Police evict bypass protesters in dawn raid

Angella Johnson reports on a good day for the sheriff as a secret tunnel is captured

The Independent March 3 1996

TREETOP protesters at the northern end of the Newbury bypass route were caught unprepared when the sheriff and his men came calling in a predawn raid to evict them from Snelsmore Common yesterday. Thirteen people were arrested.

About a dozen bailiffs dressed in dark blue boiler suits with «Sheriff Office» on the back and wearing full-face riot masks swooped at 5am.

With the help of 200 security officers and 100 police they shut a hidden tunnel before the protesters were able to rally.

According to one protester, the first they knew about the raid was when a dog started to bark. «Someone shone a torch and we saw these men crawling around in the undergrowth. We shouted 'Eruga' (a Celtic war-cry) then the shit hit the fan.»

By this time the sheriff's men had already achieved their objective, which was to clear a number of makeshift homes on the ground. One protester was arrested as he emerged from the tunnel which had been built to act as a last standing ground. Paul Faulding, a rescue expert, found enough food to sustain a small group of people for about two months and many sleeping bags and blankets inside the 30ft tunnel. He said it had been well-constructed, with boards lining the sides.

Nick Blandy, the under-sheriff for Berkshire, used a loudhailer to warn the protesters that he was enforcing a High Court order to quit the camps along the planned £20 million bypass route. He said later: «I am very happy with the day's work. We have cleared a good deal of homes on the ground which were their principal living accommodation.»

He admitted the bailiffs had been unable to remove the vast majority of treetop dwellers, who escaped by scurrying from hut to hut in the trees using makeshift rope walkways.

Mr Blandy added that the tunnel had not been destroyed because some protesters may still be in hidden chambers along its side.

As news emerged about the raid, a number of protesters from other campsites, joined by some local people, clashed with police who had cordoned off the area around the site.

Several demonstrators were dragged kicking and screaming as they tried to stop bulldozers and cherry-pickers -- hydraulic platforms used to remove people from trees -- moving in. At least one protester was led away limping after police used horses to clear a public path.

Isabel Strang, who has lived near the common for 20 years, said she was disgusted with the police. «I'm with these young people and it's only the fact that local residents like myself come out to help that we are able to keep the brutality to a minimum.»

Lade Jeanine Barber, another local resident, led a sit-down in front of the machinery being brought in to the site.

During the day there were numerous stand-offs as protesters tried to reclaim lost ground, though they were vastly outnumbered by police and private security personnel.

Thames Valley assistant chief constable, Ian Blair, said his men had tried to be even-handed. «We are not dealing here with lawful protest. Individuals occupying the site are required, as everyone else is, to obey the decisions of the High Court and while continuing to act fairly we will support firmly the actions of the sheriff.»