Newbury: what the battle is all about

Andy Beckett visits the Lambourn valley, which will be sliced in two if the bypass is built
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IN THE fields to the east of the Berkshire village of Bagnor, the river Lambourn runs smooth and clear and rippling as molten glass. Brown trout hold themselves against the current; islands of bright-green watercress glow in the low sun; above hover tiny flies, fooled into hatching by the midwinter thaw.

The Lambourn is a chalk stream, its waters filtered to a rare clarity and fertility by rock laid down 100 million years ago. It was recently classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Over the next two years, however, the river may be changed for good. The route of the A34 Newbury bypass, work on which started last week, is to pass right over the Lambourn in the fields east of Bagnor. Six concrete lanes, 35 metres wide, are to sweep across the valley on an earth embankment and leap the river in a succession of arches, right over where the trout now hang.

The Highways Agency has promised measures to protect the river: drainage ponds to keep the road's pollutants from seeping into it, and tunnels for badgers to cross under the embankment; Bagnor means "river-bank frequented by badgers" in Anglo-Saxon.

But the agency's own review of the bypass project concluded last summer that its impact on the Lambourn valley was "uncertain". Jill Eisele, a prominent local campaigner against the bypass, cites a report by the National Rivers Authority which predicted the splitting or extinction of the river's wildlife colonies. Plants and fish will be cast into shadow; birds and insects will no longer fly along the valley floor. And, she says, the A34 could cause flooding too: the rivers authority has long argued that the arches of its bridges will be too narrow to let the Lambourn and its debris through during heavy rain.

Around Bagnor, these fears are beginning to spread. Last week, the chainsaws and security guards may have been elsewhere, a few miles over the hills to the north and south, but a sign saying "No Bypass Here" had been planted on one riverbank. A huddle of protesters' tents had recently appeared on the other.

The village itself - a soft red line of Thomas Hardy cottages curving round an ancient wetland called Rack Marsh - will be a few hundred yards from the road. "From the bottom of our lawn you will just see this embankment," says Jill Fraser, who runs a theatre in a converted watermill at the western end of Bagnor and talks about "beautiful places being destroyed". She continues: "When the battle at Twyford Down was lost, one thought, 'Oh my God. That's going to happen here next'."

The late actor Sir Michael Hordern was a village resident and fierce opponent of the road. Lord Palumbo is selling Bagnor Manor because of the bypass; in December, he cut his asking price from pounds 10m to pounds 7m. None of the other 50 retired people and commuters are moving out yet, but there is a sense that their garden furniture may be used less in the future. At the moment, the birds make the loudest noise.

Sympathy for the protesters camped along the river is surprisingly strong. "I take my hat off to the commitment they show," says Ms Fraser. John Newbrook, the landlord of the Blackbird, which is at the end nearest the route, thinks "they're quite nice people - when I'm out walking in the morning I have a chat with them". He has served the protesters in his pub - although he asked them to leave when "their mode of dress" threatened to overpower his other customers. Some of the villagers gave them baths.

Last Thursday lunchtime, two clean-cut protesters walked into the Blackbird to ask for directions to the Lambourn camp. A police helicopter hummed in the distance. A young farmer produced a map and showed them on their way. Ten minutes later, two less friendly farmers arrived: "There's some protesters on the bridge," said one. "I felt like stopping the car and knocking them off into the river. Bloody pain in the arse." Residents of Newbury, a 10-minute drive away, tended to be less tolerant than Bagnor's, Mr Newbrook explained later.

His village's clear waters have drawn visitors for thousands of years. Between 6000 and 3000BC nomadic hunters came to catch the trout; their newly discovered riverside encampment lies in the path of the A34. (English Heritage will have the construction period to excavate it.) By the 11th century Bagnor was a permanent settlement: Domesday Book records a manor, six families, some pigs and a mill.

Henry VIII seized Bagnor Manor from the Church in 1531. A century later, Oliver Cromwell led the Parliamentary cavalry along the damp lanes of the Lambourn valley, attempting to take Charles I by surprise during the second Battle of Newbury. His force was too cumbersome and was spotted - a lesson perhaps for the road contractors, who managed to clear only a dozen trees a day last week before being halted by protesters.

Bagnor and its river have survived by careful husbandry. Watercress beds, the mill, and the Manor's farm sustained the village until the start of this century; since then, its curve of cottages has hardly grown.

When the road comes, the Lambourn valley will not be the only place to suffer abrupt change. The river Kennet to the south, another chalk-stream SSSI managed gently for centuries, will also be sliced in two. (A less intrusive viaduct to carry the road was rejected as too expensive at a public inquiry in 1988, an inquiry that was not required to consider the A34's impact on the rivers).

The Kennet "possesses exceptional botanical richness", according to English Nature. Its mazy tributaries and water meadows contain birds and plants seldom found in the South of England. On its marshy islands, mossy trees rise, fall and rot in a brown thicket seemingly untouched by man.

George Monbiot, an environmentalist and anti-roads campaigner, spent the summer of 1983 as the river's waterkeeper, cutting back weed and seeking to steer its flow as his predecessors had done for centuries. "You can see layers of management," he says, "Culverts, dykes, bridges, sluices." He points to an embankment at the edge of the water meadow: "That's probably medieval." He walks on along the river, wellingtons keeping his suit clean for a Radio 5 interview about the bypass later that morning.

"Of course, the road's going to sweep away everything..." He stops. A slim grey bird with a red bill is swimming delicately under the far bank. "It's a water rail!" he shouts. "Gordon Bennett! I've never seen one of those." He is grinning and shaking his fists. "This is one of the key indicators of a rare habitat."

A minute later, as he turns, triumphant, to go back for his interview, he notices a small white sign in the middle of the meadow. It is a notice from the Secretary of State for Transport, telling protesters they have no right to be on this land. Behind it stretches a line of white posts: the bypass is coming this way.