In the treetops, awaiting chainsaws

Dirty but undefeated, Britain's anti-road protesters are bedding down for a new confrontation

Simon Garfield
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:07

On the first floor there is a space that may once have been a bedroom, but you cannot tell for certain. These days the room is derelict, strewn with masonry, timber, Tango cans, steel oil drums full of hardened cement. Tomorrow, or next week, you may see these oil drums on the television news, as bailiffs attempt to separate the drums from young people harnessed to them with climbing gear.

This is the middle of Blackburn Road, Darwen, Lancashire. About 20 people have lived here, in five terraced houses, since 10 December, as a protest against the Department of Transport's plans to build a 12-mile extension of the M65 around Blackburn, a bypass that will link it to the M61 and M6. The people squatting in the derelict terrace will tell you this road is not something they want to see.

The terrace, which must be demolished to make way for a motorway slip- road, is not a pleasant place from where to launch a long-term protest: no heating, no electricity, no sanitation, only cold water. When the last official tenants moved out two years ago, they must have been pleased to be rehoused. But the present inhabitants do not expect to be here much longer, and they fear that when the bailiffs come, they will come with police. There will probably be arrests and loud scenes, for the eviction may take several days. The protesters hope they can resist - barricaded and chained - for up to a week. The oil drums are only a part of it, they say; road protest is now a sophisticated pursuit, growing monthly, and there will be ugly surprises in store.

Transport officials and local councillors insist they need this bypass. It's the usual thing: the road will ease congestion, attract new business. The construction itself will create employment. Mike Murray, president of the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, has even told the Lancashire Evening Telegraph that the motorway will improve the environment, drawing trucks away from the town centre.

Many of the local people seem not to mind much one way or the other, so the squatters in Blackburn are now doing their minding for them.

"It's going to cut through that field," says a protester called Tricky, pointing from the garden of his house. He too takes the familiar line. "It will be noisy, it will cause even more pollution ... all the latest reports say that new roads create more traffic. The people here can't possibly know what an impact it will have."

Tricky, 21, a qualified electrician, is from London, like many of the protesters. There are a few locals who have joined the campaign in recent weeks. There are some from Lancaster University, but most have arrived wiser from previous road battles, veterans from Twyford, the M11 and Solsbury Hill. The antis are real pros: on Tuesday there was talk of soon joining their friends on the anti-M77 campaign on the Pollok estate in Glasgow.

Tricky and his mates sport the disenfranchised look we're accustomed to: heavy wool and cotton, Army surplus workboots, dyed and punked hair. It's an amiable gathering, a genuine community. They get by on dole, a few savings, a grant from Greenpeace. There is no interest in anarchy or violence, and some have an advanced comprehension of the legal system.

"We'll lose it," says Tricky of their appeal against eviction in the London High Court today. "But we'll be ready. If everyone turns up who said they would, there should be 150 of us. We expect about 200 bailiffs and police and security to come anytime on Friday. We'll have a nightwatch from dawn."

Tricky says it's all about delay. When he's cut from the concrete, he'll delay the road more by joining another protest a few miles away. The road will be built sometime, for the first part is already under way. "It's inevitable they'll build it, and it's inevitable we'll be around. I think that's about fair."

An hour later we can observe Steph and Paul trudging through Stanworth Woods to what they like to call their village in the sky. Stanworth Valley is four miles from the squats on Blackburn Road, but the same new bypass will destroy both. And the woods are threatened with a viaduct.

The valley contains 16 treehouses; the 17th will be up by the weekend if the rain holds off. These aerial encampments are not like the ones blonde kids inhabit in suburban American movies. "We're not bloody stupid," Paul says. "They're plush. The tarps are tight, they're well insulated, and you can read a book in them, just like being in your room at home. We're here for a cause, but that doesn't mean we want to be pissed on every night."

He says it's beautiful up there when you wake up on a clear day. Some people have been here since August, and it's become a lifestyle they're keen to develop. They talk of "the logic of nature"; they call themselves things like Larch and Ash; they distrust the Highways Agency's talk of limiting the impact on flora and wildlife. Are these bedraggled people mad? Even after wading for a mile in mud this visiting journalist detected a slender appeal. I reasoned I could stick it for about two days.

Most of these outsize nests are 50 feet up, and house two people. Spread over an acre, linked by two-rope walkways, the only way up or down is by harness and rock-climbing tackle, and you sway in the wind as you climb.

Earlier in the day a visiting protester fell about 40 feet when a support- clip slipped. Flat on his back, in much pain, he was taken from the valley to hospital in a Group 4 Land Rover. "Rather ironic, using the security," Paul says. "But when it hits, even the pigs can be human."

Beneath the trees there is a communal tent - a drinking, chatting, plotting place. Like the squatters, the tree-dwellers know their days here are limited, and yesterday they expected the county sheriff to obtain another possession order to clear the area. The ground tents will go in a flash, they concede, but the tree houses will take a little longer. They expect cranes and lumberjacks and chainsaws, and they have contingency plans they won't entrust to a reporter with a day return.

"The people who come will have to be good," says a man called Bob who was about to go to Liverpool to fetch a generator. "And it will take them ages." As he spoke, a collie dog belonging to one of the tree-dwellers tried to make it with an alsatian belonging to Group 4.

The London-bound train was crowded that evening. The man sitting opposite saw my filthy nails and jeans and said: "Been somewhere muddy?"

I told him of this place where people live in trees and chain themselves to oil drums, where even the pigs can be human. I spoke enthusiastically. He pointed at me and said ah yes, but how would I feel if my children wanted to do that sort of thing, out in the night for weeks, moaning about a little road?

My children? I told him I could think of fates far worse.

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