If the sun shines on Oxleas Wood in south-east London, it will be a good opportunity to view Britain's new culture of protest. Alongside the folk of Eltham and Greenwich, disenchanted Tories and worthies from the mainstream environmental movement will be an assortment of student activists, deep greens, New Agers, travellers and pagans. Most are young and radical, some are out of work. All are angry. Good weather could bring out more than 5,000.
The Oxleas festival, now in its third year, mixes nature celebration with political statement. 'We try to hold it as close to the summer solstice (tomorrow) as possible,' Jessica Currie, one of the organisers, said last week. 'There is a kind of magical feel about the woods at this time of year.'
Among the bouncy castles and green theatricals you might spot Dragon, a group which for the past two years has been circle- dancing and drum-banging 'to create a ring of protective magic around the woods'.
Dragon's magic, and the festival, are aimed at the Department of Transport, which wants to build a dual carriageway through Oxleas, a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and one of the largest surviving ancient woodlands in London. If the plans go ahead - construction was due to start early next year, although court action and appeals to the European Commission may delay it - many people are predicting the biggest environmental protest Britain has seen.
To understand why, you must go to a hillside outside Winchester - or what remains of it. Twyford Down contained two scheduled ancient monuments and two SSSIs; it was part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). In theory, it was about as safe from the road-builders as a landscape can be. But last year, while the European Commission was considering a complaint that the UK had broken EC planning law, the Department of Transport sent in the bulldozers, to complete the 'missing link' of the M3.
There is disbelief in many people's voices when they speak of the destruction of Twyford Down. The water meadows and ancient trackways have gone. So have the orchids, the butterflies and the Celtic field systems. In their place is a vast chalky scar filled with yellow earth-moving vehicles and figures in black from Group 4 security. Neville Simms, Tarmac's chief executive, did not endear himself to protesters last week when he told them that the company had received many compliments on the 'excellent tidiness' of the site.
Guerrilla warfare has become endemic at Twyford. Since 23 February, when work began on the cutting, scarcely a week has passed without demonstrators chaining themselves to dumper trucks and bulldozers, squatting in front of earth-moving machines. Work has been halted on about 15 days: some 30 demonstrations have taken place. More than 50 people were arrested over one weekend last month. Protesters put the cost in damaged machinery and lost contract time at more than pounds 1.75m. Tarmac says no figure is available. In the High Court this week the department will seek to create an 'exclusion zone' banning more than 70 people from the vicinity of the down.
The campaigners' anger rests on two factors: the apparent failure of lawful protest to save one of Britain's most protected landscapes, and the alleged 'desertion' of Twyford by the environmental movement. David Croker, chairman of the Twyford Down Association, last year resigned after 13 years as a Conservative councillor, saying that the Government would 'stop at nothing to get their way'. Britain, he said, had turned into a Stalinist state. A few months later the association abandoned its fight. Friends of the Earth, the one national environmental body involved in the campaign, was threatened by court action and backed off.
Only the Dongas tribe was left. The Dongas - naming themselves after the ancient trackways at Twyford - are a group of travellers who built a teepee camp to defend the down. On 9 December, 20 were evicted by Group 4 guards. David Bellamy, the conservationist, was bitter at the absence of groups such as FoE and Greenpeace. 'Two thousand people can turn out to defend the rainforest in Tasmania for two months,' he complained. 'Why can't they here?'
At Oxleas, they may. Around the Dongas has formed an alliance of green activists and eco- saboteurs - from Pagan Link, Earth First] and Reclaim the Streets to the newly established Friends of Twyford Down. Via the Oxleas Alliance, formed last month, these have made common cause with the wider green movement.
The alliance, which includes organisations such as FoE, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, has a million members, all of whom are being asked to 'beat the bulldozer' - to pledge themselves to resist the road by non-violent direct action: the aim is for 10,000 pledges. Next month a national rally at Oxleas will see assorted celebrities and eco-luminaries - Dr Bellamy, Jonathon Porritt, Sir David Attenborough - sign up.
According to Jonathan Bray, of Alarm UK, which represents 150 local anti-roads groups, Oxleas has become 'the line in the sand they shall not pass'. He adds: 'Twyford Down has become a symbol for the environmental movement. People are determined that it won't happen again. We have all got better things to do with our time than stand in front of bulldozers, but if the Department of Transport wants television and newspaper pictures of private security guards dragging away the respectable people of Eltham and bulldozers knocking down an ancient woodland, that's their funeral.'
The prospect fills the road lobby with alarm. Last month the British Road Federation abandoned its support for the destruction of Oxleas and called on the department to compromise. According to Paul Everitt, its assistant director, local opposition has spread 'virtually countrywide. . . . Politicians would find the levels of protest unacceptable'.
For environmentalists, Oxleas has another advantage over Twyford - its proximity to London and the media. But Mr Bray sees signs of a national direct-action network emerging - a kind of mobile strike force (some of those arrested on Skye protesting at work on the bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh were from Manchester, Oxford, the South Coast). 'Roads and traffic have become the focus of wider environmental concerns. It is not a distant issue, like the rainforest. It impacts on people's daily lives. People can get directly involved in campaigning.'
With the much-expanded pounds 20bn roads programme threatening 160 SSSIs and 800 ancient monuments, more battles of the earth seem inevitable. Behind the new mood of militancy is the conviction that, whatever the rights and wrongs, the Government will build the roads it wants.
Back at Twyford, Emma, 27, one of the protest leaders, said: 'What they have done is a crime against the environment. A year ago I would never have dreamt of being arrested, but now I'm perfectly happy about it.
'For me, Twyford Down has opened lots of question about the rights of individuals in this country. When it comes down to it, the only action you have the power to take is physical - throwing your body in front of a digger. That's why so many people are starting to take it.'
(Photographs and graphic omitted)
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