Road protesters brought down to earth

The Guardian Saturday March 9 1996

Gary Younge on the battle of Newbury

`The treetop phase ends with a man giving a farewell rendition of Amazing Grace on his Spanish bagpipes, while a backing group of six bulldozers churned the earth around him'

BY midday yesterday all but a couple of the treetop protesters at the Snelsmore site in Newbury had been brought down to earth with a bump -- some with the help of the bailiffs' climbers.

One man was allowed to play farewell rendition of Amazing Grace on his Spanish bagpipes while a backing group comprising six bulldozers churned the earth around him.

How many more surreal sights the Battle of Newbury will offer depends on whose foot soldiers you are prepared to believe. In bald figures, the builders need to clear 362.45 acres, according to the Newbury Weekly News, which publishes a regular update on progress. Of that, tree felling has been completed on 77.56 acres (21.3 per cent) and 47.49 acres (13.1 per cent) have been completely cleared and are now ready for building.

«They've clearly made a start but the whole conflict is far from over,» said a reporter on the newspaper.

A spokeswoman for the Highways Agency, which is responsible for building the bypass, divides the initial building contract into two stages which provides slightly more cheerful statistics for the builders. Stage one involves felling trees and shrubs and is about half completed. Stage two demands the clearing of all timber in preparation for building and is only a third of that is finished she says.

But the builders are already two thirds of the way through their contract, which means that whoever's statistics one takes, the protesters have already inflicted a considerable dent in the original timetable.

«Of course the protesters have made a difference but the road is to be built over 2˝ years so a month here or there can be made up later,» she said.

The agency is however racing against the environment's clock: around the end of the month the nesting season begins and they will need official permission to chop down some trees.

The protesters are well aware of this and are hoping that if they can hold up tree felling long enough, nature will take its course and disrupt the timetable even further. It is doutbful, however, that the season will have anything but a minimal effect on construction work.

Unlike the agency, the environmentalists talk in phases rather than stages. They say they are embroiled in the second phase of their campaign, in which they are opposing evictions by camping in the trees. They say they are not even half way through phase two yet with more than 20 tree camps still to be removed. Behind them is phase one which was the initial occupation of site and ahead lies phase three -- the `ground defence'. A spokesman said the principal battles in the next phase would take place around Tot Hill and Penn Wood which he promised would be defended tenaciously.

«This is just the beginning. We will defend the very last tree and then every last patch of ground. People would not have got involved with as must dedication if they didn't think we could stop the road being built.»

·The Highways Agency yesterday claimed that only one specialist climber, not three, had defected to the protesters. Paul Luton, who was said to have defected on Thursday, yesterday confirmed he was still working for the bailiffs.

First man of the woods moved on in search of peace as protest grew

BADGER, a former wood-worker and now a man of the woods, set up the first Newbury protest camp, writes John Vidal.

He bent his hazel branches, covered them with plastic and lived alone in the Snelsmore oak woods from August 1994. Within a year he had been joined by so many people that he moved «down the road» to set up Granny Ash camp in search of peace and quiet.

By late summer 1995, six large camps had been established -- at Snelsmoor, Granny Ash, Bagnor, Kennet, Reddings Copse and The Chase and Tot Hill. Most were ground camps -- crude, but efficient «benders» which are watertight and quick to erect.

Some benders had mod cons like pallet floors, others were little more sophisticated than the refugee «blindis», found in disaster areas. All camps revolve around a fire and cooking/living tent.

The mushrooming of tree houses began in mid-January after the bypass work started in one of the coldest winters on record. A national «phone tree» attracted more than 200 people to Newbury. Many were skilled woodcraftsmen from previous road and open cast coalmine protests in Lancashire, Wales, and the West Country.

Within weeks there were dozens of new camps, often only a few hundred yards apart. The strongest is The Isle of Kennet Free Independent State where protesters have made an island by linking the River Kennet with Kennet and Avon canal. The «mother ship» tree house, which is stretched between more than six trees, can sleep twelve people. There are 10 other fortified houses; all linked by aerial ropewalks.

The hardest tree to clear will be the 150ft Corsican Pine at Reddings Copse, which may need a helicopter to remove people locked onto a ladder which rises 15ft over its top.

As the big camps are cleared, newer ones like Rickety Bridge -- also on an island -- are growing, and every available tree is being squatted in the camps that are left. In the past few weeks, Radical Fluff, Rizla Ridge, Ghost Train, Manic Sha and Quercus Circus camps have been set up.

There are thought to be 28 but some are little more than a tree or two. Others are growing rapidly.

Local people have been helping the protesters fortify their camps at weekends.