europe, has arrived in Newbury with two smaller ones and is said to be heading to Reddings Copse to take the pine, says Base. In half an hour the machines are there. Hundreds of security guards excort the modern-day siege tower to within 20 yards of the pine. Lying down, it's squat and lifeless. Extended and stretching itself, it's all phallus as it pumps itself up to its full 200 feet extension.

The protesters in the treehouse watch it rise and swivel with a mix of awe, horror and increased defiance. It towers over the pine, larger than anything expected. It's Man reaching over Nature. The machine circles, passes way over the tree, seeming to sniff its prey. «It's modernity,» says one of these tree-protesters, «It's a metal tree.» «Christ,» says Ralph. «All this to get a few people out of a tree.»

The campaign to stop the Newbury bypass has been ambidextrous. The protesters, supported by individual donations via Friends of the Earth and help-in-kind from climbing firms and other environment groups, have CB link-ups, decoys and route trackers in Newbury gathering information at dawn. They follow guards' movements, keep watch for sightings of special machinery. The intelligence operations, discussions of co-ordinated strategy, and some deft agitprop are organised from HQ. On the other hand, there is very private «pixie» or sabotage work going on, too. Machinery gets nobbled in the night, sometimes buses don't start, sugar finds its way into the engines of earthmovers. Brake cables have reportedly been cut. These are secret, one-off, self-appointed tasts.

Most of the resistance is inventive, peaceful and suffused with humour. One man plans to get hold of lion shit, «bacause all mammals except humans are scared of the smell of it. The police horses just might misbehave,» he says. There is a puckish glee in reports of a guard being tipped into a canal, and there is a wily slipperiness in one protester's escape from the clutches of the law -- arrested and handcuffed, he ran to a known «safe house» and got his handcuffs off with washing up liquid. Another avoided eviction for hours by climbing trees naked and covered in vaseline. «The security guards couldn't grab him,» says Howie. «They're too homophobic to hug you.»

There are inevitable overtones of wartime resistance: the «safe houses», the need for ingenuity, for secrecy, and for trust. Newbury protesters feel themselves in the grip of a ferocious moral imperative. «What we've got is passion. All they've got is four quid an hour,» says one protester, of the security guards.

The protesters risk their safety, and they risk being fined and criminalised for their love of trees. («You wouldn't do it for a hedge,» says Guy.) Locals, too, adopt protest camps, inviting their neighbours' opprobrium. But what do the protesters think of the trees? «A tree? It's just phoouaagh. It's so alive, it's so `fuck-off-I'm-a-tree-ha-ha'.» Ollie, deliberately daft, rolls his eyes skyward. Howie, more dryad than man, says: «You tune into a tree and it takes away negative feelings.»

The relation between tree-dweller and tree is porous. The protesters come to physically resemble their trees, dreadlocks like ivy, bark-covered clothes, leaves in their hair. Reciprocally, the trees have human emotions attributed to them -- the «grumpy oak», the «anxious» granny ash. «I could tell my tree was pissed off,» says Tess, ex-opera student.

Sam, an ecology graduate, makes distinctions: «When they were cutting pines, it didn't get to me because they're forest plantation. But when it's beech and oak and native deciduous trees, it's like they're screaming when they go down. I've cried for trees.»

The battle has been fought by the majority of the protesting army with specifically non-violent direct action, but the gentle approach has not always held. On the frayed edges of the road-protest movement are those with more corrosive intent. «I'm fed up of this fluffy shite,» says one man at the bottom of the pine. «We'll ninja out and gedd'em [the security guards].» And the protesters' self-recruitment policy takes all comers: there is the «brew crew» minority, lurching out of a morning, after too much Tennants on an empty night and a late stomach. A woman with half-cut hair, half-clothed in a summer dress in freezing weather, screams in a mad monotone at the guards.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the bypass, whatever Newbury's traffic problems, or the truth behind the disputed statistics, the protest has become one about national identity. The bypass route runs through several Englands, from the ancient water meadows at Rickety Bridge to the planted industrial forestry of the Pen woods. There is the almost tangible history of the first two Civil War battles, and the prehistory of neolithic remains. Parts of the route must be as beautiful as anywhere in England. Rack Marsh is a place of silence you hold your breath for. Woodpeckers can be heard drumming at the Granny Ash camp. Kennet canal has a reticent English charm where the muted blue water runs through pale rushes. There is an old white five-bar gate, an ivied gatepost and a felt tip sign in wonky little letters saying: «Please close the gate.» (It doesn't.)

By building a bypass here, says Nick, a graduate in his twenties, «they hit everything that could represent the spirit of Englishness.» Howie, nodding to hundreds of security guards, says: «They are the Romans. We're the Britons. They are the invaders, the yellow army.» Union Jacks are pinned to many trees in Newbury, although most of the protesters are of the generation that grew up since nationalism and the flag were claimed by the National Front. Here is patriotism quite new. «I want to defend this land. I wouldn't defend anything else -- not the Welfare State or anything but this,» says Melsky.

Tara says: «My grandad didn't die in the war for you to trash this land. He loved this country. He was fighting for this England.» Theo, professional songwriter and musicial, says: «It's the land, this land. Nationalism's crap, but everything that makes a place unique is important.»

For many locals, too, this is an issue not of a road but of belonging. «When I was seven, my mother taught me the names of all the trees I cclimbed in Great Pen Wood,»says one 25-year-old Newbury woman. «I caught minnows in the River Enbourne...I kissed my first boyfriend when I was 14 on Snelsmore Common and four years later I lost my virginity in The Chase. My place of clear water, my place of learning is being razed by a process that calls itself democracy.»

By the banks of the Kennet canal, Mary is in tears. «This is the last time that this stretch of countryside may ever know quietness.» She is inconsolable. She talks of playing Swallows and Amazons here. «This was my childhood,» she says. For Rudolph de Salis, from on of the oldest families in the region, it is a tragedy. The former Bonham's art dealer is now in the pine.

By 11am the Battle of Reddings Copse is hotting up. The protesters sound like a troupe of disturbed howla monkeys. The cherry-pickers have with ease knocked down two other treehouses in oaks beside the pine, to choruses of defiance from «Jelly». Jelly is a one-woman, one-volume radio station. «Yer a child ov Muvver Natecher -- surprised she doesn't hate cher,» she yells at the fluorescent army below. «She's got a gob on her, hasn't she?» -- admiring murmur from a male protester who can't, full-throated, get the echo off the hills which Jelly FM can get in her sleep.

As bulldozers set to work to push over the evicted, dismembered oaks, the giant cherry-picker comes for the pine. Its platform holds four men. One is at the controls, one has ropes and a visor, one a chainsaw, another wire cutters. They test the lower treehouse defences, approaching it first from above, then from below, clipping the barbed wire as they go. Protesters try to jam up the chainsaws. Someone throws rice through a small window in the treehouse tarpaulin. Others get paint and go «bailiff-decorating». On one of the upper platforms, someone accidentally spills a tub of urine. «I was saving that for the bailiffs,» says another.

The platform comes closer, cutting through the domestic hail. There are oaths and screams. A bailiff's man throws back a half-bag of rice. The chainsaw man is now coated in gloss pink; he wields his saw and swears he will beat up Ralph when he gets him in the platform. Ralph, unattached on one of the ropewalkways between the pine and Jelly's tree, takes a kick at the bailiff's helmet. The machine backs off.

Now the cherry-picker's platform moves right up beside the lower treehouse. The chainsaw man starts to cut the branches under it, then moves to the branches above. They are cutting the branches that the treehouse is roped on to. As one large branch is sawn, there is a terrible crack which judders the whole tree. The treehouse shakes. There are screams of protest, fear and warning. Now they are cutting within six, within three feet of the people in the treehouse. Tara pokes a stave pathetically at the chainsaw man. The noise is deafening. The fear mounts. They cut another branch, even closer. The tree shakes. So do you. The ground 100 feet below seems further. You are at a fatal height. Someone shouts, «Look out!» and a branch breaks right behind you. The chainsaw man is smiling. How does he feel? «I'm enjoying myself,» he says.

Mick and two others are now locked on to the ladder that sticks up from the tip of the pine. Some protesters on the upper platform have now taken off their safety harnesses and are unattached to the tree. By deliberately increasing their fragility, they hope to force the climbers to take more care. More care equals more delay.

Suddenly the cherry-picker platform leaves the treehouses and soars upwards to Mick's ladder sticking 15 feet above the pine. Here a Union Jack flies next to two protesters' flags. In a bizarre echo of medieval warfare, the bailiffs go for the protesters' colours. The men on the platform lean over and saw them off, but the Union Jack is defended and held. The machine swoops downwards to the ground, to the bailiffs' laughter and the guards' cheers.

Flag language is usually simple and iconic, but it is here used for a subtly eloquent argument. By flying the Union Jack, the protesters like to thing they have grouped themselves on the side of the oaks and history of England. They draw a distinction between love on one's native country and love of one's political state, and they love their country with exactly the same fierceness as they hate their state. They enjoy the irony that to fell the tree, the «army» of the state must also fell the emblem of the country.

There is a pause in the battle as both sides regroup. While the cherry-picker has been working above, a bulldozer has been preparing to push over another of the oaks alongside the pine. Just a few days earlier, Pip had been sitting near this particular tree, reading about early folklore. «Oaks,» it is said, «bitterly resented being cut and a felled oakwood was malevolent and dangerous to travel through by night.» With a nod to the bypass route and a twisted grin, he says: «There. That should tell them something.»

It is horribly prescient. The digger driver now leans his machine on the oak. It falls easily, but twists anticlockwise as it drops. A 30-foot bough is torn off the trunk and smashes on to the giant cherry-picker. The rest of the tree continues to fall. Three of the bailiffs' climbers walking below look up in panic. They race to get clear but the last man is just too late and stumbles. One of the upper branches catches him full on the back. He lies on the ground motionless.

There is a great silence. The protesters in the pine are enraged. «There's blood on your hands,» screams Jane. She is in tears. The object of her hate, the Under-Sheriff Nicholas Blandy, continues to eat his sandwiches.

There is no ambulance on site, despite the obvious danger of the operation. «You spend £12 million policing this and yet you don't have an ambulance here -- is it because you thought it would be just a protester who got hurt?» cries one. Within minutes, Mark Clarke of the Highways Agency is telling journalists that a Reliance Security Range Rover marked as a medical vehicle had been sabotaged by the protester the previous night.

Do you have proof of sabotage? «No.»

Do you know where this happened? «No. I wish I did.»

Up in the pine, the protesters are indignant at the allegation. «It's propaganda,» says one.

After an hour, the injured climber is carried off in blankets retrieved from the protesters' treehouses and work continues with considerably less noise and marginally more care. Suddenly there is a violent, mechanical screech. The giant cherry-picker howls across Reddings Copse. When the oak tree fell, in its death, it fatally wounded the cherry-picker. «It's fucked,» yells Scouse Mick. «The tree did it -- on the equinox. The oak has saved the pine.»

The giant picker crawls away. Guards are bussed back to their depot, police officers leave. Today's battle over, the pine now stands alone, but it is still standing -- a rare victory for the protesters. The wind is more savage than this morning, for the pine has now no trees to protect it; when it sways, it sways more than it did yesterday.

«We're still here,» says a voice in wonder at 3am. «Every cup of tea is a victory,» says Howie. Cat is in apocalyptic mood: «This is the start of the eco-wars. In 20 or 30 years everything will be concreted over.» Moira agrees. «For the sake of the environment,» she says, «there will be warfare. I'd die for my beliefs.»

In this «third battle», the might of the state has come to Newbury. There are the police, the bailiffs, the Highways Agency and the Under-Sheriff. There is also the proto-state -- Brays Detectives and Reliance Security. And recently they have been joined by the secret state: MI5 and the anti-terrorist swuad are reportedly seeking to gather intelligence about the protesters. The protesters already claim that their telephones are tapped, mobile phones jammed, and offices and treehouses bugged. No-one can confirm or deny.

The protesters see themselves as eco-warriors. From being legitimate protesters four years ago, they feel they have been first criminalised by the Criminal Justice Act and are now being identified as terrorists and a threat to the state. By contrast, they argue that it is the state which is acting illegally, destroying legally-protected countryside and flouting European environmental guidelines.

To gather information on them, Brays detective agency is here, filming everyone who protests, legally or not. Since Twyford Down, the Department of Transport has paid Brays more than £2 million to collect evidence. No one knows how or when this information may be used, or who it is made available to. «And all we are,» says Sunflower, an ex-army protester, «is a bunch of scruffy bird watchers.»

In their use of language, many protesters look to the past for a sense of pride. You hear words like «honour» and «valour» on protest sites. Values of the past are upheld over modern values of «progress», which the road represents. Moira (owner of a dog called Loki, «named after the Teutonic god of Mischief») says to security guards: «Have you no honour? Have you no shame?» Scouse Mick scans the treescape: «This all is thousands of years old. Politics has been here for just 10 minutes.» The Conservative Party is seen, by the protesters, to conserve nothing. New Labour is considered so in love with the newness of its views that it will not try to defend anything of the past. And the Liberal Democrats, who argue that the bypass is environmentally-friendly, are seen as destroyers of the past.

Six days later: defeat. One quick strike. It's barely light when the bailiffs and climbers, 1,000 security guards and four cherry-pickers, including two of the very biggest, arrive at Reddings Copse. For once, only a handful of protesters are sleeping in the pine. They are evicted within half an hour. The last one is brought down reciting poetry.

Minutes later, chainsaws have cut 90 per cent of the way through the trunk and the pine sways and creaks. Suddenly a protester, Philip, makes a dash through the cordon of security guards to throw himself at the tree in a last gesture of protection. He is hauled off and arrested. The pine falls, the fluorescent army cheers and leaves, and the protesters disperse.

It is unnaturally quiet, bitterly cold, and the pine, stretched out now bwside the fallen oaks, looks much smaller than it did when vertical. Solitary and defeated in this desolate landscape, someone huddles by a campfire, cloaked in a blanket. After a while, he walks slowly to the pine, and collects the yellow sap rising thickly from the chainsaw cut, and oils his dreadlocks. He will let no one saw up the pine, no one shall sell me timber. Tonight, he says, he will douse its trunk in petrol and set fire to it. The pyre will light Reddings Copse. Then -- only then -- will Greg leave.