Mick Thompson, a burly former builder in his late fifties, was served with notice to quit his house last week. If he wasn't out by the following Monday, the letter said, the bailiffs would be calling. That gave him time to prepare, to bring in the kit, to turn the squat terraced house in Leytonstone, east London, that he has lived in for the last eight years into a blown-up version of the children's board-game Mousetrap.

In the front room, he worked night and day to block the windows with steel and wooden shutters held in place by a complex latticework of railway sleepers and metal girders. Behind his reinforced steel doors he constructed huge wooden portcullises, which, when danger threatened, would swing down from the ceiling on a complex pulley system, to be held in place by more sleepers.

'While they're trying to get through that lot, we'll be hammering this lot in place,' Mick said, indicating another pile of sleepers filling his dining room, hammers and six-inch nails waiting by their side. 'And once they've broken through that, they've still got to take upstairs.'

That won't be easy, either: he has blocked his stairwell with a wooden and concrete platform. Once he has lost his battle for the lounge, Mick will squirm through a tiny trap door in the middle of the platform, and cover it with more sleepers. An oil drum filled with 50 gallons of water stands ready at the top of the stairs to soak the first man through. After further surprises in the bedroom, his final act, when his house has fallen to the enemy, will be to pull himself through a hole in the roof. Here, from a scaffold constructed for the purpose, he will hang himself.

'It's only a delay, I know that,' he said. 'But we've got to fight them. Over every house, every tree, every blade of grass.'

The bailiffs want Mick's house for the same reason they want another 350 that lie along a three-mile route through the East End of London: their client, the Department of Transport, wants to demolish them to make room for an extension of the M11 motorway. The DoT has been trying to build the road for 25 years; it started compulsory purchase of appropriate properties in 1968. Three public inquiries, however, stalled progress, as did a stubborn European Environment Commission. But earlier this year the commission's ruling was overturned: the way was clear and work was due to start in September.

But the DoT had reckoned without Mick, and his mates who live round the corner: Henry, a bearded, middle- aged fellow who describes himself as a 'healer and local figure' and Del, a busker from Ilford.

'You see, these DoT people have no manners,' said Mick, pausing from his construction work for a jam jar of tea. 'They have never considered if this is what we want. They have never come round and discussed it over a cup of tea like proper Englishmen should.'

Along the route there are people like Mick, Henry and Del who have been conducting a remorseless war of attrition against the motorway for more than 20 years: writing letters, signing petitions, lobbying councillors and complaining, complaining, complaining. Things changed gear earlier this year when many of the tenants who have been living in the DoT's properties were told that their leases would not be renewed, as they had been before each year.

As the houses emptied, so the demolition crews moved in. It was then that the campaigners decided to take what they call direct action.

'We'd been in contact with the people protesting against motorways at Twyford Down and Oxleas Wood for over a year,' said Henry. 'Ours was not as prominent a campaign, because it is not a naturally attractive place we are defending. But they saw the issues and offered to help. So we invited them in.'

And in they came, the Earth First protesters, the Dongas Tribe, the crusties and the travellers with their enthusiasm, their crumbling motor vehicles and their skinny dogs on pieces of string. As quickly as the bailiffs boarded up an empty house, the protesters would occupy it.

'It's against the law to demolish a house if someone is living in the adjoining premises,' explained Becky, a 20-year-old politics student who dropped out of Bristol University to protest full time against road-building. 'So we're making sure that we have someone in every house.'

From their headquarters in what was once a stylish Victorian villa, the protesters, old-timers and new arrivals together, are co-ordinating their campaign by mobile phone, charting the progress of occupation on a large- scale map of the route stuck to the kitchen wall.

'We're taking about two houses to every one they're taking,' said Becky. 'The trouble is they have started to play dirty, demolishing the inside of places they occupy and then putting security guards in them.'

Along Dyers Hall Road in Leytonstone, which Becky calls 'the front line', the battle is almost constant. Down one side of the road, houses not scheduled for demolition retain their net curtains, satellite dishes and treble glazing. Opposite them, the terraces are breeze-blocked up, the steel fences erected in their front gardens covered in anti-road graffiti.

In one house, its stairs and upper floor ripped out by the demolition men, two young activists with dreadlocks were hammering a window back into the front room. A fire smouldered in the grate.

'Perfectly good home, this,' said one of the men. 'But they prefer cars to people. You haven't got any nails on you, have you?'

Next door, on a pile of rubble where once a house stood, two uniformed security guards sat in a mobile home playing Scrabble.

'We're here to stop them putting up tents on the site,' said one of the guards. 'We get on very well with them, though. They're no trouble at all, we are neighbours.'

The flying squad of super-protesters knows how to handle the workmen. They befriend the security guards, josh them that they're only getting work because of the protest. They exchange cheery hellos with the drivers and surveyors, even the portly demolition man pipped his horn in a friendly manner when he saw them on the street. Mick says this is what the local protesters have learnt from their more experienced allies.

'Me, I wanted to fight the bastards, tell them to fuck off out me house,' he said. 'But these youngsters, they said no. Be lawful, be polite. I've learnt so much from them, they've really put the energy back into the campaign. I thought it was just me house, but they taught me it's bigger than that. We've got to stop the car, you know. It's killing us all.'

But Mick does not expect politeness when the bailiffs finally arrive. 'They'll come mob-handed with the police, and they won't take no bollocks,' he said.

To prepare for his final confrontation, Mick has not left his house since the notice arrived. He didn't want his picture taken (though Henry was happy to pose on the barricades) because he didn't want the bailiffs to know what he looked like.

'Every little helps, you see,' he said. 'These are not ordinary men we are dealing with. Henry touched one of tEhem the other day. He was stiff. He had no life left, it had been drained from him by his work, destroying a community.'.. TX. THER write error-Outside Mick's house was a permanent jam of cars, nose-to-tailing their way in and out of the City. You can see why the planners thought it might be wise to widen the road and bring the motorway closer to the centre.

As Del walked me along the proposed route, stopping occasionally to look in on an occupied house, or stick 'M11: you can shove it' stickers on lamp posts, a huge BMW, registration number LWC 6, pulled alongside, and the driver asked directions. It was Linford Christie.

'See what I mean?' said Del as the world champion purred back into the queue. 'Cars are a waste of time. He'd get there quicker running.'

(Photograph omitted)