In Essex, something is burning

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The Independent Online
OVER THE flat fields from Barling you can see the dark towers of Southend threatening the horizon. A municipality is on the march. Concrete and Tarmac are creeping over once fertile earth.

Green land does remain between the old farming and fishing village of Barling and the town, three or four miles off, but the invaders are visibly gaining. A line of suburban bungalows with fake cobbles and mock lead panes already reaches right into the village's ancient heart. Beyond it the diggers are advancing. This, clearly, is Barling's last stand.

And an extraordinary last stand it is turning out to be. Last week a private company was about to begin building a new road across fields behind the village. The night before work was due to begin four bulldozers, six trucks and two diggers parked out in the flatlands near Barling Creek burst into flames.

'We were woken at 2.30am by the fire engines,' said Roger Crowhurst, a carpenter in the village. 'A lot of people here don't like change. They like the village as it is, you see.'

The development company, which calls itself 'Cory Environmental', wants the road to carry sand and gravel out, and rubbish in to the resulting infill sites. It has been bitterly opposed in the village, despite the present use of its existing roads by heavy trucks. At the root of the villagers' objections lies fear, not so much of noise or of the road itself, but that one day, no matter what assurances they are given, more houses will be built along it.

When the campaign that had been fought against the road by legal means failed, frustration reached burning point. And not for the first time. The police are now re-investigating a chain of incidents going back to at least 1988. The following year a house worth pounds 300,000, in a small development hopelessly out of keeping with the beautiful gothic farm nearby, was blown up with a device that included a timer.

Three years later a barge in the lonely creek that served as headquarters for a local yacht club, was burnt to a shell. The club took the hint and moved. I thought I detected a certain satisfaction about this among some locals. 'It shouldn't have been there. So it isn't,' said one.

Then, one night in 1992, an old Essex barn, half-way through its conversion to an expensive dwelling, burst into flames. Its charred timbers stand like a warning to let the village be.

'It's the Peasants' Liberation Army]' someone joked. But this is no uprising of Essex nationalism. It seems a friendly village. Visitors are not threatened. On the whole, it seems to be developers and urbanisation that are the focus of attacks.

There are two kinds of villager here. On the one hand, there are the houses with double- glazing and fresh paintwork, whose owners leave early in the morning and return at night, opening their automatic garage doors from Volvos and Jaguars. And on the other, there are the tied cottages and the farmhouses, whose gardens show weeds and cars rust. In some of these live families who have fished and farmed here for 400 years, intermarried and connected in a web of shared interests and loyalties.

Outside a pink-painted, beamed 17th-century house near the church is a notice that reads, 'The Peculiar People' - a groupthat meets here each Sunday to commemorate Protestant martyrs burnt to the death in this area. 'The old residents do keep themselves to themselves - but everyone is like that round here,' said Julie Barker, who is local to the area, rather than the village, standing at her door in sober grey and white as Puritan wives did in Cromwell's day. This is a Protestant land, and still, it seems, a protesting one.

Everyone believes the Barling Burners are locals. That there are at least two of them, perhaps more, seems clear. An inflammable substance was found in the cabs of each of the 12 vehicles set alight last week: that is a lot of can-carrying for one man. In a village with a core population of a few hundred, fewer still from old local families, fit and strong, the suspects must be well known in Barling's creek and fields. 'I've heard hundreds of names,' said Russell Hawk, another local. 'But how do you prove that sort of thing? There are people here who don't want change. But without change things die, don't they? I think lot of people think it's very comical. As long as no one gets hurt.'

But there has been one darker incident. In January 1993, a local family who had been resident there for years woke in the dark to find their car had been jemmied open and set ablaze from inside. And their beautifully kept garden had been destroyed by systematic spraying with weedkiller. One of the Barling Burners, it seems, had committed an act of petty revenge which could have endangered lives. There is some condemnation in Barling of these unlawful acts. But old loyalties have held. No one has claimed the four-figure reward for information that might give away the men who come home through the dark fields smelling of paraffin and fire. The police are still investigating the mystery. 'We've a large number of inquiries still to make. We think we'll get to the bottom of it eventually,' said DCI Ray Newman, a self-confessed optimist.

Over Barling's grey churchyard, two boys dragged their bikes. 'Are you a policewoman?' one said, grinning. 'I know who did it. He did it for a laff and,' suddenly serious, 'cos we don't want the road.'

(Photograph omitted)