Bourgeois Bel and Boots go to war: In Bath they are putting on their wellies and wax jackets to save Solsbury Hill. Cal McCrystal reports
Sunday 15 May 1994
On Friday, Bel, the wife of Jonathan Dimbleby, entered a circular tent on the planned route of the bypass to begin what she described as 'a solemn fast - to symbolise my despair at the starvation of spirit which allows this mania for roadbuilding to destroy the country of which I am so proud'. On the previous day, Boots, who describes himself as 'official poet of the National Trust', became a hero for persuading a local farmer not to turn his bull on the younger, grimier campaigners, and his gun on their dogs.
In Bel and Boots one detects the rage of the bourgeoisie against the Conservative Government, its agencies and (a widely shared opinion) its arrogance. 'Please stop being patronising and insensitive and show us the respect we deserve,' Bel wrote in an open letter to Robert Key, the transport minister. 'Come and visit us, Robert. I'll be a bit hungry - but I'll lay on a glass of decent wine.'
Addressing Colin Candy, a 72-year-old farmer awaiting compensation for land lost to the bypass, Boots said: 'What we middle-class people want . . .' 'I'm not middle-class,' snapped Mr Candy, a small, plump man. 'I'm lower-class. Do you know what these yobbos, these hippies, are costing the taxpayer? And their music] Thump, thump, thump, they go at night, and even on Sunday morning - God's day.'
'But they're trying to save the taxpayer pounds 75m by stopping this bypass,' Boots said patiently, adjusting his canary waistcoat. The farmer clutched his balding head. 'I want to retire. I have five children, and I want to get my finances in order, so I can take it easy. And now they say, 'Stop the road]' I could tear my hair out - if I'd any to tear out. The quicker they get it built the better, as far as I'm concerned.'
At a camp site, a handsome young man with the word 'lush' on his chest, put down his paperback and listened politely as Boots announced a truce with the farmer. 'Thank you for taking such trouble. We are relieved and grateful,' said the youth, a grandson of the late Labour peer Lord Jacobson and one of several pre-university students trying to halt the two-mile Batheaston/Swainswick bypass.
Work on the bypass, which will take at least three years to complete, began two months ago. Although no concrete has yet been laid, initial ground work - clearing and levelling - has already scarred Little Solsbury, a hill above the water meadows. It is the site of an Iron Age fort overlooking Bath, which inspired the rock singer Peter Gabriel to write a song about it. The view from the hill into this stretch of the Avon Valley is one of the loveliest in the land, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The water meadows are intersected by a barely visible railway line and a canal where locals and visitors stroll daily. In the slow-flowing Avon itself, pleasure craft purr.
Beyond, the valley's verdure hides the Warminster Road, the upgrading of which was abandoned in favour of the new bypass. As a new battleground for opponents of the national roadbuilding programme, it is a compelling choice. In preparation for the bypass, mature trees have been cut down and ancient hedges grubbed up. A vicar wept when a century-old oak fell. 'New Age travellers' have joined the Bath bourgeoisie, hurling themselves on to, and in front of, mechanical diggers, in defiance of security guards hired by the Department of Transport.
While Bel Mooney's fasting tent was being erected, Mr Bantock worried about being taken seriously: 'We are proper people,' he said; then, after a pause: 'I don't want to be called 'Boots' any more. Someone else was being called 'Fluffy'. The nicknames are getting out of hand.' He turned towards two semi-detached cottages doomed to make way for the bypass. An elderly couple occupies one of them, refusing to budge. As workmen began to knock down the other, guards eyed the protesters warily.
'I try to discourage them from being too brutal,' Mr Bantock said. 'Some are pretty well balanced, but one showed great hatred in his eyes when I talked to him. I think it's because he's fed up with people complaining about what he has been employed to do.'
He unrolled a sheet of paper: his latest watercolour, an impression of the completed bypass: a concrete monstrosity penetrating paradise to 'link Europe to Wales'. He then recited his anti-bypass poem:-
'Bath stone' stand up to concrete.
But everyone must show,
Yes, each your disapproval,
If this monster is to go.
So rise up, Middle England,
O Middle England we,
And send our Common Market freight
By rail, or 'cross the sea.
The protesters include two Bristol lawyers, two Euro-MPs, and a marchioness (of Worcester, a k a the actress Tracy Ward), currently in Spain. Some anti-roaders had slept on the bypass's route. They drank tea from mugs and milk-bottles and talked about a Britain choking from traffic pollution, duped by officialdom and inert through ignorance. Stephen King, a Bath guitar teacher, thought they would win this battle. 'I ran a campaign in 1985 to install zebra crossings in Muswell Hill. We won.'
Judith Dinsdale, an unemployed Bath art gallery manageress, called for 'a philosophy that encompasses the whole world - a Unesco perhaps'. Gesturing towards Bel Mooney's tent, she sighed: 'I have seen something like this near the Tibetan border.'
(Photographs and map omitted)
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