Rural: When the wrath of the country people will be set ablaze

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The Independent Online
On the evening of Thursday, 26 February, Britain will be on fire from end to end as chains of beacons are lit to herald the second great countryside march on London, on 1 March.

Beacons have been part of our history since time immemorial. They have been used to give warning of invasion, as when the Spanish Armada was approaching in 1588, and in celebration of great events - for instance the Queen's Silver Jubilee, in 1977. But never, so far as I know, have they blazed up as an expression of nationwide anger.

That is what the fires of February 1998 will signify: the wrath of country people at the way the Government seems hell-bent on steamrollering their wishes and obliterating many facets of traditional rural life. Initial opposition was sparked off by the threat to fox-hunting; the countryside marches which led up to last July's rally in Hyde Park were organised largely by the hunting community.

Now the protest movement has spread to include not only the Country Landowners' Association (CLA) but also the powerful National Farmers' Union (NFU), which has 80,000 members working on the land.

Once again, a lead has been given by Charles Mann, the Gloucestershire farmer who organised last summer's long-distance treks. This time, however, detailed organisation will devolve not on to the hunts, but on to local branches of the CLA and NFU.

The one major landowner notable by its absence from fire-lighting will be the National Trust, which has announced that it "does not permit political activities to take place on its properties, and is therefore unable to agree to the request to light beacons on its land".

In claiming that "in the past these beacons have only been lit for national celebrations", the Trust is well wide of the mark. For centuries the beacons were a key element in the defence of the realm: throughout spring and summer, when the chances of invasion were highest, they were manned continuously, and the early-warning system was so efficient that, according to an intelligence report of 1545, the English could muster between 25,000 and 30,000 men at any one point within two hours of the alarm being raised.

The Trust's decision knocks out several prominent sites from the 1998 protest, not least the 1,705-ft Dunkery Beacon, on the north coast of Somerset, and plays havoc with the main lines of visual communication. Yet Mr Mann is undismayed: besides the major chains of "intervisible" beacons, he is planning any number of smaller fires on points that will be in the view of people travelling by road, rail or air.

In the art of placing and making beacons, much can be learnt from the events of 1977, which were worked out in meticulous detail by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. The selection of 96 main sites was based on the triangulation network of the Ordnance Survey, and after a prototype bonfire had been successfully lit at Windsor on 22 March, a specification for a standard beacon was circulated. The heap of brushwood and timber, this suggested, should be in the form of a cone 30ft wide at the base and 30ft high - a structure needing 30 tons of material.

The idea was that on 6 June, after the Queen had lit the first fire in Windsor Great Park, the spark would leap-frog away to every corner of the realm. In the event the plan was partially frustrated by bad weather: cloud, rain and snow rendered some of the highest beacons invisible. Nevertheless, many thousands of revellers enjoyed a rare old evening out, with barbecues, dances and sing-songs round the fires.

Mr Mann hopes that although the message of 1998 is serious, a similarly festive atmosphere will prevail. Pyromania - always latent in rural folk - is already threatening to burst out. In North Wales Richard Williams, a farmer who walked all the way to Hyde Park last summer, is planning a fire on the top of Snowdon, part of which he owns, provided he can persuade the tourist railway to hoist combustible materials to the 3,493-ft summit.

In low-lying Norfolk, by contrast, Ian MacNicol, President of the CLA, will build a beacon on The Mount, an artificial mound raised on top of a low hill at the time of the Armada to warn the citizens of Norwich in the event of the Spaniards appearing off the coast.

Nationwide co-ordination will be achieved (it is hoped) by split-second timing. The most remote blazes, in the Scottish Highlands, will be touched off at 6.10pm, those in Perth, Argyll and Stirling at 6.12pm, and so on down the country, until the final beacons ignite on the banks of the Thames in London at 6.30pm.

In 1588, according to Macaulay's ringing lines, "Far on the deep the Spaniard saw, along each southern shire/ Cape beyond cape, in endless range, those twinkling points of fire."

Five hundred years on, the fire will be travelling inwards - and surely the message will come home to even the most urban Members of Parliament that the country is smouldering with rage.