Let's get the obligatory gags out of the way early doors.
For decades, nothing really happened in Balcombe. But now it's happening endlessly and all over the news.
Yes, fracking has finally put Balcombe on the map, and that is ironic because tons of protesters are worried fracking will cause earthquakes that may vanish Balcombe into the ground. Hordes of angry environmentalists have gathered there in an attempt to draw attention to the fracking plans of oil exploration company Cuadrilla, which they say will also ruin the local water supply. The protest began in earnest on the 25th of July and has been going pretty much continuously ever since.
When I first visited the site back in July, I witnessed protesters get hit by cars, have their ears twisted and get arrested over the course of a four-hour struggle to block vehicles delivering earth-splitting equipment to the drill site. Now, over three weeks and 45 arrests later, the protesters are not only still here, but their numbers have swollen significantly.
I hadn't planned to re-visit Balcombe until the one-month anniversary of my first visit. But that was before I heard reports that members from the Disabled People Against Cuts group had been forcibly removed after locking themselves together to barricade the site entrance and that Green Party MP for Brighton and Hove, Caroline Lucas, was the latest high-profile arrest. I decided my reunion with the anti-fracking gang would have to come early.
When I arrived in Balcombe, the atmosphere felt more sinister than it had during my first visit. Helicopters were hovering overhead, police vans lay in wait at the train station and the road to the site was paved with cardboard monuments to fallen protesters.
As I rounded the corner and caught my first glimpse of the protest site, it was immediately clear just how much support had grown for the protest. On my first visit there were maybe 20 small tents, now there was a whole village, including some pretty impressive marquees.
The police's attitude had changed as well. Last time I was there media people were free to wander about, but now we were corralled into a press pit 20 metres from the site entrance. I couldn’t see anything from in there so I decided to find my own vantage point on top of a tea tent.
From here I could see why the police were so annoyed. Four people had attached themselves arm to arm with piping, creating a human square that encased three other protesters. I’m not sure what they were using to keep the pipes attached to their arms but it was pretty clear they couldn’t have freed themselves even if they wanted to.
After 20 minutes a police van drove in and a group of police dressed as Design and Technology teachers hopped out. They then unloaded a generator, an angle-grinder and a load of tarpaulin. Playtime was over – they were cutting the protesters out.
Since the police presumably don’t get much power tool proficiency training, they seemed nervous about maiming a protester and ending up all over the Guardian website covered in blood and bits of arm bone. They took a long time making sure everyone was wearing protective eye goggles and had big sheets of plastic over their faces. I’m not sure how this was meant to stop an electric saw from slicing through their arms but they seemed satisfied that all precautions had been taken and got on with the cutting.
At times it was a bit like that BBC Changing Rooms programme, if Changing Rooms had been about using state muscle to allow an American company to potentially destroy British water supplies to extract an unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly fuel source.
After a few minutes the first pipe had been cut free. Here you can see an officer removing it while his colleague stands behind him pretending the pipe is his cock for media LOLs (presumably).
The loss of a pipe wasn’t going to deter the protesters and, giggling, they pressed on with plan B: group hug.
Hugs aren’t as durable as large metal tubes though and it didn’t take long for the police to muscle in and remove some of the stragglers. This girl was pretty cut up about being arrested for siting inside a human square and cried as she was taken away. The police didn’t show much compassion and shoved an evidence camera in her face, taking care to capture each individual tear.
Sitting in 25-degree heat all day with your arms strapped to other people and being surrounded by police seemed to get to one of the remaining protesters. As he was cut free he sort of collapsed onto the ground. At first I thought this was just another protest tactic but he stayed that way for at least 15 minutes, so I reckon he was either just chilling out or dying of sunstroke.
Clearly, I wasn’t the only one thinking this as the police soon deployed a waterboy to ensure none of their officers suffered the same fate.
Rehydrated, it was time to remove the remaining pipe from the square and drag the last two protesters off to the police van.
These final two received a hero’s welcome from the crowd and were carried out to the sound of huge cheers. I’m not sure if this guy was conscious enough to hear them but if he was he must have felt like some kind of environmental Jesus.
Eventually, news came through that drilling had been temporarily suspended. Happy days!
With the square broken and the gate unblocked, I decided to have a look around the protest camp to see if I could spot any familiar faces. It didn’t take me too long to find Lilias. Last time I talked to her she was pretty upset about the roadblock failing to stop the drilling equipment from being delivered to the site. Now that drilling had been temporarily suspended I hoped she’d be in better spirits.
VICE: Hey Lilias, you've been here for over three weeks now. What would have to happen for you to declare victory and go home?
Lilias: The perfect victory would be if they declared a frack-free planet, though a frack-free Britain would be good. Frack-free West Sussex would be a really good start. East Sussex refused to consider planning applications until they knew more about the process and I don't think West Sussex were really informed enough when they let it go through.
What do you think of the police operation today?
Well, they knew something was going to happen today so they were on edge. I've heard they were a bit rough removing people but they're nervous of course, bless them. When people get nervous they get a bit rash. Obviously a lot of them have come from all over, there are people from the Met, from Thames Valley, they don't know what could happen here and they're nervous.
You've been here since the very beginning, why do you think so many people have joined your cause?
This is our water supply, people care about that. "Fracking" – even the word sounds nasty. Why are we putting our water supply in jeopardy for fracking? At the People's Assembly, Caroline Lucas said that something like 125 MPs have business interests in fossil fuels, so they're not interested in renewable energy because they won't make money out of it. That's the general vibe that's coming out of this and it's disgusting and people won't stand for it. It's grown since July and it'll continue to grow.
After my chat with Lilias there was some commotion down at the site entrance. Some anarchists had decided to sit across the road in an attempt to stop the police from reopening it to the public.
It didn’t take long for the police’s vastly superior numbers to bully them out of their chairs and they were herded off the road.
The guy in the red bandana was dragging his feet and was quickly surrounded and wrestled to the ground by police. He cut his head in the scuffle and was held down until the van came for him.
I caught up with Phil, who is from East Sussex and reckons fracking could be David Cameron's downfall in the 2015 elections.
“I’ve been here for about a week and the numbers have quadrupled since then," he said. "It’ll continue to quadruple and quadruple as more and more sites are added. Once Middle England open their eyes and see that it could come to their back yard, then you’ll see a lot more people protesting. Nobody wants this sort of thing in their community. Eighty-five percent of Balcombe are against this and yet the Government are still giving Cuadrilla the go ahead. These areas are Tory heartlands and I think they’re going to suffer big time in the elections due to this.”
After my chat with Phil I stumbled upon this monument to Esra, one of the first people I met in Balcombe, who had been arrested shortly after lying on a bed of nails across the site entrance.
It seemed to be calming down at the site, the police were leaving and the protesters were beginning to cook dinner. On my way out I ran into Richard Lanchester from the Green Party. I was hoping he'd give me some insight into the politics behind fracking but he seemed more interested in talking environmental philosophy.
VICE: Hey Richard! What did you think of today's protest?
Richard: I'm just thinking about what will be left here in 1,000 years. Homo Sapiens are the worst creatures, we've killed off the Neanderthals, we've killed off Homo Erectus and we won't stop until we've killed off everything else.
Do you think the Conservatives are committing political suicide in the name of a quick buck?
I think they'll suffer come the election. Sussex is historically one of their safe seats but the residents here are already moving away from them. In the last council elections we ran a tiny campaign with very little money. We only got to canvas about 100 of several thousand voters in the area, we didn't have a chance to impose our wonderful personalities on the whole electorate, but at a basic level the amount of people who wanted to vote Green Party was 9.7 percent. That was three times more than the BNP, double Ukip and a sixth of the Conservative vote.
After my chat with Richard, a police liaison officer confirmed that the day had ended with 29 arrests. Despite the efforts of those detained, Cuadrilla were expected to start drilling again in a few days. Obviously they'll win, the side with the most money always does, but I don't think the protesters are going to be calling it quits any time soon.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @MatthewFrancey
WATCH – The Chemical Valley