Untold stories from a HS2 protest camp
Local writer Annette Connell spent some time with HS2 campaigners, learning about their motivations and struggles, here Annette shares her reflections and shines a light on the people who are on the frontline as the cutting machines move in to start work on the rail line...
Woodland clearance to make way for Phase 1 of the high-speed railway between London and Birmingham has been met by protests all along the line wherever works have commenced. We all love nature but who are the people making personal sacrifices to spend days, weeks or months in muddy camps or makeshift treehouses to oppose what many believe to be the UK’s largest deforestation project since WW1. Are they a public nuisance or voices of reason?
Martin was the first person I met at the HS2 Protest Camp in Crackley Woods in Warwickshire when I visited one Sunday in August.
His sense of injustice came across loud and clear as he explained that the woodland where they originally set up camp had already been destroyed by HS2 which is why they were now living in a field bordering the new line with permission from the landowner.
He also shared how he believed the political elite are taught to justify their position on controversial issues and was quick to emphasise the importance of keeping their campaign alive in the media so people don’t forget about HS2’s environmental destruction.
A man known as JAG (for “Just A Guy”) was making a magnetic throw line when I wandered over to meet him.
He gave me a running commentary as he threw it around a nearby branch to demonstrate how it could be used to wrap a weight-bearing rope around the same loop.
This allows a tree climber to move from one tree to another without touching the ground, and I was quick to appreciate how his skills as a competent climber were being put to use here to train others.
Most of his kit was recently confiscated when he was arrested whilst building a tree platform on compulsory purchased HS2 land but was released without charge as he left as soon as he was told.
Mistaking me for a journalist, Roland asked if I’d be interested in hearing when action was being taken. He immediately struck me as a highly educated, articulate and experienced organiser so I wasn’t surprised to learn he was a retired Design Technology teacher.
He was also extremely charismatic and introduced me to other camp members as we exchanged stories of what had brought us to the camp. Roland had been here a few weeks, and though he had visited before, he was keen to make himself more useful this time.
He gives talks on Non-Violent Direct Action explaining to me the difference between peaceful protest and civil disobedience and used the case of the Ploughshare Four to illustrate why it’s not unlawful to break the law if it prevents another law from being broken.
Next, I met Jake who had just returned from Wendover’s Active Resistance Camp, but who usually squats with friends in a disused Cambridgeshire pub preparing meals for those who can’t afford them. Food is donated, and many eat for free whilst others pay for themselves and others if they can afford to, he explained.
I was concerned for him financially when he mentioned he was due in court the next day expecting to be charged around £300 but he assured me his fines would be met by campaign donations.
Jake gave me a tour of the camp’s kitchen explaining that many of the residents are either vegans or freegans who will eat packaged food from supermarket bins to minimise waste in our consumerist society. In the kitchen, I notice plant-based milks, nut butters, porridge oats and herbal teas, as well as plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables which were either donated, grown on site or from a local Community Assisted Agriculture scheme. I was impressed by all of it, not least their use of solar panels and that empty cartons were recycled as notices.
My only concern was whether anyone ever gets sick as I couldn’t help but notice their fridge didn’t appear to work and was without a door. Jake didn’t seem the least bit bothered, adding “There’s always plenty of food here.”
Roland introduced me to Toad who had supported two climbers that day to spend nearly ten hours in two ancient oak trees to successfully prevent them from being cut down on a nearby section of the Fosse Way, a roman road linking Exeter to Lincoln.
He appeared drained as the action had taken its toll on him and another camp member who had been emotionally overwhelmed to witness trees being torn down. Toad relayed how he’d been unable to control his temper whilst objecting angrily at HS2’s tree cutters.
I felt so much empathy for Toad as I honestly couldn’t imagine this gentle mild-mannered sixty-one-year old man who lovingly tends the camp’s allotment and who wrote a poem inspired by their stressful encounter with the National Eviction Team, raising his voice to anyone.
The ground literally trembles he said when an old tree is felled so perhaps it’s no wonder that HS2 security prevented Channel 4 from filming the removal of the camp’s previous location. It’s alleged that injunctions on the land prevented protesters from potentially witnessing birds’ nests being destroyed.
As it’s a criminal offense to interfere with these during the nesting season, HS2 had committed to not removing this woodland between February to August, but the clearance controversially ended up taking place in April due to slipped schedules.
After watching Ryha test out JAG’s recently assembled zipwire, I learned she was the mother of one of the protesters who appeared in a Guardian article the day before for riding the HS2 line on horseback.
Ryha shared with me that she used to spend most of her time alone due to health problems she’s struggled with since her teens, but that she is much healthier since living at the camp. She gets through her most difficult days by whittling and was currently crafting a necklace using two wooden beads from each tree they’d tried to save.
She had also just made a ring from a metal spoon and didn’t mind showing me her creations. Rhya sleeps in her car on a shallow mattress with the rear seats flattened. She can stargaze through her sunroof but it’s hard to get any sleep when it’s raining.
She’s only able to meet her car’s running costs with financial help from her father which she’d prefer not to be reliant on, although I hope her father is proud of everything she’s doing to support the campaign to stop HS2.
After accidentally setting off one of HS2’s intruder alarms whilst standing on the public footpath bordering the camp, I met Holly, an incredibly courageous teenaged RSPCA volunteer, who had travelled down on her own from Birmingham to join the camp’s efforts.
She hadn’t initially let her parents know her whereabouts, instead setting out alone and taking three trains to reach the camp, but when they eventually located her, they offered their full support and drove her down themselves next time.
Haydn appeared buoyant as he returned from his nine and a half hours saving an old oak, having spent much of his day justifying his actions to a liaison officer and refusing to budge. It was heartening to hear he believed he “got through” to a tree cutter who said to him something along the lines of, “I’m with you, but if I don’t do this job, someone else will, so you need to be back tomorrow if you want to save this oak”.
To return of course was already the plan.
Haydn also mentioned that his “HONK IF YOU HATE HS2” banner generated about ninety percent of motorists beeping their horns in support, including two police officers and an HS2 security guard!
Karen was the other tree climber that day, although I heard she had also mounted a tree grabber to delay it from being used, and that she’d been part of a previous tree standoff during which she’d spent nine consecutive days and nights in a tree, using a hammock to sleep in.
I was immediately taken in by Karen’s sophistication - her image and disposition just as well suited to a boardroom member as a fierce eco-warrior.
She exuded an aura of strength and determination of almost superhero proportions. Standing up for her beliefs, she accepts her many arrests and her eight stays in police cells, though she resents that during this pandemic, she alleges being deliberately put in “uncleaned” cells despite other empty cells to “psych” her out.
She claims some of her arrests flouted Covid rules which concern her as she has family members with serious underlying health conditions. I asked Karen if she worried about being potentially pursued for assets such as her home if she was to breach any injunctions. She mentioned that whilst her children have moved out, she feels too strongly against HS2 to give in to judicial harassment.
She takes these risks as there appears to be no other avenues to pursue after the legal bid to challenge HS2 (brought to the High Court from £100,000 of crowdfunding) was lost. After making a note of Karen’s book suggestion - Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything – Capitalism versus Climate, I eventually got around to saying my goodbyes, just as Karen and Haydn were tucking into what looked like a panini I’d spotted in the crate of binned food. I was getting hungry and must admit it smelt delicious after being pan-fried!
A Public Nuisance or Voices of Reason?
This camp was an exemplary example of autonomous individuals living in a hierarchy-free community, united by their shared passion to halt HS2.
During my six-hour visit, I witnessed great camaraderie, intellect, organisational skills and their mutual respect for each other’s unique talents.
Far from environmental protesters being a public nuisance, as is so often portrayed by the media, there’s much we can learn if we take the time to listen to what these compassionate, principled and insightful campaigners have to say. Perhaps more of us would be inspired by their efforts to minimise their environmental footprint and their determination to stand up for wildlife and biodiversity in the face of legalised deforestation.
I feel honoured to have met some of the people behind such noble action and that I was able to express my heartfelt gratitude to them.
Redirecting HS2’s Billions
Estimates of £20-£25 million to halt HS2 are worth exploring in my view as millions can immediately be saved by scrapping HS2’s dedicated national police group, 24/7 security and use of National Eviction Teams to deal with widespread HS2 dissent.
HS2’s billions could be redirected towards a green and fair Covid-19 recovery to support the NHS and those most in need. Construction workers could be redirected to upgrade existing infrastructure whilst transport demand is likely to be at its lowest for the foreseeable future.
This pandemic proves that more of us can work effectively from home than was previously imaginable and polls show we don’t wish to return to old commuting patterns. We can all learn from our mistakes and this Government is no different.
Fracking was practised in the UK until the High Court ruled the Government’s guidelines on fracking to be unlawful. This only happened due to the public outcry and protest from those who intuitively know right from wrong.
How To Help
HS2 is a classic example of unenlightened thinking which emanates from our flawed and outdated institutions which put vested commercial interests before the needs of humanity, thought up by those in power whose life struggles have perhaps severed the instinctive connection to nature they were born with.
A shift in culture from the bottom-up is required to effect real change.
Top-down democracy where the voices and needs of villages and towns are ignored is not only immoral but is leaving a catastrophic trail of psychological and environmental devastation. HS2 construction is destroying not only entire ecosystems but has left affected communities heartbroken and anxiety-ridden over their imminent loss of homes and livelihoods.
In writing this, my hope is that not a single mature tree, wildlife habitat or ancient woodland will be lost in vain as we continue to raise awareness of the need to halt HS2 before it’s too late. If you would like a government review of HS2 in light of the huge downturn in the economy and our country’s revised priorities in a post Covid World, please consider signing the following petition (petition.parliament.uk/petitions/311642) which needs to reach 100,000 signatures to be considered for debate in parliament or write to your MP (especially if your local area is not on HS2’s route) as the more politicians realise the extent of public opposition to HS2, the more likely they are to stop it. Alternatively, visit www.stophs2.org for other ways to help.
You can also join The Bucks Herald's HS2: Enough Is Enough campaign on Facebook to hear from more campaigners, and learn about the peaceful demonstrations taking place in Buckinghamshire and beyond click HERE