Jim White on Friday: If they won't build us a tunnel, we'll dig our own: The Channel rail link is casting a blight on Hollingbourne. But the village has a pounds 5m survival plan

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JOHN COBBETT pointed past a couple of chestnut trees, an electric fence and a horse-trough to the bottom of the field.

'That's where our tunnel will finish,' he said. 'The trains will come out just there. About where that horse is.'

Along the proposed route of the Channel tunnel high-speed rail link - which, it was announced in March, will make its way to east London through some of the most delightful parts of rural Kent - villagers, farmers and landowners are lying down, sitting in and waving banners. But in Hollingbourne, a quiet village of neat old houses, five miles south of Maidstone, some, but not all, of the locals are taking a more commercial approach to protesting.

'We immediately thought of Richard Branson and his Mates,' said Keith Harris, a design director whose property is next to the proposed railway. 'I mean 140mph phallic symbols coming every nine minutes, that must be worth something to Virgin.'

Since the first route plans were released in 1989, the people of Hollingbourne had known the trains would pass near their village, perhaps underground. Then, in March, a completely new route was announced: tunnelling was deemed too expensive; this one was to go within window-rattling distance of the high street with its porticoed properties and neat gardens, cutting through Cotuam's Meadow, an ancient field occupied by John Cobbett's horses.

'So we thought that if British Rail and the Government couldn't afford to tunnel,' said Mr Cobbett, negotiating his way past an inquisitive mare, 'then we'd help them out. Let's raise the money and do it ourselves.'

Like most good ideas, the Hollingbourne tunnel was first mooted in the pub (The Windmill, which, in the middle of May, was doing its best to keep local spirits warm by running two open fires).

'It was a couple of weeks after the route proposal was published. Everyone was so fed up,' remembered Alan Hewitt. 'The announcement had ripped the heart out of the village. Morale was, well, there wasn't any. Then when someone, I can't for the life of me remember who it was, had the idea, the whole atmosphere changed, everyone became excited, began to live again.'

After some research it was discovered that a nice bit of tunnel comes at about pounds 10,000 a metre. For their purposes, the locals needed about 500 metres of the stuff, amounting to pounds 5m. It was immediately apparent that the usual round of village fund-raising activity - whist drives, car-boot sales, darts evenings - might have to be supplemented.

The pub plotters were not to be deterred: sitting around the Windmill fires, they thought of sponsorship schemes (the Hollingbourne Virgin Mates tunnel), grants (the EC), a rock festival featuring Led Zeppelin (an interesting way of drawing attention to a noise problem) and Keith Harris offered pounds 20 for the tower-block sized boring machine currently in the Channel tunnel museum at

Folkestone.

'It's the best offer they've had, apparently,' he said. 'The plan is we'll hack it up here, shove it in my garden and charge people to come and have a look at it.'

But while half the village was gripped by the idea, inventing increasingly elaborate fund-raising schemes, support has by no means been unanimous. A lot of the older people were upset when someone in the pub pointed out that pounds 5m worked out at pounds 5,000 per Hollingbourne resident.

'It's all right for the rich types who make all the noise,' said one elderly local. 'But some of us haven't got that sort of money.' This, according to John Cobbett, a redundant Calor Gas executive, is a misinterpretation.

'I have had letters from people worried about it,' he said. 'But we have no intention of forcing people who cannot afford it to give money unwillingly. The point of that figure was to show how attainable the sum is. In fact, I'd say it was rather easier for us to raise pounds 5m for our tunnel than it is for the Government to raise the pounds 2.5bn it needs for the rest of the line.'

There was, however, a more pressing objection to their plan. It came from John Castle, the chairman of the local protest campaign, who has spent at least 20 hours a week fighting the scheme for the last four years and was away from the village when the tunnel was mooted.

'I'm worried that this idea detracts from the serious campaign,' he said. 'We are not Nimbys. We want this railway. But we want the route that is best for Britain, the heavy-freight line proposed by Tallis/Rail Europe which will get the lorries off the bloody M20. By coincidence, this happens to be the one that is best for Hollingbourne (it misses the village by miles). The one Union Rail have presented us with here is a cheap and nasty compromise. I'm not sure we should compromise with that by offering to finance tunnels.'

Along the route other protest groups, too, have felt that Cobbett's army are turning the whole campaign into a joke.

'There is a joke going on here, true,' said Mr Cobbett. 'It is a cruel joke perpetrated by the Government. They have blighted this village for four years with a scheme that they have no idea how they will finance, never mind when it will even open.'

Indeed, the blight in Hollingbourne is cruel. The average decline in Kent house prices since 1989 has been some 30 per cent; in once sought-after Hollingbourne, they have fallen by twice that. The man who bought Eyhorne Manor for pounds 425,000 three years ago, sold it recently for pounds 135,000. Locally, he was considered lucky to find a buyer. In the village, this kind of thing is not just dinner-party conversation, it is destroying the place.

'What we are trying to do here is put a little control back into people's lives,' said Mr Cobbett. 'Of course, John Castle is right that we want

a completely different route, but a bit of self-help will empower us enormously.'

On Monday, the Government started to investigate ways in which private money could be attracted to the route. But is Mr Cobbett's money a bit too private to accept?

According to John Bennett, a spokesman for Union Railways, the BR subsidiary, there will be no need to take it.

'First, the route has to go somewhere, and remember, this railway takes up a fifth of the space of a motorway,' said Mr Bennett. 'We are at present engaged in detailed consultation along the line with protest groups, taking on board their legitimate environmental concerns. We will then present the Government with a report which will include all those that are feasible. As far as I am aware, Mr Cobbett's tunnel will be included in that report. Of course, anything is feasible, given the money, and it is up to the Government to decide how much they are prepared to spend.'

So would the Government, if it decided it had no money left, take a top- up cheque from Mr C? 'I just don't know,' said Paul Moore, of the Department of Transport. 'There isn't a precedent to go from. But it's very, very theoretical. And, frankly, I don't think it will be necessary. I hope Union Rail will propose a line that will make local residents content.'

Both sides know each other in this campaign, know their methods, know their personalities. It is like a game between Short and Kasparov, except that it has lasted for four years.

In Hollingbourne they have been noted for the coltish imagination of their battle strategy from the start. When Union Railways made a presentation of the route in the village hall in April, for instance, campaigners erected loudspeakers outside.

'We played a recording of the noise of a high-speed train at precisely the decibel level they would make as they passed through the village,' said John Castle, smirking like a prep school boy caught with a catapault.

'One of the Union Railways people came out and said: 'For God's sake, stop that noise, we can't hear ourselves think.' And we said: 'Exactly, thank you.' '

The planners believe that Mr Cobbett's new move is just a cunning publicity stunt: that he has no intention, let alone ability, to finance his own tunnel. Cobbett himself reckons he has Union Railways and the Government in checkmate with his new weapon: protest money.

'They don't know what to do,' he claimed. 'If they say yes to us, the precedent is terrifying. If they say no, the whole world will want to know why ever not. And if they say, 'sod them, we'll pay', then fine. Every way we win and they lose. But, more importantly, it doesn't matter if we don't raise a penny. Just the idea has made people in Hollingbourne smile again.'

To date, incidentally, the Hollingbourne tunnel fund has reached pounds 100.

(Photographs omitted)

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