Bonfire of the Heart.
2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Newbury Bypass protests. Yet it all still feels very raw.
I am not going to use this opportunity to go over the whys and wherefores. Nor am I going to defend my point of view, my reasoning, on something that was both intensely local, but also of national importance. No. There has been time for that, and no doubt, will be again – my position has not changed. Yet I must mark this most passionate time in my life that changed and set its course since. Here is some of what lingers; this much I know.
I remember, somewhat ironically, watching the first skirmish unfold on national news, with friends. This was, had been our playground. We realised we could not sit by and watch. The following day, we were in the thick of it, fighting for each of the 10,000 trees felled, including the 2nd tallest in Europe (its 2-storey treehouse contained a kitchen and a woodburning stove). The nine-mile route carved through heathland, ancient woodland, water meadows, farmland, downland, four SSSI’s, several local nature reserves, two Civil War battlefields, 12 archaeological sites and National Trust land – and all within a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I knew it all, intimately.
26, with no real responsibilities and between jobs, home and university, I was there most days: empowered, angry, elated, frightened, often out of my depth. I surprised myself with what I was capable of; dangerous, risky things, brave things, stupid things.
During what the press called The Battle for Rickety Bridge, diggers and cherry pickers moved like medieval siege towers, wheeled catapults and trebuchets down the fields, escorted by a fluorescent army of hundreds. When the blades of the machines pushed up against our backs and the earth began to ooze between our fingers, we wondered if they would stop. And when the last of the security guards retreated each evening, people abseiled from the trees like spiders in the sunset. Accompanied by cheers and an outpouring of rousing prose, it was like being in a revolutionary theatre production, only, it was real.
I remember broken bird’s nests eddying down chalkstreams, nightingale song competing with chainsaws, a pall of choking black smoke from burning rhododendron over the house for weeks, and a chronic cough.
There was humour, pathos and kindness on both sides as well as trust and suspicion. I witnessed awe-inspiring bravery and tenacity, inventiveness, passion and guile.
I am not sorry for any of it. I’d do it all again and bring my children.
Certain things will always take me back there – the smell of pine resin, the sound of a tree going down, the restless whisper of poplars, The Prodigy’s Firestarter, banging out from a sound system strapped high in the trees, and from a friends bedroom, when I didn’t have the stomach to go home.
Funny that now, watching the news marking the anniversary, I find myself trembling. With adrenalin and passion, with anger and utter desolation. I am still grieving for a lost landscape.
But there are fresh battles to fight; more various and ever more urgent. So what I have learnt is this: it is always worth fighting. And I will use all the passion and anger that those protests sparked, to light a bonfire for all time. Because, in the end, it is ourselves that we are fighting for. Ourselves, and our children.