Unhappy birthday ends in fire and tears

ROAD PROTESTS: As many protesters from a hilltop camp in Devon descended on Newbury for the first anniversary of work starting on the bypass, police and bailiffs took advantage of their absence to move in on the site they had left

The Guardian, Monday January 13 1997

Monday sketch: John Vidal

One moment there are 18 of us jam-packed on a bright yellow 25-tonne dump truck, the next there's this hissing sound down below. First from one 5 ft high tyre; then two, then all six are deflating harmoniously.

The woman wearing a nose ring and a tiger suit hardly hears it because she is gyrating wildly to the drumming of metal on bonnet. Nor do the two «pixies» stuffing earth down one of its air holes react.

«I'm moving my men into a cordon», says a weary officer into his walkie-talkie as he watches the roadbuilders' truck settle deeper into the Newbury mud and hundreds of protesters swarm over a Costain building site. His men prepare for a long night of double time. «It's a bit of a carnival atmosphere here,» he says.

Ten minutes later the carnival is over. The front half of the truck is burning brightly in the gloaming, flames licking round its steering wheel. A nearby office is billowing 80-ft high smoke rings. Everyone has got off the machinery they have occupied.

Many, afraid the machines will blow up, are running forwards; others, transfixed by the flames and wanting to see the whole site ablaze, go backwards.

Everyone knows that they will be accused of terrible things.

«It's trouble,» says one man. In minutes Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, and a Highways Agency man will use almost identical words to condemn the firelighters.

The first anniversary of work starting on the Newbury bypass was bound to end in tears.

More than 900 people were arrested between January and April last year, hundreds were criminalised and many jailed for little more, they said, than hanging on to trees and peacefully obstructing work on an unnecessary £100 million road. «I'm sorry about this damage, but we're very ordinary people who object very strongly to the state trashing this land. There's so much pent up emotion here. It seems like retribution for everything that has happened before,» one man says.

«Shame isn't it?», says his colleague with a twinkle in her eye as a piece of Costain gear tumbles down an embankment, «but what's worse? The temporary end of a bit of replaceable machinery or the permanent end of one of Britain's most beautiful landscapes? They had it coming.»

This was the first time many had been back to the scene of the crime; 750 people had come from all over Britain and there were old friendhips to renew, tears to well up and scores to settle.

It is unbearably desolate at Newbury now: 10,000 trees have gone, a ring of 20 miles of razor wire and fencing is in their place. There's mile on mile of yellow mud, and cuttings and embankments and roundabouts are taking shape like skeletons beneath the frozen land. You can almost hear the traffic now, so difficult is it to recall the old landscape.

Granny Ash camp where Balin defended the oaks is now a giant compound, guarded by two rows of razor wire, arc-lit at night, patrolled by dogs, private security guards and police.

It looks a cross between a concentration camp and a circus. Rickety Bridge and the water meadows where the tiny Desmoulin whorl snail almost stopped the bypass in its tracks is being mined for peat, and will be devastated. Kennet, Seaside, Bagnor, Radical Fluff and all the other protest camps are now inaccessible except to corporate gravel diggers, property speculators and roadbuilders.

«A lot of businessmen and landowners are making a lot of easy money out of this bypass. The road has nothing to do with relieving the traffic congestion,» says Peter, a local resident who accepts it will be built, but loathes it.

«Yes, it changed a lot,» says Bill, a local businessman, in suit and tie hurrying to join hundreds of people decorating the fence with ribbons, bicycles and messages. «It's like a police state here now. There's a sense of being watched whatever you do, wherever you go.»

Everyone is being filmed by private security guards employed by the Highways Agency, the police, the media. «There's CCTV in Newbury, now, too,» he says.

«Thank God for the direct action protesters. What sort of state is it that will jail people for trying to defend ancient oaks, where the state trashes its best land and then lectures other countries about protecting nature?» asks Mr Secrett. That was before the flames went up.

«Newbury has raised issues of immense importance for everyone in Britain,» says Tony Benn, standing beneath a 400 year-old-tree and welcoming the plain clothed policemen and security guards in the crowd of 750. «It has nothing to do with the motor car and everything to do with the way human needs are subordinated to profit.»

«He's beginning to look like a great oak himself,» says an 18 year old, relishing the 70-year-old Labour MP's impromptu history lesson.

Many never reach the fence, let alone go through it into the compound. Howie had come up from the doomed Trollheim protest camp near Exeter, but who should meet him getting off the train but his old friend, the law.

As one group of constables was videoing anyone who looked remotely like they were going to the reunion rally, another group was matching faces to yellowing injunctions.

Howie looks pretty distinctive; «Snap,» said the constable. Howie and many others didn't stand a chance.