Bring back the birch

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The Independent Culture
Matthew Williams, 11-year-old eco-warrior, is passionate about saving silver birches. But wouldn't he be better off

in his council flat than living in a tree and not going to school? Well, evidently not.

Welcome to Epsom Eco village. Please wipe your feet," reads a muddy sign, long since trampled underfoot by the latest stream of visitors to a rather unremarkable, scrubby square of green known as Epsom Park. Beyond the sign, just next to a couple of deflated-looking tents, cameramen, reporters, and photographers gather around two or three poplar trees, their necks craned upwards. A state of anxious hush prevails.

We stare up into the greenery at a wooden-slatted tree house covered in blue plastic. Silence. It's like waiting for the sighting of a rare bird. Suddenly there's a loud rustle. "He's there, there. Just near the top branch," hisses one photographer. Then the leaves part and there's a flash of combat trouser and long brown hair. A small and agile figure swings effortlessly down the side of the tree, rope fastened around his waist and one of the upper branches. Bump. He lands at the bottom, readjusts a filthy-looking white baseball cap, looks around at his audience and smiles nonchalantly. The rare sighting in question is 11-year-old Matthew Williams, Britain's youngest eco-warrior to date, and for that reason alone a subject of media scrutiny.

Known as General Survival to his friends, Matthew hit the headlines on Wednesday when he was given permission by the High Court to remain in his tree house home while awaiting his appeal against a council eviction order. Matthew and his mother, Lorraine, are part of a group living in Epsom Park and protesting against plans to fell the trees for a road scheme. Epsom and Ewell Borough Council, joint owner of the land with Surrey County Council and the Department of Health, was granted a possession order by the High Court last week. The eco-warriors will be allowed to stay in their tree houses and tents until after the Court of Appeal rules on the case on 1 October.

Matthew stole the limelight when he turned up at court wearing shoulder- length hair and combats. "It was really boring," he said. "I was not allowed to say anything. I wanted to tell him how much I loved the green park and how much I want to save the silver birches."

It seems that protesting about a sacred woodland, not joining a band or learning lead guitar, is rapidly becoming a much swifter route to overnight celebrity for some of our younger, rebellious males. Apart from appearing to be outspoken and single-minded there are other reasons why pre-teen Matthew is causing such a stir. Chiefly, he can neither read nor write properly after opting out of school three years ago and has somehow managed to evade the system ever since. He travels from one protest site to another with his mother, Lorraine.

Much has been made of the changing face of eco-warriors; protesting against new roads has fired up unlikely sections of society in recent months, from belligerent housewives to young men with strange names and, now, a child. Since the nation's favourite eco-warrior, Swampy, rose to fame, and then sank almost as swiftly, there's been a bit of a gap. Matthew seems a natural successor. He may not have such a silly name but he's much younger, just as dedicated and, in news terms, rather more controversial. Just how has he managed to avoid the education system for so long? And who would allow an 11-year-old to live his life in a tree house?

So reporters cluster around the pre-teen fighter, who appears spectacularly underwhelmed by their attentions, to try and find out just what sort of a child he is. He's certainly extremely confident, joking with journalists and with his eco-chums.

"Matthew, Mat, over here. Can we have a little chat?" At this point three women, myself included, swiftly corner him, anxious that he will shin back up the poplar and disappear. Reluctantly, he hunches on a broken chair near the ashes of last night's campfire.

"Matthew, what's your favourite television programme?" someone asks.

"Dunno, don't watch it."

"What music do you like?"

"Anything that's hippy."

"What do you like reading?"

"Anything about trees and Indians."

"What about films?"

"Anything with lots of killings in it."

Matthew decided his future lay in protesting after he watched a demonstration on television. He wanted to spend his time outside, "saving the silver birches and the wildlife".

While Matthew aspires to saving ancient birches, most boys his age are more busy dreaming about a new pair of Nike trainers, computer games and football. Does he feel different to other children his age? "Mm, yeah, I suppose I do. But it's much better saving trees than living on a council estate."

And here is the crux of Matthew's story. One that has very little to do with stopping road schemes and far more to do with grossly inadequate housing and education resources. Matthew and his mother Lorraine, who looks anything between 25 and 40, used to live on a council estate in Kingston. "It was rubbish," Matthew says, vocal and animated for the first time. "There was nothing to do There were fights and everywhere you'd go you'd see needles. We got broken into and our video got nicked."

Now his life seems part Sixties hippy commune and part Boy's Own adventure. His daily routine appears fluid to say the least. "I get up, clean my tree house out, and then clean up the park, picking up bits of litter and that." In his own mind, though, Matthew is part of a trusty gang of comrades, existing beyond conventional rules and battling against the baddies - schoolboy fantasy fiction made real in many ways.

Matthew is adamant that he's learning more now than at any other time of his young life, a rather chilling reflection of how insubstantial his primary school education must have been. "Nigel reads to me almost every day," he says. Nigel, an English graduate from Epsom, brings food and teaches Matthew to read and write. It's poignant that, as far as Lorraine is concerned, this is the best education Matthew has so far been offered - by anybody, ever. "He's learning now. And he's learning about other things like trees. I wouldn't want him to go back to school because I know he wouldn't be able to cope. He can't keep up and so he feels different. Now he's happy and feels strongly about this park."

Lorraine has two other sons and two daughters - all of them older than Matthew. At some points, Lorraine can seem a little vague about the eco- issues. "I've always felt cutting down trees is not a good thing," she says firmly, but won't be pushed on specifics. "How old are these trees?" "Um? I think maybe about a hundred years. There's a really old one here somewhere." She motions vaguely towards one end of the park. "I think it's called Heavenly something." "The Tree of Heaven?" a young reporter corrects her. "Oh yeah. That's the one."

Her commitment to this particular cause is motivated less, you feel, by principles and more by a need to belong to a supportive community. "When you live on an estate you get problems, drugs and shoplifting. Here, he can't get involved in those things." We look up to see Matthew's small but robust form skimming up a nearby poplar.

"He's so happy," reflects Lorraine. A strange state of affairs, when an 11-year-old boy is better off living up a tree than in his own community. "He's got friends, a park to play in and a tutor. I think it's the best way for him to spend a childhood."

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