The Barbourians are at the gates

A general marshals his army in the 'war room'; As London braces itself for invasion by 200,000 countryside marchers, our reporters meet the advance of the Green Welly Brigade
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The Independent Online
"THE RED pins represent coach parks, the white mark mainline stations and the green show the route of a flypast," says Marcus Cotton briskly before moving on to another map: "This shows rail routes and the colours of the pins mean something ... but I just can't remember what right now."

Mr Cotton, 34, a former wildlife resort manager in the Himalayas, is standing in the Countryside Alliance's war room, surrounded by maps and charts, smart, friendly staff, computers, phones, faxes and yellow placards that read: "Keep politics out of country sports."

This is the Alliance's nerve centre, a former town hall in Kennington, south London, donated by a mystery benefactor and opened in May 1996 after a pounds 100,000 refurbishment. Today's march is thought to have cost pounds 500,000 to organise.

Mr Cotton's lapse of memory is uncharacteristic. For more than two months, he has been co-ordinating one of the largest movements of people ever seen in peacetime. He has overseen the expected arrival today of marchers on 2,033 coaches and 74 trains. He and his small team have recruited 2,600 stewards, kitted out three mobile communications vehicles and set up an operations room back at base.

Forty stewards will use walkie-talkies to monitor the crowds and look out for trouble-makers. Outside the ops room, the headquarters is littered with loud hailers and first-aid kits and luminous vests. Everywhere is the paraphernalia of protest.

Mr Cotton and his team have even set up a radio station, March FM, which will broadcast to supporters from 7am to 9pm today. And, so their followers can hear it, tens of thousands of tiny radios have been flown in from China to be sold at two for pounds 5.

When the upper-middle classes of the country go to war with the townies, they do it well. About 40 staff are working full-time in Kennington. Half the room is dedicated to media relations, while the other - in spite of the apolitical exhortations of the Alliance's placards - houses the "political section".

On the media side is Janet George, a formidable 49-year-old Australian. She is angry at suggestions that ultra-right wing groups are trying to hijack the march, in spite of growing evidence that several disturbing elements are encouraging their supporters to attend. On Friday, she was furious over claims by Michael Yardley of the Sportsmen's Association that "dark forces" were at play.

"F--- Mike Yardley!" she says. "He's supplying 40 stewards, that's all, so he has no right to say anyone is hijacking anything. We conceived this march and we've organised it well and we believe it will be a great success."

Mrs George, who hunts with the United Hunt on the Shropshire-Wales border, says: "Hunting is a sport, it plays a role in wildlife management, conservation and provides jobs. I don't mind speaking out for what I believe in. I get death threats every week. The sabs know me but I just smile sweetly at them."

Not all Alliance supporters are so affable. A fax has been pinned to the wall from a huntsman who suggests an order for lunch: "I'll try the hunt saboteur, well done and on the bone." Not a lot of room for compromise here.