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Whisky, wellies and a rural invasion

THE Highland Park whisky splashing into the plastic beaker and across my hand was an early sign that this was no ordinary coach trip. In an "Up for the Cup" mood an unpretentious corner of rural England was coming to town with a message.

The farmer's wife dispensing the scotch had been on a march before. "I went on an Aldermaston march in the early Sixties. I got a clip round the ear from my father and I've never been on a march since," said Wendy Clulow. With their dairy farm taking a hammering as milk prices fall and fall, the one- time teenager disarmer decided it was time to protest again.

For the 54 folk on the coach, this rural rising had begun at 8am in a yard near Leek, in Staffordshire. For farmers, the day had begun a few hours earlier, tending stock and often handing over to a labourer brought in for the day.

Mick Heath of the village of Heaton, had to help a cow give birth to a calf in the early hours. He reckoned it had cost him at least pounds 100 to get away for the march, a tidy sum when you are farming at a loss.

The passengers were a cross section of rural Staffordshire, including staff from the Leek livestock market. The hunting set was barely represented on our NFU-organised coach - though we passed a score with hunt posters on the motorway - but their cause is keenly supported. One of the banners which most delighted the Leek group read: "Eat British Lamb - 50,000 foxes can't be wrong."

For Neil Perkins, 26, a mechanic travelling with his wife, the weather would have been just right for a day's shooting. He would have been doing a bit of pest control, shooting crows and magpies. Like most of his fellow passengers Neil believes that if hunting with hounds was banned, the animal welfare people would turn on shooting next.

But for all the serious message they were bringing to town - Neil cannot afford to buy a house in his home village because outsiders have pushed up prices - the mood on the bus was buoyant, with banter and occasional boos, in full flow.

The scale of the invasion started to dawn as we reached west London. Buses were backed up at junctions and hundreds of marchers were queuing for tickets at Shepherds Bush and White City tube stations.

Cultures were clashing. On the Central Line, smartly casual Londoners eyed their country cousins with curiosity but wisely hid any amusement over the Wellington boots and flat caps. Despite the media cliches, the Barber jacket is not uniform country wear and when a farmer wears one it is a worked-in, lived-in sort of thing, unlike its urban owned counterpart.

"Bloody hell, it's like Alton Towers," was the booming reaction of one of our party gawping up the escalator at Holborn station. We shuffled into the moving mass near the Temple and moved on to the Embankment. Around 3pm a marshal announced it was only 400 yards to go to the start of the march and hours more to Hyde Park.

Goodness knows when they got back to the coach and those bottles of scotch that one hard-pressed hill farmer had stashed on the luggage rack.