Twyford Down was the birthplace of ecological direct action in the UK and environmental campaigns of today have been shaped by the events that took place there. In this new, and inspiring history of the Twyford Rising, it is the activists who tell their story through words, photographs and leaflets. It is the best kind of history.
As co-author and activist Helen Beynon says “”What happened at Twyford Down was one of many beginnings for an enviromental movement that now takes confidently to the streets on issues of climate change and the extinction of species. The people who stopped the bulldozers there, who camped on the route of the road, who developed tactics for blockading and locking themselves to machinery, see the legacy of their actions now in a growing chorus of voices demanding to be heard.”
Twyford Down is in southern England, near Winchester, which was designated as part of the area of South Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AOOB). Much of it was in the South Downs Natural Park, recognising its unique landscape and wildlife.
Over the years successive governments refused to acknowledge this significant environmental landscape and put forward plans to extend the M3 through the Down to cut seven minutes (!) off the journey from Southampton to London.
The government rubbished campaigner’s alternative proposals including a tunnel under the hill or for improvements to the existing road. Instead they proposed a drive a deep cutting through Twyford Down itself.
A Twyford Down Association was established In the 1980s to oppose these plans made up of local residents, local councillors and even members of the Conservative Party. It went down the legal road, undertaking an expensve judicial review. But after four public inquiries, endless lobbying and judicial reviews permission was given to build the road and on Monday 23 January 1992 work began on the M3 extension through Twyford Down and the Itchen water meadows.
Faced with the reality of the destruction of Twyford Down a former Conservative local councillor and TDA activist David Croker arranged a meeting with a new radical environmental group, Earth First!
Earth First! is the opposite of traditional political organising. Originally started in the USA in the late 1980s it works through small groups and is a network that takes direct action to oppose environmental destruction. It was a challenge to the more established environmental groups who were using political lobbying to change the policies of governments and international organisations.
One of the first actions by the TDA and Earth First! was to try to stop the destruction of two railway bridges which showed not only what they were up against from the government but the different approaches by the two groups.
Both groups occupied the bridges but, as Jason, one of the Earth Firsters, was attached to a crane by a D-lock, the crane carried on working. Chris, a local TDA activist, was horrified. “I remember begging several police to do something about protecting Jason from the movement and the diesel fumes, but met with a refusal that bordered on the callously amused. This was my first experience of the policing of Twyford Down.”
Political differences between the two groups continued as Friends of the Earth set up a camp but were not happy about the involvement of the Earth Firsters. Chris challenged FoE as he was concerned about what would happen once the major work by bulldozers started. He said “Robin told me not to worry, that when the bulldozers came in Jonathon Porrit (director of FoE) himself would be there, standing in front of them…but nobody was there from national FoE when the bulldozers trashed the Dongas of Twyford Down.”
From the beginning the proposed destruction of Twyford Down brought together people who had been involved with other campaigns, including women from Greenham Common, with new activists, But as Chris comments in his protest “where Greenham centred on the protest itself, the Dongas camp centred on the land itself.”
Winchester College, the public school that owned the land, which was known as the “Dongas” named by a schoolmaster who recognised the erosion of the land as similar to that seen in Africa and known in Matabele as “dongas”.
The story of the protest at Twyford Down is told by the activists. Helen explains “I began Twyford Rising with dates and events gleaned from yellowing press cuttings and leaflets, from minutes of meetings, fragments in diaries and a chronology passed to me by Chris Gillham.”
It is a great example of how to preserve the history of a campaign. Helen got people to send her their memories through emails and pieces of paper as well as speaking to people on the phone or Skype. Included in the book are copies of leaflets used to promote the actions as well as some fantastic photographs and poems.
Central to the protest is how much people loved the land and the price they paid for that in terms of serving jail sentences, and suffering physical attacks and intimidation. Many of the activists went on to take part in other environmental campaigns, as well as working on the land, and involvement in cooperatives.
Helen sums up the Twyford Rising: “Twyford Down became a byword for environmental protest, for the strength of the connection that can be forged between people and place.I have been to meetings and gatherings since where I hear people tell others of what happened at Twyford Down, even though they have only read of it, or heard tell. It seems presumptuous in those moments to step in and say “I was there” and stake a claim on a legend.”