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

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.