The Grandmas Fighting Fracking One Dance Party at a Time
"If you're a nana with a bad hip, that makes you one of our best fighters: no cops are going to want to touch you."
Anti-fracking activist Julie Daniels.
The first time I call anti-fracking activist Tina Louise Rothery, she answers the phone with a scream. Her dog, I'm told, has started acting up: now is not a good time, and I’m going to need to call back later. "There’s mice under our kitchen in the caravan, and the dog is just fixated."
When I eventually call back, Rothery is warm and apologetic. The 56-year-old former copywriter says she's in a "stressy mood", as she's spent most of the last 18 months living in temporary housing near Cuadrilla's controversial Preston New Road fracking site. She's there as a seasoned protester, and is currently rallying against the shale company's plans to start fracking in the area. It's proved to be a tough fight.
"The Preston New Road site has been one of such violence, anger and rage," Rothery says. "So, roughly 77 weeks ago, the women on the site decided we couldn't deal with it anymore. We started something called Wednesday Women's Call For Calm: every week, we all dress in white, walk up the hill and stage a 15-minute silence. Then we just dance all afternoon and sing."
Rothery is used to protesting in novel ways. Five years ago, she helped form the Nanas, a group of Lancashire-based women with one common goal: to stop fracking in the area.
Fracking, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, is a way of recovering gas and oil which has been trapped in rocks deep underground. To extract it, large drills bore into the earth and blast the area with a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals, which fracture the rock and free the gas. It's controversial: as well as potentially causing earth tremors, the toxic chemicals used in the process (which some studies have found to be radioactive) can escape into the air and contaminate nearby water sources.
As the name suggests, the Nanas are notable for being older women – the majority are in their late-fifties and sixties – who embrace the northern English cliches of working class matriarchy: their uniform consists of yellow tabard overalls and headscarves, and they're often seen carrying tea sets and brightly coloured feather dusters.
"If people hear you’re an activist, they assume you need a wash, a job, that you have too much time on your hands, and that you’re probably aggressive," explains fellow member Anjie Mosher, 48. The Blackpool-based barber has been a vocal campaigner against fracking for the best part of a decade, and was part of the Nanas' genesis in 2014.
"We wanted to be unthreatening so it would encourage like-minded people who may be a bit frightened of activism to get involved. And there’s nothing more unthreatening than a grandma."
It's a clever reclamation of a tired stereotype, and one that makes sense given their ages (the oldest Nana is in their eighties, and many of them do actually have grandchildren). But it's also a secret weapon in their activism: "Generally, grandmas don't care if you take their passport, they don’t tend to have a mortgage to worry about and they don't give a damn about a criminal record," Rothery says. "They’re angry as fuck, otherwise they wouldn’t be protesting. It takes a lot to get a grandma off her seat."
Besides, she adds, "If you're a nana with a bad hip, that makes you one of our best fighters: shove you in front of a truck and you’re going to be damn slow, and no cops are going to want to touch you."
The Nanas attracted national attention in August of 2014 when they peacefully occupied the Preston New Road site, back when Cuadrilla was eyeing the field for potential gas exploration. After creeping through the hedges and climbing over the shale company's gates at 4AM, the group asserted squatters rights under Section Six of the UK Criminal Law Act 1977. Much to Cuadrilla’s frustration, they stood their ground for three weeks.
"We got our tents up, put the kettle on, and as soon as the sun came up we were sat there sipping tea and eating cake," Mosher remembers. "It really did help. It drew focus to the site, and a lot of the community were coming along to bring water and food and find out how they could get involved."
From that point on, the Nanas became figureheads for the UK anti-fracking movement. They began popping up at protests around the country, often armed with an array of cakes, tea and what they claim are heavily fact-checked printouts revealing the true risks of fracking. In 2015, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood enlisted the group to help her drive a tank to former Prime Minister David Cameron’s house in Oxfordshire, where they staged a fake "chemical attack".
The women are present on site and at protests even when faced with ill health. Mosher, who is currently finishing treatment for cancer, would attend marches after leaving her chemotherapy appointments. "That is how important it is," she says. "Cancer, chemo, rain, shine, it doesn’t matter. There are people there in wheelchairs who can barely breathe and barely walk, and they’re there day-in and day-out. This isn’t because they have nothing to do – a lot of them don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning, but they do."
Lesley Beaumont, 59, is another one of the original Nanas. She is currently recovering from pneumonia, but is still doing whatever she can to support the cause. "It’s because of the damage fracking can do," she says. "I've got grandchildren, and it’s the thought of what is going to happen to water and to air and to everything. I think that’s why you’re getting so many older people, especially women, involved: it’s that nurturing part of us, I think, that drags us in."
Rothery agrees that the Nana movement has been "amazing" for raising awareness in the local community, and has also helped the Nanas feel more empowered on a personal level: "There are so many pluses," she says, with a dry laugh. "Apart from the fact that the world is dying, which is a bit of a fucking drawback."
For the time being, the Nanas are still focused on stopping Cuadrilla's fracking plans and closing down the Preston New Road site. They note that there have been small victories so far: much of the equipment has been removed from the area, and the shale company's plans to open a second site nearby, at Roseacre, were officially refused earlier this month. While this doesn't mean the fight is over, Julie Daniels, 58 (Tina's sister), says the Nanas are "cautiously optimistic".
"Over the years, there have been times where we've danced around the kitchen table, convinced that we’d stopped Cuadrilla in its tracks – so we're a little jaded," she says. "But we're as confident as we've ever been that we're at the end of it this year."
And in addition to their goal of ending fracking, there are other social issues the Nanas want to tackle head-on. After all, the war to save their grandchildren – which is what led them down the anti-fracking path in the first place – is nowhere near won.
"I think a lot of people are still walking around just blindly consuming and not paying attention," says Julie. "The whole point of the Nanas is that we're doing it for the kids. This is for our grandchildren. We want to teach women that they don’t have to sit down, shut up and start knitting: that is not your only option. There’s so much you can do, and we want to show them that."