The Bexhill to Hastings road proposal – a £100 million project to build a three mile road to a newly built supermarket in East Sussex – is pissing a lot of people off. According to protesters, the proposed development could pose a huge threat to Combe Haven Valley, a large unspoiled area of grass, trees and the occasional rambler, damaging ancient woodland and passing lecherously close to a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Of course, the project has its supporters – the developers, who say the road is essential to open up land for development and provide better transport links, and locals who like to throw down in the comments section of protester websites opposing the build. In case knocking down a forest (and explaining, as a plus, that it means they can develop more buildings on the land) wasn't enough to pied piper regional environmentalist groups out of their village halls, the news that CO2 emissions associated with the road will keep on rising until 2050 definitely was. All this contradicting the need introduced by the Climate Change Act to reduce CO2 by 80 percent over that period.
Protesters set up three camps several months ago and lived there to peacefully protest the build, but each one has now been evicted except for Camp Decoy, a site somewhere in the middle of the valley. So I decided to go and have a look.
I arrived at Camp Decoy on Friday the 25th with a couple of journalists working for large newspapers who apparently weren't welcome inside the camp. A chirpy girl in silver-rimmed glasses shouted at me not to take photographs, before introducing herself as "Squirrel".
People were apparently paranoid about being photographed for fear of being arrested or losing their jobs, which seemed perfectly reasonable, especially when I heard about the undercover policeman who'd been sneaking around the camp the day before and taking photographs. I hung around anyway, my feet going numb as the cold from the knee-high mud worked its way through my boots. “It's nothing personal” Squirrel assured me.
Standing around in a cold field by yourself for hours is surprisingly boring, so I spoke to anyone who walked my way, including the bailiffs who'd come to check the camp. “We're going to evict these tree huggers Monday morning,” one said, his partner smiling. “They're not even concerned about the environment, they just want to have a go at the system."
On Saturday morning I walked through the woods to get a look at the back of Camp Decoy. Along the way, I spoke to a farmer who was more interested in local history than any of the cold, damp humans currently occupying the land. According to him, it was the original site of the Battle of Hastings. When I pressed him for what he knew about the current situation rather than the one 950 years ago, he said, “Even if I did know anything, I wouldn't tell you.” Which wasn't very helpful.
The next day, the Combe Haven Defenders had arranged a large gathering with Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other NGOs. As is 100 percent always the case when you're hanging out at an anti-motorway demonstration in the Sussex countryside, one of The Pretenders' offspring was there. In this case, it was Chrissie Hynde's daughter Natalie. I asked if I could take her photograph and she introduced herself as "Rainbow".
"Do you want an interview, too?" she asked. “This is the first and worst of George Osborne’s wrecking of the environment. And a road to nowhere.” I wanted to remind her that the road was actually leading to a supermarket – maybe an Asda or even a Tesco – but I didn't think she'd be into that.
Despite a loitering BBC film crew, the mood was high, as the officials from the various NGOs had got together and decided "Hey, maybe the proposed road won't actually go ahead" and everyone had heard about it. I asked Squirrel when they were expecting the bailiffs. "They usually come at first light." she replied. "So get here for 5:30AM."
I got to Camp Decoy early on Monday morning. It was still dark, but you could see men standing on the brow of the hill overlooking the camp, wearing white hard hats and high-vis vests. At around 8AM, I heard shouts of "The pigs are here!" from inside the camp and ran over the bridge into the site to watch the bailiffs make their way towards us.
“Once we enter the camp, you will have to leave because you will be breaking the law,” one shouted. The protesters began shouting "Strike, occupy and resist" over the bailiff, but he carried on in his relentless quest to kill the buzz, screaming, "You will be arrested for trespassing!"
That's when metal bridges were hoisted over the stream and anyone wearing a fluorescent jacket started to make their way across, manhandling protesters who were trying to block them off.
That standoff carried on for an hour or so, before a Roman army of high-vis came spilling over the brow of the hill and started fencing us in. The bailiffs carried on shouting at us to leave, and security began to enter and dominate the camp.
“Are you press?” a police officer asked. “You'll have to take your photographs outside the fence.” Instead of getting arrested, I walked out of the camp and up the hill, where I could see the protesters climbing trees.
By the time I got to the top, the last protesters on the ground were getting pulled out of the camp and a fence had gone up around the area, stopping anyone from getting in. Which presumably included anyone trying to deliver clean sheets and pillow chocolates to the protesters planning on spending the night up a tree being rained on and shouted at all night.
Natalie Hynde was removed from the treetops and arrested by bailiffs just before noon yesterday after spending the night attached to a 40 metre tall oak tree. By the end of the day, the total number of confirmed arrests during the 47 days of protest was up to 26.
The climbing specialists clocked off last night, leaving a number of protesters, bailiffs and security up in the trees, which must be pretty awkward. East Sussex County Council were denying food, painkillers or blankets to the remaining protesters, who were facing up to 44mph winds, which probably isn't much fun when you're clinging on to a very tall tree.
Today will be the third day of eviction, then maybe into Thursday and Friday, but inevitably the last protesters are getting carried down from the tops of those trees and Combe Haven Valley is getting the motorway it never wanted.
See more of Stuart Griffiths' work here.
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