On Friday, prior to a screening at Oxford Brookes University of the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and myself), Polly and I met up with my old friend, the photographer Adrian Arbib, at the Art Jericho gallery, where his exhibition “Homeland” is showing until March 13. Featuring photos from 20 years of covering campaigns and being involved in them, the centrepiece of the exhibition is a collection of Adrian’s powerful and poignant photos of the Solsbury Hill road protest near Bath in 1994, a pivotal moment in the extraordinary road protest movement of the 1990s, which, as the publicity for the exhibition makes clear, was “an important moment in British political history when a political movement changed government transport policy.”
I first met Adrian in 2003, when he allowed me to reproduce some of his photos in my book Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, and, when we got back in touch recently, I was delighted to hear that he has collected 71 of his Solsbury Hill photos in a book, Solsbury Hill: Chronicle of a Road Protest, with an accompanying website. I urge anyone with an interest in this remarkable period in the history of environmental direct action — and a unique form of British eco-paganism — to buy the book and visit the website, and I reproduce below some excerpts from Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion that deal with the road protest movement:
[A]nother development that erupted spontaneously in 1992, but that clearly owed much of its impetus to the combination of paganism and political protest conceived by the travelling community and the women of Greenham Common in the 1980s … was the road protest movement, and from the beginning it demonstrated a raw, untutored paganism that went further than any previous protest movement in embracing the concept of the whole of the earth as a sacred landscape.
The story began in February 1992, when two young travellers, a woman called Sam and a man called Steph, pitched camp on Twyford Down near Winchester, an expanse of rolling chalk downland that was both a haven for wildlife and a repository of thousands of years of human history, including ancient tracks and Celtic field systems. The travellers were pleased to discover that this idyllic landscape was ‘the most protected landscape in southern England’, officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and they were dismayed when a local rambler told them that an extension to the M3 was shortly to be driven through it. As it turned out, local people had been campaigning against the proposed extension for twenty years, writing letters, submitting petitions, lobbying parliament, mounting legal challenges and contributing to a public inquiry. The road scheme had even been the subject of an official complaint by the European Union, but this too had been ignored by the Department of Transport.
Sam and Steph resolved to take matters into their own hands, setting up a protest camp that immediately began to draw other supporters: ‘travellers, environmentalists, students, pagans, even businessmen and Tory councillors, from all over the country’. The Twyford Down protest was the first outing for the British off-shoot of Earth First!, an American direct action group, and support also came from Friends of the Earth, but it was the passion and ingenuity of the traveller-protestors that was to have the most resounding impact. In the early days, they contented themselves with digging defensive trenches, chaining themselves to earth-moving equipment and forming human chains across the landscape, but as the threat grew more severe, so too did their responses, and they were soon leaping onto moving machinery and hurling themselves into the path of the road-builders’ giant trucks. It was these actions that finally drew the attention of the national press, who soon came up with an apposite name for them — the ‘Dongas Tribe’, derived from a South African word for a track, which had, ironically enough, been given to the ancient tracks that criss-crossed the landscape of Twyford Down by a teacher at the public school in Winchester that had sold the land to the DoT in the first place.
After ten months, the protestors were violently evicted from their camp by Group 4 Security on 9 December 1992, a day that became known as Yellow Wednesday. The naturalist David Bellamy, who had come to Twyford Down as a high profile political campaigner, witnessed the brutal events of that day, and his description echoed the shock experienced by Nick Davies at the Beanfield eight years before: ‘I have been in many protests around the world in some very hairy countries and have never seen such unreasonable force used, especially on women. These boys were putting the boot and fist in and they didn’t care if they were men or women. There were ministry people there but no one tried to call them off. The security men went completely over the top’. All that had changed in eight years, it seemed, was that a quasi-military police force had been replaced by a private security firm that was, if anything, even less accountable for its actions than its predecessors.
Undeterred, the Dongas reformed their protest camp in February 1993, and direct action took place on a daily basis throughout the spring and summer, culminating in a site invasion by over 500 people on 4 July, two days after the DoT and Tarmac were granted a High Court injunction that led to the subsequent imprisonment of ten of the protestors. Significantly, however, their actions had already inspired other people, and throughout the country protest camps sprang up at the site of almost every road project proposed by the government.
In June 1993, for example, protests against the construction of a toll bridge connecting the Isle of Skye to the Scottish mainland combined ecological issues (the destruction of Europe’s second largest otter colony) with the first actions against the newly launched Private Finance Initiative (PFI), whereby the Bank of America bankrolled and profited from the bridge’s construction. That same month, at Cradlewell, the site of a proposed bypass near Newcastle, a group calling themselves the Flowerpot Tribe began a sustained occupation of trees, a tactic that was to become increasingly influential as the protest movement grew.
By September, the campaign had spread to London, where protests against the creation of a link road for the M11 through east London ran for two years, involving the occupation of entire streets of condemned houses and the creation of the ‘Autonomous Area of Wanstonia’ and ‘Leytonstonia’, independent mini-states complete with their own passports. In March 1994, after further large-scale protests at Twyford Down on 28-29 November 1993 and 3 January 1994, the Dongas turned their attention to Solsbury Hill on the outskirts of Bath, an Iron Age hill-fort that was to be cut into by a bypass that would also destroy miles of precious water-meadows and woodland, and in May the first protests against the M65 Blackburn bypass took place, at which tree-houses linked by high-level walkways were set up to protect the ancient woodland and bluebell dells of the Stanworth valley.
In the months before the Criminal Justice Bill was passed, the protests intensified. As the journalist and activist George Monbiot noted, the legislation, which was ‘crude, ill-drafted and repressive’, had succeeded in creating ‘the broadest, and oddest, counter-cultural coalition Britain has ever known’, uniting ‘Hunt saboteurs, peace protestors, football supporters, squatters, radical lawyers, gypsies, pensioners, ravers, disabled rights activists, even an assistant chief constable and a Tory ex-minister’.
5,000 people attended a mass trespass at Twyford Down on 2 July 1994, and another large demonstration took place on 18 July in Norfolk, where protestors calling themselves ‘The Lizard Tribe’ had been campaigning for a year against an expansion of the A11. In August, a protest camp was established on the Pollok Estate in Glasgow (‘Pollok Free State’) to protect a city amenity space from the development of the M77, and in September protests began against a new stretch of the A30 in Devon, including, at the Fairmile camp, the first instance of elaborate underground tunnels that would collapse on the occupants if heavy machinery was deployed. In July and October, national demonstrations against the Bill in London drew crowds of over 100,000 people, and on 3 November, the day that it became law, numerous protests took place across the country, including an invasion of the M11 construction site by over 300 protestors.
My visit to the exhibition on Friday was a vivid reminder of the powerful grass-roots political movements in the UK in the years when John Major was Prime Minister, and it made me think, sadly, that the revolutionary spirit of Albion, which surfaced in those years in the road protest movement, the free party scene, Reclaim the Streets, a revival of the 17th century Diggers movement and the struggle for access to Stonehenge, seems to have been asleep since Tony Blair wielded his psychic cosh on the British people in 1997, when unfettered greed was revitalized, a lawless “War on Terror” did to civil liberties and human rights what Margaret Thatcher would never have considered possible (or even, in some cases, acceptable), an illegal war was launched with impunity, and materialism and self-obsession became society’s dominant traits.
Note: For related articles, see: Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present (June 2008), Remember the Battle of the Beanfield (in the Guardian, June 2009) and a related article here, and It’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free Festival (June 2009).
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
[…] J18 drew on a long tradition of protest dating back to the 1960s, but with particular reference to the anti-road protests, the Reclaim the Streets movement, and the protests against the Criminal Justice Act, which had […]
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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