Stopping the traffic: for good: Helen Anscomb eats bird food, rides a motorbike, teaches Latin and fights roads. Eccentric? Certainly not, writes Mary Loudon

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HELEN ANSCOMB is an anti-road campaigner with a dilemma. In the garden behind her cottage, in the middle of an exceptionally pretty wood outside Newbury in Berkshire, there is a small, but significant, pile of bottles left over from a party. Last year she had a liver transplant, and afterwards she threw the party for all the friends who helped her through it.

Why doesn't she take them to a bottle bank? 'I can't. I've just discovered that they use recycled glass as part of the hard core for new roads,' she says. Those with strong consciences inhabit a world full of difficult choices.

Anscomb looks handsome and robust - she is over six feet tall - but suffers from ill-health. In addition to the liver transplant, she has also had a kidney removed, and suffers from systemic sclerosis, a condition that affects body tissue, causing an over- reaction to cold and dehydration of the eyes and mouth.

Yet none of this has stopped her from campaigning. 'Get her to show you her scars,' says her friend John, who is en route from the sitting-room-cum-office to the garden. She does. They are impressive.

I ask her if she takes extra care of herself. Does she eat healthily and go for lots of long walks?

'Oh no. I haven't got time for walks, I always seem to have too much to do with all this (a wide, sweeping gesture encompassing telephone, fax machine and boxes of papers), and I always forget to eat.

'I opened a tin of sardines the other day, but they were off. John brings bits of old cheese and cake for the birds when he comes over, and I usually end up eating that.'

'Do you?' asks John mildly, wandering back into the room.

'Yes,' she says. 'Do you mind?'

'No, dear,' says John, wandering out again, 'but you worry me.'

I suspect that Anscomb also worries the local community. Small rural market towns pride themselves on community spirit, but they can be remarkably intolerant of non-conformists. 'Trouble is, I'm single. No husband, no children. That's bad enough anywhere . . . much worse in the eyes of people round here than fighting roads. It's rather like the Greenham women. They came and camped and they didn't have baths, and there were no men around.

That's what the local community hated. Mostly, they agreed with them wholeheartedly about nuclear weapons, but they couldn't bear their difference as people.

'Living out here - never mind what campaign I'm on - I'm considered weird. I live in an isolated house, ride a motorbike and I teach Latin. You'd be amazed how suspicious that makes people. They think I'm eccentric.

'I guess if you add up what a normal person's doing with their life, I am a bit eccentric. But I don't think arguing about roads is eccentric. It's logical and has to be done now, before it's too late. Otherwise we'll find we've got no countryside left; just a land full of cars to pass on to the next generation.'

Campaigning runs in the Anscomb family. Her mother fought the early development of Basingstoke, and Anscomb's own campaigning career began in earnest in 1979, when her brother drew her attention to the proposals to build the A34 through Highclere Park, near Newbury, an estate which had been landscaped by Capability Brown. She fought hard and eventually won a High Court case for a public inquiry over the plans. Although in the end the road was still built, the action of Anscomb and other campaigners led to an alteration of the route.

So how did she do it? How does an ordinary person fight the building of a road? 'We wrote hundreds of letters to people we thought should help us, and then went to the courts. It was hard work, but it's not complicated. You learn as you go along.'

In 1982, Anscomb went to the High Court and the Court of Appeal, and held up the building of the M40 extension from Oxford to Birmingham for a whole year, this time single-handedly. She challenged the legality of two sections of the proposed road, on environmental grounds, and was rewarded with a slight alteration of the route.

Now she is fighting plans for the proposed Newbury bypass ('the third battle of Newbury'). The road is due to be built right through Newbury's two Civil War battle sites, with the contractors moving in next January. The bypass is said to be necessary not just to ease congestion within the town centre, but also to speed freight on its way to southern ports. ('Even though it sits there for a day when it gets there,' says Anscomb.) 'These road plans would never be allowed now. We've built so many roads, and where has it got us? We're still in jams.

'There seems to me to be no possible, logical reason for road building, except to make money for the chief investors, most of whom seem to supply Conservative Party funds. But it's not helping any of us. It's taking away the countryside, it's ruining habitats, it's killing wildlife; it's polluting us.

'We're never going to be able to replace what we lose. We should be using money to improve the rail system and get freight off the roads and on to rail, but the Government simply isn't interested.'

The Newbury Campaign can be reached by phone or fax on 0635 253079.

(Photograph omitted)

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