Climbers in hand to hand battles 50ft up

The Guardian Wednesday March 13 1996

John Vidal

TWO teams of Britain's most skilled rock climbers, one loyal to the cause of conservation and the other hired by the Under-Sheriff of Berkshire, yesterday fought hand to hand «jousts» 50 feet up the trees on the route of the Newbury bypass.

It was the most dramatic episode yet in the so-called third battle of Newbury, moving from extreme danger as climbers grappled and swapped punches, to high farce as one of the Sheriff's officers was isolated by protesters and handcuffed to a tree.

By the end of the day, 38 people had been arrested, a woman's ankle had been broken in scuffles with security guards and the Sheriff's army of retainers had clawed another small section of bypass route from the grip of protesters.

The battle -- a clash of philosophies as well as climbing skills -- started at dawn when protesters jumped on a slow-moving cherry-picker machine on a hill outside Newbury, stopping it and a convoy of security guards.

A delay of more than an hour allowed a flying squad of 10 leading rock climbers, including Ben Moon, one of Britain's two professional rock climbers, time to reach Gotan Camp on the bypass route. Here 30 protesters were in three oak trees waiting for Under Sheriff Nicholas Blandy and 400 guards.

The sheffield-based climbers -- who are staying in the Newbury camps in protest against climbing colleagues accepting £500 a day from Mr Blandy to drag protesters out of the trees -- raced to the tree houses.

Within an hour two of the Gotan tree houses had been cleared of protesters and most of the amateur climbers and tree-livers had been brought down in a cherry-picker and charged by the police. The scene was set for the two climbing teams to face each other.

«It's like gladiator,» said Nicola Murphy, a Newbury resident sho had come to see what was happening. She and 100 others who had gathered below the trees were treated to a display of death-defying technical climbing virtuosity.

Mr Blandy's men made full use of their one advantage, the cherry-pickers, which they manoeuvred to take on person at a time.

One of the Sheffield climbers was «three quartered», with someone on each leg, one on his arm and only holding on to the cherry-picker for safety.

At one point there was a full-scale fight between four climbers with fists going randomly, arms being twisted and people in head, leg and arm holds.

In what became a battle of wits, with climbers on both sides chatting and insulting each other liberally, Mr Blandy's men pushed Mr Moon's team higher.

For five hours the climbers blocked the routes up, hanging upside down, cutting off walkways and teasing the Sheriff's men.

High farce followed as two of the climbers hand-cuffed one of Mr Blandy's officers to a tree.

Mr Moon and Stephen Coates, another Sheffield climber, were caught when the cherry-picker descended on to them and two climbers came from below.

The climbers were charged with violent disorder.

Climbing commentator Jim Perrin said: «Those who have joined the bailiffs are set to be ostracised by many in the climbing community because they are abusing their climbing skills when they attack the protesters.»