Stuck up the Cakehole in wildest protest yet

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Matt the tunneller managed to laugh when he pointed at the crack running along the low, impossibly tight ceiling of the clay shaft. "There's no shoring in that bit," he said. "And the crack's getting wider."

Something to bear in mind, perhaps, for the bailiffs, or police, or military types who will have to extract him and at least two other eco-warriors from the Cakehole, the most ambitious protest tunnel ever built under the path of a construction project.

The tunnel, running 50ft deep and in at least five different directions, has been gouged out of the Bollin Valley that will soon be churned up to make way for Manchester Airport's pounds 172m second runway. Possibly within days - certainly within weeks - the Cakehole and the three people who currently live in it will become as much household names as Swampy - aka Daniel Hooper - and Big Mama, the tunnel at the A30 in Fairmile, Devon, that kept him from the bailiffs for a week in January.

Yesterday, as police filmed the entrance to the tunnel in preparation for their assault on it, The Independent was allowed through the bolted trapdoor with its "Stop!" sign and down into the shaft. It is a phenomenal piece of work by up to 40 people, none of whom have mining skills, but only three of its prime movers - Muppet Dave, 30, Matt, 23, and Denise - are expected to be locked inside when eviction comes.

The tunnel winds and twists at heights and widths ranging from about 14in to only about 8in. Most is shored up with wood or concrete, but some sections, called "wormholes", are tight, round and deliberately left unshored. Small, low rooms are dug out at intervals to serve as a pantry and bedrooms. And at least one of the bedrooms - with an entrance less than 8in wide, has an escape tunnel running off it.

Despite attempts to ventilate the tunnel with a fan powered by a 12-volt battery, the air is stale and damp. Movement is difficult, and within the first few yards, those making an assault on the tunnel will have to negotiate bolted doors, sharp turns and 90-degree vertical twists. But the tunnellers insist there are more surprises ahead - designed not to harm but to hinder.

"We intend to make life as difficult as possible for them to get us out and begin destroying this valley," said Muppet Dave, a lithe eight-stone tunneller on his third project. Softly spoken and sporting a red and green Mohican, he cut his teeth at Fairmile where he lasted only half a day less than Swampy.

Yesterday, as Randall Hibbert, the Under Sheriff of Cheshire, read the final eviction notice on the site, near more than 10 other tunnels and beneath sturdily constructed tree-houses, Matt was preparing to be locked under ground.

He was asked how he would feel when, after weeks breathing the same air as his pursuers, he finally came face to face with them.

"I don't know, because it will be my first time," he said. "But everyone tells me that, while they're chipping you out, they're actually very nice."