Most of Blue Sandford’s classmates are studying for their A Levels, but she is 15 feet below Euston Square Gardens, London, in a tunnel. “I’m really scared,” the 18-year-old says over the phone, as bailiffs drill above the roof the tunnel. “But I’m more scared of the climate and ecological emergency. This government is putting my life at risk, by failing to take action and by going ahead with the HS2 vanity project.”
Anti-HS2 activists have been secretly building the system of tunnels – codenamed “Kelvin” and “Crystal” – for two months under cover of night as part of their campaign against the high-speed rail project, for which some of the Gardens’ trees will be felled and a taxi rank will be built on the land. More broadly, they oppose the scheme because of its wider impact on nature – 108 ancient woodlands are at risk of loss or damage, according to the Woodland Trust. They say the rising cost of HS2 – last estimated to be £98 billion at most by the government, though critics fear it will rise much higher – is unjustifiable public spending during a recession and in a climate emergency, when even HS2’s own forecasts show a net increase in carbon emissions as a result of the project.
Shortly after 4AM on Wednesday morning, a group of at least five bedded down for the night in the tunnel network, which they say is 100 feet long. Blue was accompanied by fellow young activist Lazer, and veteran environmental defenders Dr Larch Maxey, Scotty, and Swampy – who became a household name during his involvement in the anti-roads protests of the 90s (and is no stranger to tunnels).
Standing on the pavement outside the gardens in the Wednesday afternoon drizzle, local resident and supporter Joanne Morgan tells me how the scene unfolded once the tunnel had been sealed up.
“At 4AM, I’d just arrived at the Gardens from my house to return a charged-up drill and phone batteries, which I gave to Swampy and Larch. I looked around thinking it was quiet and got my paints out to start painting the outside [of the tunnel]. Suddenly around 100 bailiffs came running in with sledgehammers to evict them.”
Over the next few hours, National Eviction Team (NET) enforcement agents removed protesters from the camp, using a cherry picker to evict them from a treehouse, and fenced off the gardens to prevent anyone entering, while police made arrests.
By the time I get hold of Larch, Blue and Lazer over speakerphone, it’s a surprise to hear them in high spirits as drills overhead drown out their speech every few seconds and threaten the roof of their tunnel. Blue and Lazer even joke that the campaign against HS2 is starting an OnlyFans to raise funds.
The tunnel protesters, however, are under no illusion about the serious danger they face, especially if the tunnel were to collapse. But they say they are prepared to stay underground “for as long as it takes” to protect the trees and the land from developers. “I think this action is so important because being in central London gets the media’s attention,” Blue says.
Lazer adds: “A lot of the public isn’t yet aware of how much HS2 will cost and how destructive it is to the habitats of birds and bats.”
Larch talks about the “strong community” that has developed at the camp since the activists began occupying the gardens last August. A number of the protesters here above ground have experienced homelessness or are still homeless, and these public gardens – now HS2 private property – have been a refuge for them. A man in his early 20s talks excitedly to a couple of local residents who have stopped by about how Larch has helped him get off the streets and avoid alcohol.
Outside the fenced-off gardens, a gaggle of supporters bang drums, dwarfed by the numbers of police and bailiffs, while two emergency ambulances wait on standby. Several people I speak to say they were motivated to join the campaign against HS2 by social media footage of alleged violence by bailiffs against peaceful protesters.
“I couldn’t really stand to sit at home doing nothing, after seeing that,” says Berry, another 18-year-old and former A Level student, who has previously lived in other anti-HS2 camps, as we watch NET agents pulling on one of the lines attached to another teenage protester there, T-Rex, who is suspended mid-air.
From her spot in a treehouse, former care worker Flowery Zebra speaks to me on the phone. It’s 8PM and she’s been in the treehouse since 5:30AM. “I feel a powerful connection with trees, I think it's important to have that. They provide oxygen and help clean the air, and for me it’s so sad that HS2 can just come along and cut down really old trees and not think anything of it.”
On Thursday morning, Larch posts a video update from the tunnel. He claims that the NET reneged on a promise to give the tunnel dwellers two hours’ respite from noise if they cooperated. “As soon as we did [what] they wanted us to, they backtracked, so we’ve had no sleep because they’re working 24 hours a day with loud machinery. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture.”
This afternoon, the tunnel protesters posted another video update saying “loads of liquid mud” is coming through the wall of “Crystal” tunnel. “We believe, the only explanation I can think of is that the [bailiffs] are pumping water the other way to try to get people to come out, to flood the tunnel out. This is not safe.” NET did not wish to comment on this allegation.
The campaign alliance group HS2 Rebellion also claimed on Thursday that the NET has prevented people from delivering basic necessities such as food and water to protesters.
In an HS2 Rebellion statement, barrister Tim Crosland said: “The Human Rights Act guarantees the right to protest (Article 11). While that right has been limited in the context of the pandemic, the limitation is only permissible ‘to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation’ (Article 15). It is not ‘strictly necessary’, as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, to prohibit the protest of two people who are self-isolating together.
“Further, there is a serious risk that the actions of the NET (which include cutting the line of descent) cause substantial harm to the protestors. This is a breach of the NET’s duty of care to the protestors and an act of negligence. I urge the NET to reconsider their actions or face legal action.”
An NET spokesperson told VICE: “The National Eviction Team would like to reiterate that safety of all concerned is their priority. These tunnels are very dangerous and the National Eviction Team, a division of High Court Enforcement Group, is aware that, through their risk assessment and the protesters’ statements in various media, the protesters have previously experienced a collapse and water ingress to their tunnel and their lack of experience puts them at risk.”
An HS2 spokesperson said: “To ensure HS2 is able to deliver its major benefits to the UK on time, certain works must take place at designated times. HS2 has taken legal temporary possession of Euston Square Gardens East in order to progress with works necessary for the construction of the new Euston station.”
“These protests are a danger to the safety of the protestors, our staff and the general public, and put unnecessary strain on the emergency services during a pandemic. The protestors are currently trespassing on land that is legally possessed by HS2.”