Welcome to Flywood Babylon Council Estate

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Eating leftovers, recycling rubbish, defrosting the toothpaste ... the tunnellers protesting against a proposed second runway at Manchester Airport are used to all that. What surprises them is the kindness shown by their BMW-driving neighbours.

When, very soon - perhaps even this morning - the bailiffs in their SAS gear break through the trapdoor into the Cakehole, the first thing they will see is a hand-painted sign that reads: "Criminals?" The question will be posed by the eco-warriors who have been hiding in the warren of tunnels, blind alleys and wormholes under the proposed site of Manchester Airport's second runway, the deepest and most complex protest tunnels ever built beneath the path of a construction project.

In the days and weeks that follow there will be more questions. How do you extract at least three determined, skinny and well-supplied tunnellers from a 50ft-deep shaft peppered with turns, vertical twists and bolted, reinforced doors when there isn't even enough room to swing a pick-axe? When, in a tunnel wide enough for only one person at a time, you finally catch up with them and find they have locked their arms into lumps of concrete, how do you get them out? And, during the six weeks the tunnellers intend to hold out, how do your masters deal with that question - "Criminals?" - when the public increasingly sees such protesters as heroes?

After Newbury, Twyford Down, Fairmile and a host of other road protests, Manchester Airport's proposed pounds 172m second runway attracted the attention of environmental protesters in January. Swampy - aka Daniel Hooper - had earned the respect of most of the nation by resisting arrest in Big Mama, his tunnel under the A30 in Devon, for a week. Within days - after modelling Armani for the Daily Express - he arrived at the Bollin Valley in Styal, Cheshire, where other protesters, notably Muppet Dave, 30, and Matt, 23, were already tunnelling underneath the ancient woodland that would be destroyed by the new 3,050m runway.

Here, in seven camps with names like Flywood Babylon Council Estate, Wild Garlic and the Sir Cliff Richard OBE Vegan Revolutionary Camp, about 100 protesters have settled, prepared to take on the might of the airport, the police, the courts and their agents, the bailiffs. They have built treehouses and laid barbed wire, have dug at least 10 tunnels and fashioned fences and moats to stop the inevitable advance of the bulldozers.

Drive along the leafy lanes of Mobberley and Knutsford - formerly staunch Neil Hamilton land - and you will see the protesters, scruffy as hell, unwashed and happy, waving back as cars pass and honk supportively or stop to offer a lift. Blue-rinse, twin-set Tory women bring them food and money, offer baths, give them lifts in Land-Rover Discoverys or BMWs. One village has even presented each protester with a shoe box marked "Not to be opened until eviction" which contains collected thank-you presents.

It isn't just that many of the locals don't want a new runway on their doorstep - a MORI poll has shown that most people in the wider region do want it - and it isn't simply gratitude that the protesters are taking direct action after years of their own middle-class petitioning. The reason for this support is that local people have come to understand the protesters and their objectives better. Like many other "respectable" visitors to past protests, they have found not drunken layabout wasters, but people of incredible resolve who are prepared to put up with the most appalling privations in order to stand up for their beliefs. And what they have seen has changed them.

"We tried doing it our way for years," says Jeff Gazzard, a leading local campaigner. "Then we asked these guys for help and they came. They have been marvellous, putting up with all weathers and all kinds of insults. People have learned a lot from them." Food parcels come thick and fast. One local baker brings all the bread left over at the end of each day. Some protesters have been stopped in the street or in local shops and given money when they expected an earful of abuse.

Far from being scroungers, many of the protesters are given no state support whatsoever. "We're called Pansies," says Muppet Dave from Rugeley in Staffordshire. "It just takes one picture of you up a tree taken by Special Branch and your records are marked 'Political Activist Not Seeking Employment' - PANSE - and that's it. You get no more money and you're probably left like that for the rest of your life.

"You have no fixed address, you aren't entitled to benefits and so no one will employ you. Right now, I'm doing this full-time, but I don't know how it will leave me in the future."

Those protesters who don't live underground or up trees live in "benders", tents made of curved branches covered in plastic sheeting or tarpaulin. Flooring is made of old pallets covered in plastic and reclaimed carpet for insulation. Nothing is wasted; old gas bottles are sheared in half and turned into ovens. Glass, plastic and paper is divided up into separate waste-bins for recycling.

Residents urinate and defecate in a "shit-pit" covered by a bender. This is a 5ft-deep hole dug a safe distance from each camp. Each user covers their own mess with soil and, to help with nature's pH balance, wood ash.

Cold is the worst problem. "This winter was easy but last year, at Newbury, was hell," says Greg, 22, from Hull. "It was minus-8 and everything was frozen. Every morning you would be cold and you'd get the kindling going for a fire. But the proper logs wouldn't light because the sap in them had frozen. Then you'd get them smouldering and you'd have to put the water butt on them to defrost enough water to put in the pot. And while you were doing that you'd try to brush your teeth, but the communal toothpaste would be frozen. At night, we would take an hour's watch each, but it came down to 20 minutes because it was so cold. There had to be two people on watch - one to keep making hot drinks and one to keep an eye out. But we're very careful. So far, I haven't heard of anyone getting hypothermia."

The protesters are now completely surrounded by a fence that has been erected by the airport's security people. There are daily skirmishes as guards and protesters probe each other's defences but there have been only a handful of serious exchanges.

Most of the protesters pity the guards, who earn about pounds 3.50 an hour for standing, mostly looking bored and nonplussed. For their part, many of the guards subscribe to the grungey-lout stereotype of their adversaries.

"Some of them come round to our way of thinking when we explain that they'll be out of a job when we're evicted," says Neville, 42, a former social worker who has a house in Manchester but spends alternate weeks at the site. "We've had them cutting wire for us, stuff like that." One Newbury guard, Craig, is now living in a treehouse on the Manchester site.

But some people never come round to their way of thinking, and never will. The protesters will lose the battle for the Bollin Valley but the intention is to win the longer-term war in the minds of the public.

A MORI poll published this week shows that 77 per cent of people polled in Greater Manchester, Stockport and Cheshire believe the area would benefit from the new runway. The airport, which is 55 per cent owned by Manchester City Council, claims that 50,000 new jobs will be created, a figure disputed by the protesters. In addition, a million North-westerners who have to travel to London airports to take off on holiday each year would be able to start their journeys locally because of the increased capacity a new runway would bring.

Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and chairman of the Manchester Airport Board, sees the runway as an economic saviour. "It is the biggest single boost to the regional economy that can be made," he says. "It's the equivalent of 10 car plants."

He has no truck with the protesters. "They don't have a politically or intellectually sustainable argument. They are complete hypocrites who are actually damaging the environment they claim to protect. They are violent and come from the same position in the political spectrum as the fascists, rather than the cuddly green activists they present themselves as."

Environmentally, the runway will cause terrible destruction though the airport is putting pounds 17m towards restoring what it can. Six trees will be planted for every one lost, 24km of hedgerow will be restored, ponds will be created and wildlife moved to new habitats. But only a fool would think the Bollin Valley will ever be the same again.

So the ancient woodland will go and the protesters will go, too. Word has it that Sherwood Forest, where a theme park is planned, will be the next destination but it could be anywhere where the environment is threatened.

Each time they move on, however, the protesters notice that the welcome at their new "home" gets a little warmer. Having been mauled in the past, they still feel nervous about talking to newspapers, anxious not to appear "media tarts" (Swampy gets regular ribbing about his fame). But, occasionally, they like what they read.

"There was one professor, an expert on air pollution, who was asked what he thought about us," says Neville. "And he said: 'They are all little nuggets of joy.' "

And, sitting in the rain outside the Cakehole, Matt, Greg, Muppet Dave and Neville laugh and say they thought that was nicen