Bypass opponents anger villagers in traffic trap: Those whose lives are blighted by 25,000 vehicles a day have little time for Solsbury Hill campaigners. Peter Dunn reports
Saturday 21 May 1994
Conversation along the steep high street is impossible at any time. Lorries hit the slope at a smart clip, double-declutching in a haze of diesel smoke and escalating decibels.
Some of the houses, their facades blackened by decades of fumes, have front doors that open directly on to the main road. Children have become prisoners of Batheaston's traffic flow.
Trapped behind their double glazing, the high-street folk take a baleful view of the campaign to stop the bypass that would reduce their burden to 6,000 vehicles a day.
Unlike the M3 battle of Twyford Down, the confrontation centered on the lower slopes of nearby Solsbury Hill has become a middle-class cause celebre through the intervention of the writer Bel Mooney and her daughter Kitty Dimbleby, 14, who live near Solsbury Hill in the village of Upper Swainswick.
Kitty, a pupil at Bath High School (fees pounds 1,200 a term) has written an article in the Daily Mail ('My friends, the gentle eco-warriors') explaining why she supports the anti- road campaign. Her mother, who is married to the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, has been fasting in a tent close to the construction site this week and also writing newspaper articles.
The new dual carriageway, approved by a public inquiry three years ago, will run south between Solsbury Hill and Lower Swainswick before swinging through a valley of the river Avon and heading east below Batheaston.
Protesters have been 'occupying' bulldozers and houses due for demolition and battling with security guards. They claim that the bypass is part of a government plan to build an east- west Euro-route by stealth. They say it will carve up the community of Bailbrook, knock down homes, increase traffic jams into Bath and add to pollution and environmental damage.
The Mooneys' high-profile intervention, attracting weekend visits from the Marquess of Worcester and Viscount Norwich among others, has irritated parents trying to bring up children in the noisy and dangerous environment of Batheaston.
Ron and Sheila Russell have lived by the main road for 22 years. Mr Russell, a retired college lecturer, says: 'My children are grown up and have left home now and we don't want to see other children in the village suffer like ours did. We could never allow them out on their own.
'Traffic's got worse over the years because of the size of the lorries. Now we get these massive 12-wheelers and even behind your double- glazing you can see houses trembling and shaking.
'Some years ago a lady got killed by a lorry opposite Daphne's store. Near-misses are incredible. There's traffic howling down at 40-50mph and some of it shoots the red crossing lights because they're going too fast. Smaller lanes out of the village have become rat runs with drivers trying to avoid the A4 into Bath. In the morning, the traffic's stationary and the fumes are pumping out and you see the kids waiting for school buses surrounded by smoke. It's horrendous here.
'We aren't pro-road by any means but we reckon the environment consists of more than open spaces. There's been gross exaggeration and misrepresentation from some of these anti-road people. The road they're protesting about goes nowhere near Solsbury Hill.
'Last Saturday we had all these people on bikes ringing their bells and blowing whistles and shouting 'Save the water meadows' . . . Water meadow's a very emotive term for what's actually poor quality pasture land. The bypass here will run parallel to a canal, the main InterCity railway line to London and a string of electricity pylons.
'The Dimblebys are behind this campaign. They opposed it at a public inquiry and have refused to accept the result . . . The Mooneys telling us what to do and what's good for us is hardly pleasing this community.'
Douglas Jackson, a retired engineer and chairman of the Batheaston parish council, says there has been little contact between villagers and the anti-roads group. 'They had a meeting here a month ago but most people in favour of the by-pass stayed away,' he said.
'It's not only people who are suffering here. There are 49 listed buildings on our main road and a lot of them are suffering vibration damage.
'I sympathise with the protesters to some extent . . . but they're wrong because it's not as if the land they're using wasn't already spoiled.'
Bel Mooney was fasting in a tent pitched next to the protestors' headquarters in Bailbrook Lane, her immediate landscape littered with bulldozed buildings and trees.
'A lot of people in Batheaston think I'm mad or bad or both and of course I'm not,' she said. 'I'm an extremely reasonable person and we did say there was always a possibility that a little, tiny, baby bypass could be built for them.
'I just happen to live in a rather nice house in Upper Swainswick and I do my garden and it's very belittling of these people to say I don't understand. After all, I was born in a council flat in Liverpool.
'I felt a bit of a freak show when I first came here. I'd brought my son's two-man tent and Kathy Johnson, who's one of the prime movers in this campaign . . . decided I couldn't possibly exist in it. So they've put up this yurt, a Mongolian tent . . .
'When I wrote to the papers and started all this off I was going to camp and do a little fast over the weekend as a symbol, but now I'm down here I shall go on fasting all week because I feel so angry and desperate about what's going on. I haven't decided for how long. Jonathan's totally on my side.
'And Kitty's just so behind me in this. She feels very passionate about it because she used to fly her kite on Solsbury Hill. She can't bear to see the destruction of the environment.'
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