Sunday, 20 January 2013

Why I Went To Combe Haven (And Why I'll Be Back)

We can follow the news and keep track of protests from the various multiple means of social media but nothing quite teaches us like being in the physical reality of a place or being in the actual presence of the people involved.The people in the protest against the Bexhill-to-Hastings link road have been in my thoughts every day, particularly since the icy weather set in and the camps started getting evicted. They've been camped up in trees and on the ground along the site of the planned road in the Combe Valley since December 14th. Their situation is the first thing I check in the morning. Check them out here: Twitter Facebook Website

So I really needed to get over there and show my support in a way that went beyond sending thoughts and just feeling an equal combination of worry (caused by the corporate criminals and their accomplices) and gratitude (for those heroes defending the valley). I went with the purpose of taking a load of food, helping to prevent an eviction if it occurred, providing some general support for the camp and learning what I could from the people and the land that I encountered.

Approaching the current camp at Decoy Pond Wood, I passed the site of the Three Oak Camp which was evicted last week and where the 400 yr old oak lay fallen. I can't help wondering how the person whose hands were on that chainsaw gets to sleep at night, but I guess it's the same old story the world over of the aggressor being so disconnected from the life they are destroying. And of course it's all about the money and the increasingly brutal capitalist mindset which sees 'countryside' as just another resource to abuse and profit from in the cause of economic and industrial 'growth', rather than as a vital bio-diverse network of interacting relationships.

Combe Valley...the blue shape in the distant tree is at the Decoy Pond Wood camp

Arriving early morning at the camp, everything was pretty quiet, people starting to wake up in the tree houses and benders and someone starting to get the fire lit. Despite the two other camps having been evicted this week, there was a rumour that there wouldn't be an eviction here today due to police being called elsewhere and so not being available to assist the bailiffs. Shortly after 8am we had a visit from four police liaison officers, apparently calling by to check that everyone was still alive (the good cops I guess... the bad cops will no doubt appear when people are dragged out of trees and arrested).

After they'd gone, a couple of us kept watch out near the road in case any suspicious crowds of people in fluorescent jackets and hard hats appeared. They didn't and the camp was to see another day, not evicted.

Another group of supporters arrived and we all set about collecting wood to build up a huge log pile for the camp, as with the current freezing conditions, keeping the fire fed is going to be so important. The fire feels like the heart, not only providing warmth and power for heating pans and kettles, but a central place to gather, take a break, drink tea together and draw a bit of comfort under incredibly harsh conditions.

While collecting wood we noticed painted red line markings on earth and plants which indicate the route the road will take. The bright red lines conspicuously out of place here, tracing the path of the destruction to come. Red lines writing the language of 'progress' across the countryside, which neither trees nor badgers, voles nor newts, blackbirds nor I can understand. Maybe they will dissolve under the snowfall, get erased by the wind. Perhaps they will get rubbed out by the mud scattering beneath our boots as we pass, collecting wood. That's strange, I don't see them anymore!

Back at the camp, a new bender was being built for storing food and a tarpaulin shelter was erected above the fire circle. Strings of coloured bunting were hung along the front edge, welcoming and celebratory. Celebrating the survival so far of this demonstration of resistance and suggesting the party to come when the Government's resurrection of nearly 200 road schemes are once more abandoned. It was the Twyford Down and Newbury Road protests in the early 90's which put an end to Thatcher's 'Roads For Prosperity' programme, which is where many of today's proposed road schemes originate. This is why I feel the Bexhill-to-Hastings link road, as the first project of the Government's roads revival, needs to be met with the strongest resistance, to set the stage for the costs and obstruction they will face if they choose to bulldoze ahead, regardless of public opposition and the vital importance of preserving this country's quickly diminishing natural environments.


Taking a walk across the field and into a small wood, I was faced with another sign of the consequences of this road. This time on the badger population, as if a proposed cull in the country was not enough to threaten this jokingly 'protected' animal. Yes, I've read Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, I know all about 'compulsory purchase' of homes for the purposes of highways. People are forcibly losing their houses for the road as well as businesses which stand in the way. And of course the uncountable multitude of wild birds and animals which will be displaced or killed is of no consequence, even when there are apparently laws designed to keep them safe. Ah, but they can get a licence to allow them to make something criminal not criminal... easy! Sorry, still criminal in my book. I saw whole banks of closed setts for evictions of badgers just in a very small area.


Back at the camp I had a cup of tea and then set off with a couple of others across the fields to the Base Camp which had been evicted the previous day. We were on a mission to retrieve anything useful, in particular, several chairs which could be used at the existing camp. We stopped to marvel at the beauty of the snow topped pond and someone mentioned that this pond may need to be 'moved' to make way for the road.

At the demolished Base Camp, I couldn't help noticing a post-apocalyptic feeling as we searched through the wreckage left by the eviction. Up here, on top of the ridge of the old railway line, there were far-reaching views in all directions over the countryside and as I looked, my mind juxtaposed images of what I could see with images of what is to come. How much of this would survive? This wild place of birdsong to be replaced with the urban sprawl between towns and the roar of cars. Then I looked down at the fallen tree still holding the tree-house. The sawn stumps all around which strike me not only with the tragedy of themselves destroyed, but with what they represent of a culture which is allowing greed and ignorance to control the sources and means of life. The irony of a world literally driving itself into a climate nightmare, hellbent on more roads and less trees, along with all the other absurdities which are pushing us all closer to the edge of a potentially very real apocalyptic world.


Heading back, footprints, mine and a bird and nearby paw prints, making visible what time usually hides from us - the sharing of space with unknown others. The reminder that we do not walk alone, we cannot claim the absolute ownership of the space we occupy. For the brief time that we are here, we may start remembering that despite all our human fences and laws and red lines marking our various boundaries, there is such a thing as free communal space, as space that can and should exist beyond our ability to colonise it. The space where the badger runs in the darkness and the foxes play, where the yellow-necked mice scamper and the crow hops, where we each may meet only as passing footprints left behind in the snow.


Conversation at the camp later touched on possible ways forward for the protest, the next steps that can be taken. There were good ideas shared of mass trespasses, mass picnics, more camps, actions drawing attention to the companies who are profiting from the road. I liked the suggestion of an occupation of Trinity College in Cambridge. Trinity has been a particularly aggressive force for the urban development of the large area of peaceful countryside that it owns. Maybe we could take up the issue with them in their own backyard?


Around the camp as we sat and chatted, we kept seeing a little robin coming and going, hopping from twig to twig. I imagined him as a small protest camp guardian, overseeing the work of those who are trying so desperately hard to safeguard his home.

It's expected that police and bailiffs will come to evict this last remaining camp on Monday. People were beginning to strengthen the security of the camp, building the barricades to give a bit more time for the defence of this beautiful oak.

There is a call out for as many people to come as possible this weekend to help prepare defences including a free bus service. Obviously Monday early morning is especially important, to support and oppose the eviction itself. Even if you don't climb trees and lock on in an arrestable action, it helps to be present and support those who are, and to be a witness or act as a legal observer.



Standing in this open field, snow falling softly,

settling on me, on earth, these trees, woods,

here only for now. Only for now, this land

belonging to us,

badgers deep under the hard ground.

For now it all pauses, snow falls

as if in slow motion,

everything is held just as it is, safe.

Standing here at the scene of the crime,

while it has not yet happened,

trees still standing,

as if there still could be wisdom in the world,

As if there still could be hope.


Whatever happens over the coming week, the protest will not be over when this camp is evicted. The road is going to be in the making for the next two years and so it's going to be a long term project. The conservative estimate of £30 billion which is the new roads budget, would be better invested at least in part on the railways which are heading towards a crisis. My journey home from camp took six hours, instead of three. There were broken down trains, cancellations, no drivers to be found, signal failures, announcement and display malfunctions... Every train journey I've taken over the last few months has involved a delay or problem of some kind, with or without one or two inches of snow to contend with. We don't need new roads but if they don't know what to do with the money, there's a hell of a lot of other things that could do with fixing.


  1. Thank you so much for this, as it has been (and is) worrying me hugely. I listened to some interesting interviews on local radio last week and none of the local people, who were not involved with the protest camp, had anything positive to say about the planned road. The reporter was incredulous and kept saying things like, 'but surely life will easier/better with the traffic diverted', or 'but your journeys will be so much quicker along this new route'. All the replies were that they love the woods and the tranquility as they are. Many made particular comment about how it wouldn't make their local journeys easier and they didn't feel it would improve their lives either. If only someone in power would listen :(

  2. So heartbreaking. Thank you for going and reporting back for us.

  3. Beautiful poem and really well written piece. Might see you there!