Inspired to protest?

I saw Nicola Chester read an extract from her memoir about her experiences as an environmental protestor at the ‘Wild Women: Writing the Earth’ Symposium yesterday, and it blew me away. If you’re wondering whether to join the XR ‘Big One’ protest in London this weekend (21st – 24th April), this might inspire you to go. It’s an extract from On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2021) by Nicola Chester and is reprinted with permission from the publisher. The book describes how she first met The Greenham Common protestors in the eighties as a girl, and this extract shares her experiences of the Newbury Bypass protest in the 90s.

At Reddings Copse, the eviction was halted in a week-long stand-off. A specialist hydraulic platform, a monstrous cherry picker from Holland (reputedly the largest in Europe), had been hired to oust the highest tree house in one of the tallest trees in Europe. The Corsican pine, visible from most of the undulating route, had a 15-foot circumference at its base and was 150 feet tall. It had no branches for the first 75 feet and, in true outlaw style, a longbow was employed to fire a line over its lower limbs in order to scale it and start construction. The tree houses – for there were two – contained a kitchen and a wood-burning stove. A local man, Balin, who had spent 16 days in lone vigil at the top of a tripod on the route, free-climbed his way to the besieged tree through the canopies of neighbouring oaks, 80 feet high, which had friendlier branches. When the cherry picker was extended to its full, rearing height of 200 feet, it seemed to hesitate, palling as the protestors unclipped themselves from safety lines in audacious, heartstopping response. But instead, just as the Roundheads and Cavaliers had done in this very spot in 1643 and 1644, the bailiffs in the platform went for the opposition’s colours, laying aside bolt cutters and chainsaws and leaning over to pluck the flag that fluttered from a ladder extending from the tip of the great pine. As the colossal neck of the machine bent to lower the flag to the ground amid jeers and cheers from both sides, an oak was pushed over simultaneously by a digger. It twisted awkwardly and fell with a screaming render of wood onto the body of the cherry picker, damaging it irrevocably before bouncing off and falling on one of the bailiff ’s climbers. He was knocked unconscious and taken to hospital. The Under-Sheriff of Newbury, ever present in his spotless red coat, continued to eat his lunch. Many protestors were injured during the campaign, as were a few bailiffs and security personnel. There was a dangerous, cavalier disregard for safety.

I’d neither the bravery nor the head for heights for such bold action but, nevertheless, I learnt new skills and a new confidence. I walked tightrope walkways between banks and islands, and between trees; I tied knots in pipes pumping water into run-off pools (once, with my mum); I flicked cable ties into chainsaws to stall and break them; I wept, charmed, persuaded and railed against security guards and into the video cameras of the silently sinister Bray’s Detective Agency (a private investigative company contracted by the Government in an unprecedented move to undertake surveillance of any individual attending the anti-roads protests of the 1990s). I took food up to those in permanent camps, fell out of trees and into rivers, canvassed, wrote letters, sat in police vans listening to a sympathetic telling off by local policemen and took the fight into town, too. Particularly as local people, we were determined that the strength of our feelings would not bypass the town as the road would, and that we would make our small mark on history beside the bigger one the Greenham Peace Women had left. Once again, the town was divided and angry. As at Greenham Common, most pubs, restaurants and sometimes shops banned the ‘protestors’. The local newspaper, the Newbury Weekly News, tried to keep its editorial neutral, with debate raging in its letters page, and it seemed in every group of people – whether queuing at a till or at the post office, people had an opinion. Once again, my friends and I seemed to be in the passionate minority.

Back in Winchester, I’d retreat for two or three days to go to lectures on the Romantic Poets and salve the hurt. But there was no hiding. Their words resonated and became like the drumbeats of a call to arms. From Blake and Shelley’s radical voices, to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s protests about railway branch lines reaching into the Lakes and, in particular, their idea of nature being beyond ownership. In his Guide to the Lakes, William Wordsworth said that nature should be ‘a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and an interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’. Even in Winchester, I found veterans of the 1992 protest against the M3 extension through Winchester’s Twyford Down, and we formed a ‘Support Newbury’ Group. We intercepted convoys of security guards coming up to Newbury through the freshly cleft landscape and learnt to check meeting rooms for bugs. Once, provoked by a shopper’s comment on a tabloid newspaper headline about dirty protestors on benefits ruining life for local people at the tills in Winchester’s Sainsbury’s, I got up, front of store, and delivered a lengthy, emotional riposte. I’d worked hard to get where I was. I was not claiming benefits and I was local. Not only that, I also didn’t want an ecologically destructive road running through my home, adding to the environmental crises, and would be forever grateful to those protestors who were defending it, living rough, when I couldn’t be there. I earned a round of applause from the tea and coffee aisle.

I learnt a lot about people. There were cliques and mistrust and acts of life-affirming solidarity; brutality, and sudden kindness from strangers. I got away with a lot, mostly, I think, because I didn’t dress like a typical protestor – I often wore a skirt (that I could run or climb in) with a cardigan and a pair of brown boots. I was never hit or deliberately hurt myself, but I saw it happen to others.

I was verbally abused, shoved and dragged off. I learnt never to judge and that nothing is ever entirely what it seems. Security guards defected to the other side – indeed, the last man down from the trees at a later road protest, at Fairmile in Devon, was an ex-Newbury security guard – although nobody went the other way unless you count, temporarily, The Guardian’s Environmental Editor at the time, John Vidal. He infiltrated Reliance Security, the firm employed to deal with the protestors, and exposed a culture of violence.

On a long stand off on a gloomy day, when all we could do was to set ourselves facing the guards on the other side of the cordon, a flock of yellowhammers and chaffinches came down to feed on spilt grain along the farm track. ‘Canaries!’ cried one of the guards. ‘Escaped budgies!’ I laughed and told him that these were indeed our own bright canaries, but that they were true wild natives – and were in steep decline. For a good 15 minutes, the streaky gold birds with their September wheat-stubble colours drew an appreciative audience from both sides. The security guards marvelled at such pretty exotics in the damp English fields, alongside such clear water. How beautiful it all was here, they said, how peaceful, how lucky you are and how hard this must be. They shook their heads and discussed how to get hold of birdseed for the yellowhammers.

Some of the police were locals trying to remain neutral, and walked here in the countryside with their families at weekends, between shifts. Among the security guards were ex-prisoners and curious students, family men forced away from their home and living in miserable conditions, just to send a wage back. One was a former miner who had been on the picket lines throughout the Miners’ Strikes. When a close friend, who had supported him through those unimaginably hard times, died, he could not afford to go home to the funeral. There was the blue-dreadlocked, pierced man who came down from his tree to hug me as I wept when one of the 500-year-old oaks was felled. He shimmied back up his tree, ensuring a reprieve for it for two more days. On another occasion, a man who wore a skirt and a lost, kindly expression came crying along the sunken road after a raid that took us all by surprise. ‘I found something to believe in!’ he wept. ‘I only went to make a phone call and they took it down. I’ve been here four months!’ All I could do was hug him. These were humbling experiences.

Towards the end of the Battle for Rickety Bridge, a kind of desperation set in and actions became increasingly symbolic. A few people had dug up small trees and saplings on the route to replant them on the other side of the painted white line. After staying the night at my friend Ed’s house, he and I arrived early, crossing the eponymous bridge with practised ease on what was a misty, late spring morning. The mist hung above the river and was shifty. A rising wind stirred the tops of the poplars so that they whisked the mist around like egg white. What I took to be a crab apple tree appeared in front of us, glowing with the brightness of its small, golden-yellow fruits. Without a word, we moved towards it, when the apples exploded into life – a dozen yellowhammers that flew away twittering, lightbulb heads illuminating the mist like fireflies. I was bewildered, entranced; it hadn’t occurred to me that this ‘vision’ of golden apples was entirely out of kilter with the season. Nothing was said, but we both knelt in the mud to dig the tree out with our hands, to save it. Ed, who seemed to share the ferocity, passion and conviction of my feelings and actions towards what was happening at the bypass, realised first and stopped digging, wordlessly. The tree was rootless. It had already been felled. Someone, from one side or the other, cynically or out of defiance or respect, had stuck it back in the earth. We both sat back on our heels, and I wept hopelessly for all the trees.

For all the battle talk, anger, grief and loss, we protestors weren’t fighting for life or livelihood directly, but we were fighting for what we loved and believed in. It was a battle in the war on the environment, on place, landscape, wildlife, locality; the making way for the unsustainable juggernaut of future congestion. We were fighting for home in a small local sense, but also in a global sense, for the future of our only home planet. This was our Spanish Civil War, where no blood was shed, but where our ragged army was made up of a media-savvy bunch of poets, writers, intellectuals, lost souls, misfits and ‘greens’. I’d watched and been moved by Ken Loach’s powerful film on Spain, Land and Freedom (1995), where the wrong side had won, of course – but, for once, history had been written by the losing side, and eloquently so.

There were small victories. One particular oak tree stands defiant today because someone had the foresight to map it and reason that it could form a traffic island. It was also the only tree blessed and protected in a Druid ceremony. After a long standoff, Sheriff Blandy met with protestors who agreed to come down from the tree if it could be saved. A tense treaty was drawn up and signed by both sides in front of the gathered media, but the brief truce ended when, as an ITN news journalist reported, ‘the sheriff was quite literally run out of town’ by outlaws hurling tomatoes. There was a lot of wry humour. There were the inventive and hilarious tactics of pantomime cows, a replica Spitfire ‘crashed’ into a tree, organised army-style manoeuvres designed to mesmerise and entertain the guard line before, on a signal, it was breached – much like when I have watched a stoat ‘hypnotise’ a rabbit with a manic display of acrobatics before pouncing.

My senses became primed: raw and heightened like never before. Sights, sounds, smells, the way everything felt, all took on a new, acute significance. The burning of each wood smelt different – the sweet resin of pine, the fireside warmth of ash, the toxic, dense blackness of burning rhododendron that provoked a frightening cough which is still often with me today. I was changed. I looked at the world differently, felt it more keenly, knew it better, was more alive than I’d ever been. And all that spring, back home and surrounded by the whine of chainsaws and the constant plumes of acrid smoke not half a mile away, the nightingale sang.