Special branch patrol

Cartoonist Kate Evans (above) is evicted (right) as Jay Griffiths (below) spends time in the treetops

The Guardian Wednesday March 20 1996

KENNET camp, freezing at midnight. The grass is crusty with frost, the camp is crusty all by itself. An Arthurian mist rises off the surrounding swamp. A posse of Britain's best climbers, joining the road protes, march in silence along the towpath to the camp. «Respect to you guys,» says a protester. Their presence is small but symbolic.

The «mother ship», the largest treehouse on the bypass route, is packed and the only place to sleep is in the communal kitchen. CB radio, squelch turned low, squats next to cutlery drawers, and potato store. A pan of ex-pasta, someone's sometime supper, is on the burner, frozen solid. Night has nothing to do with sleep.

Crackly panic from the CB, at dawn. A route tracker, following the police and bailiffs: «Tango Bravo, we're following a convoy. One vehicle's stopped. They're looking for something. (Pause.) I thing it's us.» An aruga -- alarm call -- comes for Reddings Copse. The climbers leave Kennet to get to the camp and up the trees before the security guards can form their cordon, but no evictions today. Protesters rebuild treehouses. Some obstruct work at the copse.

Twig, a protester at Rickety Bridge camp, was arrested for sitting on a log singing Native American heart songs and blowing a conch. He was given the «Newbury sausage;» being bailed off the bypass route, and cannot go to slow the tree-felling at Reddings Copse. Instead he fortifies his camp, and makes a coracle. «There's nothing like travelling at the speed of water. You feel like you're a leaf.» He paddles down to «Camelot», a new camp on the route, a tiny island state in the watermeadows, where King Arthur Pendragon is supervising his knights building a drawbridge and making his court.

BACK AT Reddings Copse, one guard has something to communicate. He looks nervous; other guards are listening. We will speak later. Night falls, guards leave. It is easier to climb a 150-ft Corsican pine by night than by day -- not seeing is not knowing how far you could fall. There is a vicious wind blowing down the bypass cutting. Inside the treehouse, though, there is a high communal tog number -- eight people are cuddling together for the night. It is well fuggy here, even the walls are carpeted. A hammock swings over the «eviction stash» of whisky and oatmeal biscuits, and full larder. The tackle of the professional speed-saboteurs festoons the tree -- handcuffs, D-locks, climbing harnesses, wire-cutters, polyprop rope. The pine sways. Snow falls.

«Wake me if the bailiffs come tapping,» says Howie, «and I'll lock on to my sleeping bag.» «When I was arrested,» comes a voice, «they said, 'what's yer address?' I said 'Reddings Copse,' they went 'Nah, we're Reading's cops.'» Greg polices his dreadlocks. «Me beads are dropping out. The beads were jelly babies. My eviction stash.»

«TANGO Bravo to all camps. It's Gotan. They're hitting Gotan, over.» At Gotan, Britain's top climbers are pitted against each other, those from Kennet with the protesters, the others climbing for the bailiffs. The evicting climbers are taunted by the crowd below, with «shame», «Judas», «betrayers» and «scabs». One evicting climber has had a price put on his dreadlocks by the protesters (£75 each.) A woman's ankle is stamped on. Royal Berkshire Hospital later confirms it is broken. A drum -- two logs on a water barrel -- adjusts itself to the urgency of the tree theatre. «They're behind yer,» yells the crowd to Steve Coates and Ben Moon, the last protesting climbers left, as the evicting climbers move towards them. Moon and Coates slip down half a tree like a waterfall. They are arrested and given harsher charges, (violent disorder), than any other protester except Qualobollox.

It's cunning cuisine to get sorted a three-course meal for 20, in an hour, but Carolyn, stained glass student and protester, does it with ease, till distraction comes in the form of two fire jugglers. The deep-fried parnsip pot explodes in flames. Then there is a rush on the crockery. «Who wants to go syndicate on the mixing bowl?» says another. Music into the night.

KENNET camp is hit the next morning. The swamp is drained, underwater lock-ons don't seem to have been reached in time. The same security guard from Reddings Copse stops me. «Remember this number. It's my mobile. Ring me at eight. I can't say anything now.» He is frightened. We speak at eight. He wants to defect, and to do so publicly. For the moment, he is scared of being beaten up if anyone hears him. «Tell him we'll look after him,» say two nearby protesters. They pass on messages of reassurance and respect, and not a little glee. Small but symbolic success for them.