Sheriff's men carry the day in Wanstonia: Sledgehammers put paid to sovereignty as M11 link road cuts swath through east London: Christian Wolmar witnesses a gentlemanly joust designed to keep both sides happy

Christian Wolmar
Thursday 17 February 1994 00:02 GMT

IT WAS like a medieval joust. The time, 7am, was arranged and the police kindly ensured the anti-road protesters were in the houses by not placing a cordon until then.

By waiting until nearly 8am yesterday before making an attack on the three barricaded houses - in Cambridge Park, east London, and on the route of the M11 link road - the police, the sheriff and his men, all 1,000 of them, gave the 300 or so protesters plenty of time to batten down the hatches or, in this case, to demolish staircases.

The scene in Wanstead was set.

Squatters in three houses had declared themselves the republic of Wanstonia and were not about to give up sovereignty easily. There were three classes of protester. The infantry, who included many - but by no means all - the local middle-aged contingent, there only to lend support and shout slogans. They stayed downstairs and were quickly persuaded to leave by the white-helmeted bailiffs once the front door had been destroyed by a few hefty sledgehammer blows.

Then there were the experienced protesters, many veterans of Twyford Down. They lined corridors and filled rooms, interlocking legs and tying together shoelaces, offering passive resistance as bailiffs broke through. They chanted a song which emphasised their readiness to go on and on fighting road schemes: 'We are the old people, we are the new people, we are the same people, stronger than before.' They were hauled out, one by one, each carried by a pair of bailiffs.

Finally, there was the elite, though in the non-hierarchical world they inhabit they would never refer to themselves as such. Mostly young, but including some older people, their most common ploy was to tie each other's hands together in plastic pipes through blocks of concrete encased either in old washing machines ('twin tubs are best', laughed one) or oil drums. Some of these blocks were in chimneys, others were perched on little balconies, and those with a head for heights attached themselves to chimneys.

As the bailiffs gradually smashed their way in through the lower floors, those whose hands were still free headed for the roof, where they tied or locked themselves to a variety of prearranged devices.

The bailiffs managed to gain a toehold on the first floor of No 2 remarkably quickly. The staircase was blocked with beds, doors and steel poles, but within half an hour a bespectacled bailiff, in green overalls and a white helmet, forced his way through the first-floor window. Trapped between several protesters, he tried to be matey.

A group of us were locked into a bathroom, but the door was flattened with one sledgehammer blow: 'Would you kindly now leave,' said a bailiff, smiling. The journalists went quietly, while the protesters insisted on being dragged out - it was barely 9.30am.

However, the elite were a different proposition. Each had to be prised out, with equipment such as bolt cutters or heavy-duty drills for the concrete. Emma Must, a Twyford Down veteran, and one of the former residents, Patricia Braga, had chained themselves into a room that had been sealed with concrete. It took until mid-afternoon to get them out.

One of the last on the roof, Mick, a middle-aged local resident wearing a British Rail hat, led the bailiffs a merry dance by darting in and out of the eaves before being hauled off into a crane platform.

The houses were almost instantly reduced to rubble with surprisingly slight nudges from the bulldozers' arms while, as night fell, the last

20 resisters were pulled from a tree in the former front garden.

Just as in real jousting, neither side really wanted to hurt the other. The protesters are avowedly pacifist, while the police and most bailiffs - one or two took delight in dragging their prey rather roughly through the rubble - emphasised their softly, softly approach. There were only eight arrests, half for assault, and no serious injuries.

The chief superintendent in charge of the operation, Stuart Giblin, who had looked a worried man in the morning, was relaxed. He praised the protesters for, with only a couple of exceptions, eschewing violence, but said: 'The policing costs alone were at least pounds 200,000 and this could have been much better spent.'

For a day, at least, the protesters won. Wanstead, all estate agents and Asian restaurants, was like a village because cars had been diverted. Several residents spoke appreciatively of the quiet.

As the protesters moved south to set up Leytonstonia, they vowed there will be further battles.

A quote written on the wall of No 8, from the recently deceased Sir Matt Busby, said it all: 'Winning isn't everything. There should be no conceit in victory, and no despair in defeat.'

Leading article, page 19

(Photograph omitted)

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