Runnymede: Drama returns to Magna Carta site 800 years on as police take on eco-warriors

A squatters camp has been established in the woods over the last three years

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The Independent Online

Exactly 800 years after the signing of the Magna Carta, drama returned to Runnymede.

Police and bailiffs were out in full force in torrential rain as they began evicting the residents of a squatters camp that has become established in the Surrey woods over the last three years.

A few days after a court ruling that several dozen eco-warriors must leave the woods, bailiffs entered the site at 6.30am and began demolishing the 25 houses the squatters had built, with sledgehammers, towbars and chainsaws.

But while many of the squatters were evicted and their buildings demolished, many remained defiant – with at least 10 people still thought to be on site at the end of the day when the police left the scene in the hands of security staff.

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Police officers walk through the forest in Runnymede (Joe Plimmer)

Promising that many of the evicted squatters would return to the site once the eviction was complete, one of the eco-village’s founders, Pete Phoenix, told The Independent: “The story is not over yet – they will not get rid of us that easily. There are other camps in the area and buildings that people are looking at – and we will be back again.”

“We have achieved a lot. We have raised awareness about land rights, civil liberties and the housing crisis. There are 1.5 million empty buildings in this country – no-one needs to be homeless,” he added.

Danny, another member of the eco-village, added: “They stormed the site at dawn this morning and threw families and children out into the rain, who were forced to watch their homes being destroyed with their possessions still inside. No regard was shown for people or animals. What harm are we doing by choosing to live off this land,” he said.

When The Independent visited the site a squatter had barricaded himself up a tree and a group of police and bailiffs stood at the base working out how best to proceed. Shortly afterwards, the Independent was escorted from the site.

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Outside the site, one regular of the camp, who gave his name as Cameron, said he was angry about the eviction.

“It’s just terrible. Why evict them, what’s the point? The land is unusable and they have been of benefit to the land. They are a vibrant community – they hold events and workshops and people with issues visit them and are helped,” he said. Cameron has been visiting the site for just over a year and has occasionally stayed the night.

The community has taken in people that have found themselves lost in mainstream society, counselled teenagers angry at their parents, taught German to local GSCE pupils and fed hungry locals from their food supplies – which were grown, foraged and scavenged from supermarket bins.

The Runnymede community set up camp in some disused woodland near Egham, a short distance from where King John sealed Magna Carta in 1215.

It was an offshoot of the Occupy London movement that set up camp outside St Pauls Cathedral in 2011.

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The remains of a festival held in the forest (Joe Plimmer)

By the time of the eviction it had grown into an “eco-village” with about 30 long-term members and 20 visitors at any one time. The residents lived in houses the had made, often from fallen trees, wooden pallets, pieces of scrap from skips and cob – a mixture of sand, clay and stray.

A spokesman for Orchid Runnymede, the property developer that owns that land, said that having failed to overturn the original court ruling it was now time to go.

“This final step is a clear notice of eviction and we are surprised that having exhausted all legal avenues, the squatters have not taken steps to remove their belongings and leave the site peacefully,” he said.

“The bailiffs are evicting the squatters and dismantling illegally-erected temporary dwellings on the site,” he added.

However, the squatters insist that they have been a force for good on the land they have occupied. “When we found this place it was basically a fly-tipping site. We turned it into an eco-village, in harmony with nature,” said Mr Phoenix.

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