Prayers amid bypass mud as guards look on

The Guardian Saturday February 10 1996

Gary Younge on a peaceful offensive

TO the backdrop of smoke billowing from burning tree stumps and excavators chugging through sludge, the Rev John Miller stood in a field that was once a forest near Newbury and asked God for forgiveness for the damage being done to the earth.

In front of him stood a congregation of 50 protesters, ranging from well-to-do ladies in Barbour jackets and Burberry hats, to white rastas in woolly jumpers and metal-toe capped boots.

The congregation and a 100-strong line of police and security guards, chatting among themselves in the pouring rain, shivered, ankle deep in mud, as a biting wind carried the smell of burning wood and the clergyman's words off towards the far corner of the field.

The service lasted only 20 minutes, but the row that preceded it had been simmering for at least 24 hours.

The service did not represent the views of local churchgoers, said a spokesman for the Diocese of Oxford through which the bypass will run.

Alongside Mr Miller, who is from Reading, was the former Bishop of Bath and Wells, John Bickersteth, Raglan Haywill, a chaplain from the University of Sussex, and the Rev Peter Owen-Jones from Cambridgeshire.

«I hope they are saying the same thing about the yellow-capped mercenaries,» said Mr Miller, pointing at the security guards as his long black robe trailed through the mud.

Meanwhile Friends of the Earth were claiming that all the fuss could be for nothing. «The benefits of the controversial Newbury by-pass could last just five years,» the group said. Quoting figures from a Highways Agency report, a spokesman described the new findings as «the final nail in the coffin of the arguments used to support the road». Back at the camp the service was followed by a short walk to the tent where protesters were admiring their most recent «moral victories» -- two of the tree security guards who had defected on Thursday.

Brette Shepherd, 20, had quit his job after he was told he was under surveillance for talking to protestors. «My boss said he would be watching me. So I threw off my uniform and joined this lot.» He yesterday faced his former workmates, some of whom are from his home town of Portsmouth, and was greeted with threats. «They said, 'When you get home we'll do you.' It doesn't bother me because I'm going to be staying with the camp until March.»