Road protesters take to tunnels

Campaigners against the Newbury bypass have borrowed an old Viet Cong tactic. Andy Beckett joined them underground
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The Independent Online
THE "Tunnel Rats" have come to Newbury. Under a damp hillside outside the Berkshire market town, a handful of anti-roads protesters, seeking to stop the construction of the A34 bypass, have copied Viet Cong guerrillas of 30 years ago and dug a series of tunnels for a last stand against the bulldozers.

The protesters have buried food, and electricity and air supplies, under a section of the proposed pounds 50m route. "We want them to bring the earth-moving equipment and try and find us," says a young man with a goatee beard and a climbing harness hanging from his belt. "I'm quite prepared to be down there as long as it takes."

The bulldozers could come any day now. Bids for the contract to clear the nine-mile route, which slices through two Civil War battlefields and three areas of special scientific interest, were due in last Tuesday. When the tree felling and excavation begins, the protesters plan to disappear underground, block the tunnel entrances and cover them with leaves, and hide for days beneath the forest floor.

"The contractors will be told which part of the route the tunnels run under," says the young man, "but not where the ways in are. I'm not sure how much physical force they are going to use to get us out.''

To enter the tunnels, you clamber down a narrow shaft. The sides are expertly lined and propped with metal stanchions and timber struts, mostly donated, like the inside of a packing case or the set of The Great Escape. At the bottom, about 10 feet below the surface, candles glow at intervals.

The clay floor of the tunnel slopes slowly down, roughened with sand. The passage is tall enough to crawl along but too narrow to turn around in, following an arrow promising "Hell Awaits". All is silent. But the firm wood-supported sides and ceiling are reassuring; photographs of the Queen on horseback and the punk celebrity Captain Sensible decorate one side below the dangling air and electricity pipes. Ventilation comes from hidden shafts to the forest above. The tunnels are dry, despite the musty smell.

"If it leaks in my treehouse again I'm quite tempted to sleep down here," says the young man. He crawls along with practised ease. Work began on the tunnels eight weeks ago drawing on experience from similar protests against the M11 motorway extension in Wanstead, east London last year, where contractors used cranes to grab protesters by force from trees and roofs.

The Newbury tunnelers have begun hollowing out a 10-foot square side chamber for when they have to spend all day underground. They also plan a security camera and radio transmitter in the tunnel wall to record any violent intrusions.

Back above ground, the first rain for weeks has soaked the defiant notices pinned everywhere. Regardless, the sound of sawing and the hammering of nails echoes between the protesters' more traditional fortifications - dozens of treehouses, wrapped in blue waterproof plastic, 60 or 70 feet up among the rustling leaves of the ancient oaks and beeches.

The camp is one of four along the bypass route. The earliest was established a year ago, when the bypass - long demanded by some residents in a town that suffers the thundering passage of 50,000 vehicles a day - first seemed close to being built. Two public inquiries during the Eighties recommended the diversion of the A34 from the town centre to the countryside to the west. The Liberal Democrat district council, local Liberal Democrat MP David Rendle, and a number of prominent business leaders are all advocates of the road.

But other residents, organised as the Third Battle of Newbury, are opposed to a bypass. Friends of the Earth argue that the vast majority of town centre traffic is local, and would not use a re-routed A34.

Both arguments, however, may be made irrelevant on 28 November, when the Budget is expected to include large cuts in the road-building programme. Until then, the anti-roads protesters prepare and wait. Not all of them are optimistic: "If the contractors want to build it, they can," says another young man at the camp. "We could sit in the top of the trees with machine guns, and they would get bazookas." Police helicopters are audible in the distance.

His colleague in the tunnel disagrees. He talks about telephone networks from Oxford to Brighton to Eton College, ready to summon supporters. He says the third battle of Newbury will eclipse the long struggle over Twyford Down.

But isn't he scared of fighting it underground? He smiles. He will use scuba diving tanks for air if the tunnel collapses.