How I tried to stop a motorway

Andy Beckett meets the Tory who failed to save Twyford Down
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ANCIENT, atmospheric, full of wildlife, it was where the present wave of anti-roads protests began. When Barbara Bryant was a Conservative councillor in Winchester, she used to walk her dog on Twyford Down. The city sat in the valley below; butterflies fluttered above the sunken hillside pathways, known as Dongas, worn down by 3,000 years of walkers.

When Mrs Bryant walks the Down today, Barbour jacket buttoned against the wind along the rim of the M3 cutting, she feels slightly sick. "I'm surprised that it's as awful as we said it would be," she says, as six lanes of lorries, cars and coaches tear through the chalk wound below, its sides as raw now as when it was excavated three years ago.

As a founding member of the Twyford Down Association, she spent seven years trying to stop the cutting being dug. In her blue blouses and hairbands she leafleted, lobbied MPs and ministers, attended public inquiries, and even urged local people to vote against her own party. Now she has written a book about it, which is published on Tuesday.

"I wanted to set the record straight as to how the decision to build was made, and how it was not stopped," she says. "It was not that the roadbuilding lobby was strong. It was that the environmental lobby was weak."

Mrs Bryant moved to Winchester in 1978 after being active in Conservative politics in London, and was elected to the council five years later. As she got to know her colleagues, she realised that the preferred route for the M3 link to Southampton was right through Twyford Down.

She helped form the association in 1985. She realised the power her respectability conferred - "It was the pearls and twinsets which surprised the media" - but her tactics were initially unconventional: she and a team of volunteers drew attention to the proposed cutting by marking it out with highly visible lines of black polythene.

Another public inquiry was held that year. Unfortunately for the association, she says, official environmental agencies such as English Heritage, the Countryside Commission, and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England failed to attend or contribute. Her book suggests that the Countryside Commission in particular was persuaded to stand back from the debate by the Department of Transport, who told them that Twyford Down would be no more damaging than any other route.

"I'd criticise the cutting plan in the city council, and the officers would say that the Countryside Commission said it was OK. I looked slightly stupid," says Mrs Bryant. Regardless, she began to lobby for an alternative: a tunnel under the Down.

The Department of Transport argued that this would be too expensive - pounds 80m, twice the projected cost of a cutting. Mrs Bryant suggested a toll tunnel; this too was eventually rejected, despite substantial local support, and the fact that the cutting's actual cost approached pounds 60m. She thinks she has an explanation now: "A tunnel wasn't acceptable to the military on national security grounds. The tunnel was susceptible to sabotage and the M3 route to Southampton is strategic - when they went to the Gulf, military vehicles poured down the motorway."

In 1989 Mrs Bryant realised her phone was being tapped. The Twyford Down Association tried new tactics, with her husband writing to Prince Charles for help (not forthcoming), and an initially successful attempt to involve the European Community, which failed when the High Court declined to stop the cutting for breach of EU environmental legislation.

By early 1992 her lobbying trips to London were losing momentum; less conventional anti-roads campaigners began living on the Down. At first, Mrs Bryant invited some back to her house, a split-level on a beech-lined avenue on the "Hampstead" side of town, for baths and meals and rest. She took journalists to see others, set up by the Dongas from which they took their name: "They were brewing up tea, and the dew was still on the grass. I used to feel slightly guilty about going back to my plasticised world."

Nevertheless, she considered the general election her last hope. With Labour and the Liberal Democrats promising to reconsider Twyford Down, she turned her back on lifelong political loyalty to organise a tactical voting campaign in Winchester to defeat the Conservative candidate, Gerald Malone, who supported the plan.

He won. From this point, Mrs Bryant considered Twyford Down a "lost cause". Feeling manipulated by the direct activists, she withdrew from the protests that followed the start of excavations. "Some of the things they did positively made my toes curl up," she says.

But Twyford Down has changed her: "It makes it much harder for me to continue to believe in the constitutional processes of this country."

Does she fear that road-building is unstoppable? She says she is confident people can be persuaded to limit their car use, if there is a transport policy to persuade them. She seems unbowed. But she has fears too: "I had hoped that Twyford Down would be the last desecration of our countryside - and, if it were, I could live with it... But if we start losing others as well [she cites the Newbury by-pass], then the thing becomes catastrophic."

She has already begun to forget what Twyford Down used to look like. "Some of the Dongas were right where the carriageway is now," she says, straining her voice above the traffic.

Twyford Down: roads, campaigning and environmental law. E and F.N. Spon. pounds 12.99