Last camp standing at Combe Haven

The battle taking place in Sussex’s Combe Haven Valley is very different to the one fought there almost a thousand years ago – the Battle of Hastings. This time around there are fewer bows and arrows – more treehouses, tunnels and diggers. One side wears hi-visibility jackets in place of chainmail, the other is kitted out in knitted jumpers and wellington boots.

I joined this battle in December to not only try and protect the Combe Haven Valley, but to stand against the British government’s biggest road building programme in 25 years. Since then, resistance to the Bexhill-Hastings road has evolved and changed.

Being removed from a tree
Tom is removed from a tree

The road is planned to be 5.6 kilometres long, and would pass next to a Site of Special Scientific Interest. As well as the predicted 30,000 vehicles a day the road would bring, along with pollution and disruption, the project risks the habitat of wildlife including dormice and bats, both Protected Species.

Over Christmas three tree camps were built: ‘Base Camp’, ‘Camp Decoy’ (named after Decoy Pond), and ‘Three Oaks.’ Now only Camp Decoy is left standing.

On 7 January word came through to us at the site that security personnel, bailiffs and chainsaw crews were congregating near Three Oaks. The defenders of the camp stood fast and although there were only three or four of them actually in trees, chainsaw activity ground to a halt.

But then the contractors turned their attention to a new area. They fenced it off, and soon chainsaws could be heard making that horrible whine, until finally a ‘Craaaack!,’ was heard – the heart-wrenching sound of another tree coming down. A small army of security guards surrounded the fence. But after a while, a number of people managed to climb on top of the digger which drew the guards away, allowing me to slip into the fenced off area. The only people who noticed were the chainsaw operators, who half-smiled as they told their boss they’d have to stop.

The hi-vis army left at dusk, leaving Three Oaks almost untouched, and their work only half-finished. So we worked through the evening, setting up ropes and a net in the uppermost branches, while security guards sat in a car below us, oblivious.

At daybreak, the hi-vis army reappeared, with specialist climbing teams in tow. It took them the whole morning to get my friends out of the tree, and then, just when the chainsaws were about to spring into action again, one quick thinker shinnied up a nearby telegraph pole and stayed there for almost six hours, stopping work for the rest of the day.

The camp at Three Oaks held out for another week, but was finally evicted on 14 January. Then, on 16 January, a whole army of orange jackets appeared at the next elevated defence – Base Camp – at 8am, and started to dismantle it. ‘Stop! There are people inside!’ we cried.

There was a standoff lasting an hour while bailiffs and police negotiated with the ground-level barricade protestors while security guards erected fencing around Base Camp. My buddy and I locked ourselves together, by the legs, by the neck and through a pipe, and threw away the key. And then we waited.

A protest against the road in 2011
A 2011 protest against the road Jimkillock, under a CC License

Climbers soon arrived with hydraulic cutting equipment, power saws and various other tools, and cut the roof and walls away. Then they put pads around our locks and cut through them with hydraulic bolt-croppers. Once freed, we were put in a cradle and lowered to the ground to the sound of whistles and applause from supporters Once on the ground, we were arrested and taken to Hastings Police Station.

The following day, the remaining people at Base Camp were cleared from their posts. Now the area where the camp stood is unrecognizable. Trees are strewn everywhere; not one left standing.

At Camp Decoy, however, the recent snow seems to have granted us a temporary reprieve. Our wellington-boot brigade clearly made of stronger stuff than the hi-vis army. However, the snow won’t last forever, and the Battle of Camp Decoy looks like it may kick off first thing on Monday 28 January.

There has been a long fight over the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road and in October 2012 campaigners took their case to the High Court, but by December activists stepped up the direct action.

Critics say protesters are achieving nothing apart from costing taxpayers more money. However this is precisely why so many people are angry about the road. At a time when there’s so little money in the public purse, spending such a huge sum on such a short stretch of road – at such a cost to the environment – seems perverse.

Cuts to children’s services alone last year at East Sussex were £20 million ($31.7 million), with further cuts due this year. What benefits will the road bring? Some people point to extra housing it will make possible, but there are a huge number of empty houses in the area which belong to East Sussex County Council that could be brought back into use.

The council have put their reputation at stake on the road. They are ploughing ahead regardless of all the arguments against it, simply to avoid losing face. If they reconsider, I for one will not hold it against them.

For more information see the Combe Haven Defenders website

Why I joined the second Battle of Hastings

Activists have been occupying trees to try and stop the road development.

Combe Haven Valley, which the proposed link road would go through, is ‘set within a high-quality landscape of historic and wildlife interest and contains peaceful and remote countryside’ (Report for a council meeting in 2004). It passes very close to a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and is one of Britain’s most important wildlife sites.

My particular interest in this road, however, goes further than that. We need new roads in Britain like a hole in the head. Our traffic is already at levels that go far beyond what is sustainable, from every perspective: economic, social, health, environmental, or in terms of natural resources and climate change. Moreover, it is evident from every new road that has ever been built that traffic levels on the old roads do not decrease and ultimately exceed pre-new road levels anyway.

The scheme has been the subject of a prolonged fight which in October 2012 went all the way to the High Court. The project is one of over 40 ‘zombie roads’ previously declared dead but resurrected as part of the government’s largest road-building programme in 25 years.

It was with all this in mind that before dawn one very wet morning I got the train to Hastings and met up with fellow sympathizer ‘Andrew’. Together, we headed for an area which we had been told was likely to be the centre of attention that day. We found a tree that looked suitably ‘in the way’ and climbed it.

Soon after, a dozen tree surgeons arrived with around 20 security guards and bailiffs in tow, and a Police Land Rover. We continued setting up camp in the tree and the chainsaws started working.

While most of the security guards huddled under a bridge nearby to keep out of the rain, one that must have drawn the short straw huddled under our tree for five hours, asking periodically if we wanted to come down. Meanwhile, the chainsaws worked hard, felling trees all around us. But at the end of the day ‘our’ tree, and the four or five around us, were still there.

For a month activists have been defending the Combe Haven Valley, in what has been called the ‘second Battle of Hastings,’ putting themselves in the way, often subjecting themselves to prolonged periods of discomfort and the risk of arrest.

In the early hours on 14 January police, security and chainsaw operators moved in to evict the ‘Three Oaks’ protest camp on the proposed route. Trees were felled – including a 400-year-old oak. There are still two other protest camps standing – ‘Decoy Pond Wood Camp’ and ‘Base Camp’ – but police say they will be evicted this week.

What we need now is more people to occupy the remaining trees to stop the contractors completing their work by March. If we can do this, the breeding season will halt work on the road until next year, giving more time to challenge the road by other means to save the beautiful Combe Haven Valley.

Find out more from the Combe Haven Defenders website.

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