Exploding meters, parking vigilantes and a suspicious silence in a sleepy Sussex town

The respectable looking lady at the tea shop in the Sussex market town of Lewes was an unlikely advocate of urban terrorism. "Everyone I know is secretly pleased about the attacks. No one would mind if every last one was blown to pieces," she confided in a hushed tone.

"If I knew who was carrying out the explosions I wouldn't tell the police. Good luck to them, I say," she added.

So what is the object of such passion and hatred in a town usually associated with literature, music, antiques, and good taste? It is the parking meter.

Since new parking restrictions were introduced - some say imposed - in Lewes in September 2004, there has been a remarkable backlash in which a group of vigilantes and vandals have been blowing up the newly installed meters.

So far there have been more than 200 attacks in which 35 of the town's 96 meters have been written off, while repairs have been needed on a further 170 machines at a total cost of £300,000. The covert bombers have used a variety of devices ranging from simple bangers and powerful crow scarers, to a mix of firework explosives that have scrambled the innards of the meters.

In the latest incident, which happened in the past month, two machines were blown up.

In response to the attacks the local county and district councils are offering a joint £5,000 reward to catch the culprits, and this week launched a publicity campaign called "exploding parking meters - a threat to your safety".

Sussex Police are also using undercover street patrols as part of their investigation, known as Operation Magee, amid fears that someone will be maimed by shrapnel from a blast.

For many outsiders these bombings will seem completely out of character for such a sophisticated town. Facing the rolling South Downs from the banks of the river Ouse, Lewes has long prided itself on its proximity to the Glyndebourne opera festival; Charleston Farmhouse, focal point for the Bloomsbury Group; and Monk's House, home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

But Lewes is not all high art, it also has a long history of radical protests and dissent. One of the town's most famous former residents is Thomas Paine, the champion of the oppressed. Paine is said to have drawn on the town's dissenting tradition when it came to formulating his own ideas, leaving Lewes in 1774 and going on to write his famous Rights of Man.

The town also continues to ignore religious sensibilities by annually burning an effigy of the Pope on bonfire night, in remembrance of the 17 Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake from 1555 to 1557. This fascination with fireworks is thought to be linked to the current meter bombings.

Many of the businesses in the town blame the introduction of the meters for driving away customers. Merlin Milner, the mayor of Lewes, believes the new pay-and-display machines, backed by over-zealous private traffic wardens, are unnecessary.

"Lewes is a small market town of 16,500 people, it's not meant to be a police state. These parking measures are a sledge hammer to crack a small nut," he said.

He was quick, however, to condemn the meter bombings. "It is a form of terrorism - there are better, more democratic ways of making your point," he said.

David Quinn, the president of Lewes' Chamber of Commerce, added: "Everyone I have spoken to about the exploding meters immediately thinks it's funny because they don't like the parking scheme, but they also realise there is a potential danger." He added: "There's an old saying: that people in Lewes will not be druv - not pushed or told what to do."

In response to criticism of the parking scheme East Sussex County Council has changed the traffic wardens' red uniforms, partly because it was considered to be an aggressive colour that had earned them the nickname the "red devils". Their new outfit is blue. And the new term of abuse for them? The "blue meanies".

But this form of vigilantism is not unique. In August last year Craig Moore blew up a speed camera in an attempt to escape a fine. Mr Moore, 28, returned to the roadside machine in the Manchester area and used explosive material, once used to make bombs and now common in the welding industry, to destroy the device. But he did not realise that his actions were being recorded by the camera itself.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick