Sedgefield battens down as the Bush machine rolls into town
Thursday 20 November 2003
Parking around the village green in Sedgefield is not normally an issue. It could be more difficult this week. On almost every lamp-post yesterday, notices warned that no cars would be tolerated between 8pm today and 5pm tomorrow. The message was reinforced by officers knocking on doors up and down the main street: remove your vehicle or pay the price.
The arrival of President George Bush to this former coalfield constituency has put in train a security operation unseen in living memory in Co Durham. Police in stab-proof vests and fluorescent jackets have been patrolling the streets in a highly visible show of strength. In the shadows of the town's delicatessens, craft shops and country inns, plainclothes officers lurk.
Drains have been sealed off with tar, manholes inspected and ventilation shafts blocked with rubber seals and wedged shut. All police leave in the area has been cancelled and officers drafted in from the Northumbria and Cleveland forces to make up the 1,300 needed here for "special duty".
Yesterday, Special Branch officers and members of the US Secret Service made a sweep of the town in a £1m security operation for a visit likely to last only a couple of hours. "All this disruption for nothing," said Bill Sanderson, a builder caught up in the security sweep in his car outside the 14th-century church of St Edmund's, which dominates the village green. "I don't know why he's coming here, and if it means all this fuss and bother for the rest of us he should stay away."
Security will remain high between now and tomorrow when hordes of anti-Bush protesters are expected to descend to greet the President and Tony Blair when they arrive for lunch, possibly to be taken at the 200-year-old Dun Cow Inn where Mr Blair has entertained President Jacques Chirac of France and the former French prime minister Lionel Jospin.
Nobody at the pub with three AA diamonds was willing to talk except to say they had been told to say nothing. But police were present when new kitchen equipment was delivered on Tuesday. Presumably the gleaming equipment would be needed to prepare something suitable in keeping with the usual £15.95 lunch menu of tomato soup or chicken liver paté for starters, rump steak or roast turkey for a main course, and sticky toffee pudding or Christmas pudding for dessert. But there was still an air of excitement among the 3,000 villagers that the "most powerful man in the world" was travelling to their home.
Sedgefield, where Mr Blair has been MP since 1983, is a better-off area than many of the surrounding former pit villages dotting the countryside. Bob Wilson, a lorry driver, said: "It's good for the status of the area to have such high-profile visitors despite the security. There has been a lot of police activity, but nothing to stop the locals getting on with their lives."
Carrie Ashton, 26, said: "I think it's exciting. It's not every day the most powerful man in the world comes to your village." She works in Katie's Kitchen, a delicatessen selling cheese, cold meats and health foods in the village centre. But a few doors down from the Dun Cow, Peter Coo, a 57-year-old psychologist who has refused to let police inspect his home before the visit, proudly displayed a range of "Stop Bush" posters in the window of his elegant three-storey townhouse. "I'm very pleased to welcome Mr Bush to our town, but I feel strongly that the office he represents leaves a lot to be desired," he said. "This is just a photo opportunity to boost his election campaign for next year and if it was possible to me to provide a voice to the American people I would say it is time for them to wake up to the politics going on in their name. They are not fighting terrorism; they are creating terrorism and it saddens me our local MP is so involved in this.
"Sedgefield is split; there are those who support the Prime Minister and his policies but I believe an awful lot of people have been appalled by the events of the past 12 months. They are unhappy about the war in Iraq, they are unhappy about its aftermath and they are unhappy about the alliance between Britain and America. A lot will make their concerns heard on Friday."
Another Sedgefield resident, Colin Stratton, said: "This visit is all a complete disgrace and unnecessary. It is a waste of good public money, spending millions on bringing Bush to Durham. That money could have been spent on useful and productive things, like crime prevention. God help this country if something happens elsewhere while 14,000 police officers are babysitting Bush."
The nearby village of Trimdon Colliery, where Mr Blair has his constituency home, has also been affected by the 21-hour road closure. Police wrote to residents saying, where possible, limited access would be given to allow people in and out of their homes.
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