In the spring of 1992, Helen Beynon joined the protests against the construction of the M3 motorway through Twyford Down, a chalk hill in Hampshire England. This was the first of a wave of road protests that swept across the country in the 1990s and laid the foundation for the modern environmental movement, from campaigns against fracking to Extinction Rebellion. Tired of hearing people who weren’t there tell the story, Helen decided to track down people who were and tell the tale in their words. The result is Twyford Rising, Land and Resistance, an oral history of a remarkable place and of the people who tried to defend it. The following is an extract from the book.
Throughout the spring, the actions continued almost daily, with work on the construction site frequently brought to a standstill. Actions focused not just on the removal of chalk from the Down, but on the chalk being dumped in the Itchen river to create the crossing over it and across the wet meadows of the valley floor. On one occasion Juliet McBride, who had nearly been imprisoned for her actions the year before, deliberately stalled her car at the Hockley lights as a dumper truck was crossing the A33. As the dumper came to a standstill, activists leaped in front of the trucks behind it and locked on.
Potty Phil wrote about planning this action and how, as the truck approached the traffic lights at Hockley, ‘we blocked the road with a car and I locked on to the dumper truck with a bicycle D-lock around my neck’. Phil’s key was whisked away by another activist and the work stopped. Phil remembers being disappointed when:
“The workers returned with a set of hydraulic bolt croppers… As they gleefully pumped them up the advancing blade gripped the metal of my kryptonite. I gritted my teeth and braced my neck, awaiting the ‘crack’. When the sound came, I was surprised that it was more of a ‘ting’. I was even more surprised that my lock was still intact, linking me with my new close acquaintance, the dumper truck.
“The contractors were cross, their new tool had failed to cut the lock, but worse than that, the blade of the cutters had chipped against the tougher metal of my lock, as the ‘ting’ sound rang out, my lock had bitten back.”
An hour or so later the fire brigade arrived and cut Phil free; he was arrested for obstructing the highway and taken to Winchester Police station. ‘After a good night’s sleep in the cells’, he was taken to the magistrates court and given bail conditions not to enter within an area marked on the map that included the construction site and surrounding area, putting a temporary stop to his protesting.
The destruction of the Itchen water meadows that Phil and Juliet sought to disrupt was as great a cause of grief for those who loved the area as the destruction of the high chalk down to the north. The river and the damp land beside it formed part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest, designated on the strength of the clean water, home to water voles and native crayfish and the rare plants found the riverside water meadows. The river, one of England’s finest chalk streams, was broad and swift-flowing here – a place where Becca remembers seeing her first kingfisher, darting blue along the banks. In order to construct the carriageways across the river, it was, in Becca’s words ‘dammed and channelled into straight lines’; ‘horrific and unforgettable’ to witness.
Emma also wrote about the ‘the huge earthmovers’ excavating the Down, then ‘speeding down the hill with their bucket-loads of chalk raised high in the air’ and how, when they reached the foot of the hill, the buckets would tip forward, so that ‘mass after mass of crumbling white chalk’ was dumped into the river as ‘white water splashed up and the white swans that were swimming there took to the air, flew low over the river, and away’.
Actions to stop the excavation of the Down and the dumping of chalk in or near the river during the spring included a blockade by twenty members of Winchester College Green Society. At the entrance to the water meadow worksite, the pupils locked their bikes together halting trucks until the police and Group 4 security stepped in. Two people, one aged twelve and one sixteen, were arrested and held for three hours. One of the organisers of the bicycle blockade was Ralph, the pupil who had slipped out of Winchester College at night the year before to sit around the fire and take part in a night time action with the Donga Dragon. He remembers the blockade as ‘being the first anti-road protest getting into the tabloids’, although he recognises that ‘the headlines left a little to be desired – “Top Toffs Take on Tarmac” and “Posh Kids Fight Cops”.’
Although the Winchester College action was reported in a light-hearted way, the arrests and the violence some of the pupils suffered at the hands of the security guards underlines how stressful actions could be and the risks people took, especially on smaller actions where there were fewer people to look out for each other. Kev, then a Hampshire resident, had already had a taste of direct action when he was a hunt saboteur, which he acknowledged gave him experience of ‘how scary and intimidating it can be to go on direct actions’. Kev started as an occasional visitor to the Bushfields camp, becoming slowly more involved. In a letter to the author, he wrote of how he ‘really felt in fear of my life a few times’, but recognised that the actions also brought ‘people together in a way that I have not experienced anywhere else’. Kev partly attributes this to ‘being involved in something that can be really stressful and scary’.
Increasingly in the spring people travelled from much further afield than Winchester to join the camp and the actions, often staying for just a few days at a time. Amongst them was Oli, a student in Manchester, who in an interview spoke of hearing about Twyford through the Green Student Network and when helping to set up the Manchester EF! group. The first time Oli went to Twyford was in a university minibus for ‘one of the big March demos’, but in common with others, he found the combination of a commitment to a low-impact communal lifestyle and the straightforwardness of the direct action compelling. After his initial visit, he ‘kept on going’.
“I remember the size of the Cutting…and heading off to the diggers in the morning. There was such a powerful contrast between the vibrant, ancient landscape and the modern brutality of the yellow diggers.”
Oli talked about being ‘nicked three or four times’ and how the experience was ‘boring really’, involving being ‘shoved in cells, given beans on white toast and water in a plastic cup’. Arrest was a new experience for Oli and he remembered that he ‘wasn’t mentally prepared’ for it, but discovered that it was ‘not a terrible experience at all’, with people being released from the police station and going back to ‘carry on the next day or next week or whenever’. He also recalls a lighter moment during one arrest:
“I was nicked with Potty Phil and some others who all decided to go on hunger strike. I didn’t know about that and ate the food anyway!”
More details about Twyford Rising, Land and Resistance, and how to obtain a copy, can be found on the website: https://twyfordrising.org