There is landscape art at the Vale of the White Horse, at the white man at Cerne Abbas – here at Twyford Down in the last decade of the millennium there was the white wound.
George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty
They hacked down, like boars, whatever lay before them, unlike a stag, tracing some delicate path. They dared lift axes against the Watchers.
Peter Vansittartt, The Death of Robin Hood
The most effective direct action you can do is pull yourself out of being a part of that problem, as much as you possibly can.
Steff of the Dongas Tribe
Our life is the dragon, a being immortal, invincible, infinite rebirth.
Inner Terrestrials, Enter the Dragon
The flags are flying again. Green, red and black.
“We’re human in scale. We oppose the tyranny of the motorcar,” pronounces the speaker. He’s clearly rehearsed, slightly shaky of voice, a hint of RP. Someone asks about the name.
“The name is…thanks for asking by the way…the name is, um, actually a Matabele term coined by Professors at the Winchester College, to help describe the medieval track ways that criss-cross all over the Downs.”
Greasy haired, he’s wearing a faded black T-shirt bearing an image of the Uffington Horse.
“The Tories are talking of the biggest road-building project since Roman times. The Romans, well, they were invaders, conquerors by might, too.”
I nod over-enthusiastically in agreement before I fully digest what he’s just said. I’m wary of this talk of invaders and natives. The Dongas describe themselves as British indigenes. It seems a useful fiction. I’m not sure the dividing line can be drawn so easily. I’ve been here a day. We’re up on St. Catherine’s Hill, at a sort of informal induction day – how I imagine the first session of a creative writing workshop or an AA meeting to be. Say your name, introduce yourself with flushed cheeks, make fleeting eye contact with the others before looking at your shoes, check out who the hot lads are. I oppose the motorway, yes, but I’m also here to do something different. Expand my horizons. Find myself. Do something.
The arguments I’ve seen playing out on the five o’ clock news, on ITN, Channel 4, the Beeb, the ones that led to me coming out here, they say the bypass is the last missing link in the M3 between Southampton and London. Evolution. We need it. I never understand where all the traffic is going. Mum didn’t even have a car until I was ten years old. I myself can drive, largely taught by dad, but I do not own a car.
Sofia grins shiftily at me as a prelude to her introduction. We’ve known each other since we were toddlers, both our single mums close friends, nattering as we played on our small patch of grass in Kent, yelling our lungs out, making daisy chins, falling over. Dad would visit every weekend, more or less.
Everyone is here for the same reason.
The A33 Winchester Bypass.
“Er, hi everyone, my name is Sofia. I’ve come up from Canterbury, in Kent, with my friend over there.” She gestures at me. I blush, look at my shoes. A bit muddy already, I notice. I spot a few nods in the crowd, recognition signals to our hometown. It does attract its fair share of hippies, alternative types. Especially in summer. I wonder what my mother is doing.
“I hope I can help with what the Dongas are doing.”
The introductions continue. Earnest young men, some dreadlocked, unshaven, with a dangerous look of belief in their eyes. One guy looks as if he’s half-cut already, though it’s only midday. Another, a lad of about twenty-two, a mess of light brown hair on his head, scraggly beard, pendant with an inscription that I recognise as Ogham and a faded t-shirt that says:
THERE’S NO THEM AND US / THERE’S ONLY YOU AND ME.
He introduces himself as Thomas. He is oddly attractive. He even looks like he may have a sense of humour, the way his mouth crinkles into a sideways grin as he talks about himself. He’s from Bristol, but mercifully lacking that West Country burr that I can’t stand. Dad took me to Bath once to see family when I was about seven. I remember giggling at the shopkeeper as he handed me my sweets. I was told off for that.
Later that day, the greasy haired man takes a group of us to show us how to make a bender. The technique originated with the gypsies, he says. I take his word on it. His name is Jerad, and his voice betrays a touch of public school education that I do my best to ignore. I don’t want to judge. Everyone is here for the same reason. The A33 Winchester Bypass. I suppress a snigger when he uses the word “bender’ and Sofia shoots me a look, though she’s smiling as she does it.
Using a pile of pre-cut willow he pushes the branches into the ground, bending them until they form a rudimentary dome shape. A bender. I get it now. Tarp is chucked over the top of it, weighted down firmly, and, bingo, a tent – something to actually live in. Thomas gives it a go, and proves to be pretty good at it. It makes him even more likeable. I wonder if it can keep the rain out.
A lot of the people here are young – early twenties like myself. There’s a good portion of older protest types though: ex-travellers who were at the Beanfield, older hippies who’d been at Winchester Free, Tipi Valley, the old Stonehenge festivals before the law fenced it all off. Avebury is bigger, more evocative anyway, and remains free to all, for now.
How can they say we are wrong
for wanting to defend places like this?
My mum would roll her eyes at the state of some of the folk I’m camping with. I reassure myself by saying I’m fighting for her as well, for everyone. If I ever have children, I want to be able to take them to places like this, without a tarmac wound festering in the landscape. Dad, bless him, would always take me and my brother out into the countryside. Point out the local wildlife. Trips to Stodmarsh to see the wheeling, endangered marsh harriers. Listening for the booming bitterns. Once we made bows and arrows in Blean Woods using willow for the bow, and sharpened garden poles from the local B&Q for the arrows. I hope he’d be proud of me now. Toward the end, in spite of the chemo, he’d visited me up in London. It was a nice day. We’d walked through Hackney Marshes, and I kept my sleeves down covering my new tattoo. It was too late in the game to piss him off. He said my hair was nice, laughed as he called me a bloody hippy, asked if I remembered those trips out into the countryside. Of course I did.
Sofia and I had made our way to Winchester by train. Drank a few cans of strong cider on the way. Trying to stick to the spirit of things, we made our way out to Twyford Down by foot. The countryside was beautiful in the spring sunshine, giving me the courage of my convictions. How can they say we are wrong for wanting to defend places like this?
When the Beanfield happened, I was just a teenager. Watched the footage of the police bashing in people’s windows, blood streaming down men’s and women’s faces. I didn’t fully understand. I watched a man in need of a dentist imploring the ITN viewers for help. “We’re people, help us!” It didn’t do any good, and progress rolled ever forward. It’s all in the name of progress, and we are the conservatives, the ones looking backward – atavists, out of touch with modern life. So they say.
Whitstable, where I grew up, has its fair share of hippies and counter-cultural weirdoes. It always made me love the place, though eventually I had to get away and head to London, just like my parents had done before me. Like everyone does. That’s where I met Sofia, in ’89, at some filthy squat party in Hackney. Culture Shock, Head Mix Collective and Radical Dance Faction. The second time I’d ever taken ecstasy. Fluid days, unburdened by anxiety. Good times.
I’m warmed, as always, by the fact that people write, create, publish. We all need a purpose.
Sofia and I have a go at a bender. We do it, and we do it well. I hope Thomas was watching. Jerad commends us on our efforts. I let my guard down a little. The afternoon is melting into evening, and people are starting to wind down for the day. I pluck up a little bit of courage, buoyed by cider, and go over to help Thomas who is building a campfire. He smiles and hands me a lukewarm can of lager, that I crack open, the beer spray hitting me in the face. We both laugh. Now, the ice-breaker:
“Your necklace, that’s Ogham, right? What does it mean?”
Thomas shyly fingers his pendant.
“Oh this…it was a present actually. It means ’February’. Month I was born in.”
“Oh, cool”. It’s not cool, but it does look nice. I wonder who it was a present from.
Slowly people, having erected their benders, begin to settle down, more campfires igniting, the crack and sputter of burning wood, orange sparks flecking the night. A chill sets in. I’m glad I’ve bought a decent supply of clothes. Sofia has chucked all the stuff we brought with us in our bender. I fetch a misshapen woolly jumper, a ridiculous rainbow coloured thing, but I like it and it’s warm. I rejoin Thomas, Sofia and a few others at the fire. Gulp down half of my lukewarm can, brush away a rogue cinder that’s landed on my jumper. Somewhere out there in the flame-speckled darkness, someone’s performing a bad acoustic rendition of Bob Marley’s ’Redemption Song’.
“What a fucking cliché!” I exclaim, laughing.
“I know. Doesn’t help the way we look to the outside, does it?” grimaces Thomas.
Neither does your bloody Ogham pendant or my rainbow jumper, I think, but keep it to myself. Nor Sofia’s dreads and my dyed pink hair, for that matter. But we don’t want to look like them. Whoever they are. I don’t really think of myself as being an individual, because I want to be a part of something bigger than myself. These are my people, for better or for worse.
Sofia builds a large spliff and we relax, unwind as the fire crackles, talk of our lives, our pasts, what we hope our futures will be. Thomas talks about Bristol, a band he likes called Antisect, what he thinks of Earth First!, why he got involved with the Dongas. We talk about Whitstable, Kent, our mums. I try not to talk about my dad. I drag deep on the spliff, the drug invading my synapses, a fuzziness creeping over me. I figure I can allow myself some contentment tonight. I know difficult times are coming. I flick through the copy of Do or Die that Thomas has handed me, the Earth First! magazine, and I’m warmed, as always, by the fact that people write, create, publish. Not for profit, or even recognition, but because they actually believe in something. We all need a purpose.
I snuggle up to Thomas. Sofia is busy in conversation with a couple in their thirties, the man wearing a tie-dyed Levellers T-shirt, the woman looking much like how I imagine myself ten years in the future. An anti-Tory diatribe segueing into reflections on whether it was the Poll Tax riots of two years ago that had galvanised people so much in this final decade of the twentieth century. Sofia and I were there, at Trafalgar Square, I tell Thomas. Fucking madness, blood and fear, a civil war.
Wordlessly, Thomas puts his arm round my shoulder. He takes the spliff from my hands, takes a deep drag, exhales, staring into the fire. I finger his cheap pendant, wondering what the hell Ogham really was.
Today some folk from the Twyford Down Association have come up to the camp to talk to us. A middle-aged woman introduces herself as Marjorie. She has a cut glass accent, thick black rubber wellies, and a military green Barbour that makes her look as if she should be out shooting rabbits. She probably owns jodhpurs. I think of rodents and Watership Down. What was that line? “All the world will be your enemy / prince with a thousand enemies.” Well I can’t be a prince, obviously, but the whole country feels like it’s out to get us, and we’ve set up camp and dug holes in a Down, trying to find another way of doing things.
I’m confusing myself.
I go out and shake Marjorie’s hand, introduce myself.
“Just Marge, please,” she says, and laughs like a dotty aunt at a wedding. Against first instinct, it makes her rather likeable.
“Oh. Cool.” I say with what I hope is a warm smile. I’m strangely conscious of my pink hair in front of her. Marge looks at me with polite bemusement.
I’ve heard about this lot from the others: Tories a lot of them but paradoxically, they, like us, are in complete opposition to the road. I wonder if Marge drives a Range Rover. The Twyford Down Association was set up in Winchester back in the eighties, by some Tory councillor, before I’d moved to London, when my Dad was still with us. Jerad has even been to her house, and by all accounts this woman, Barbara Bryant, is a nice woman who makes a decent cuppa. True English, in a way. I fucking hate the Conservatives, yet here I am talking to Marjorie – sorry, Marge – and we’re agreeing.
Life surprises me.
We’ve been criticised for what they perceive as our naiveté, youthful excess, our complete lack of interest in going through the official channels. They can’t see. Those channels don’t work. Maybe they once did, but not in my lifetime. They are blocked and stagnant.
“Would you like a cuppa?” I ask her, gesturing to the kettle reaching boiling point on the camping stove. Morning dew stills clings to the grass. Marge agrees, her lips locked in a slight smile, and we stand there, shivering a little in the morning chill, hands clasped round our cracked mugs, sipping the hot liquid. Exchange a few pleasantries, swap information as to what’s happening regarding their campaign. A slight strained awkwardness as I avoid telling her anything explicit about our plans.
In moments of idealism, I think we are overtaking language, waiting for it to catch up.
In the end, Marjorie and her friends will lose and it will be all the worse for them for having believed that they could change things from within. I feel a jab of sympathy. For us, lack of belief in the current ways makes us free. We may lose, but we will lose on our own terms. There is a dignity in that.
My dad had ideas pretty close to this, though he’d never have called himself an anarchist. He never liked my punk records; much preferred listening to his Bert Jansch LPs about trees and avocets, the daft hippy. But I like to think he would agree with my stance on this. I’m willing to work with these people, with these Conservatives, because for whatever reason our interests have dovetailed. If we can work with them, treat each other as human beings, maybe we can prove that there is another way.
These thoughts preoccupy as I wash the cooking pots, take walks on the Down, help newcomers erect their benders, and I don’t yet have a coherent answer. It feels new, though, what’s happening and right now that’s enough. I don’t have the right words to describe it. In moments of idealism, I think we are overtaking language, waiting for it to catch up.
Today we dug a camp defence, a big ditch in the shape of a dragon. We gave it crystals for eyes, stuck fire torches in its nose. It looks amazing. It’s the natural world, ready to fight.
Once, in younger days, my dad took my brother and me up to Snowdonia, and we’d wandered through the mountains, marvelled at Cadair Idris, and Mynydd Mawr, mountains of the mind. A nice local legend said that the fragments of white quartz that littered the mountainsides were the remains of the white dragon, split asunder after a titanic battle with his red nemesis, that earned its place on the Welsh flag through violence and brute strength. A good story. That week we had camped, chomped down sickly Kendal Mint Cake, cooked on a portable gas stove. There are photos of the trip, buried somewhere in one of my mother’s brimming drawers.
I go for a walk through the grasslands that cover the Down in a lush green swathe. Thomas is with me. He’s surprised at how much of the wildlife I can name. We see a meadow pipit, an exaltation of skylarks, the naming of flora and fauna like the incantations of charms or wards. Know something’s name makes it harder to destroy.
We’ve been having some heavy discussions about the role of the road, as an idea, itself. A number of people here are Travellers, of one sort or the other, refugees from the Peace Convoy, survivors of the Beanfield, Levellers fans, VW enthusiasts. Yet here they are, protesting a road about to cut its way through Twyford Down. How do they reconcile their view of the road as a symbol of freedom, yet protest it?
They advance, Group 4, shimmering iridescent, canary bright.
It makes my head hurt. I wish I could talk to my dad about this. He was always good at rationalising, making sense. I miss him. The weather is getting warmer, but I’m dirty, I’m cold and pissed off today. It’s muddy. I think I’m getting ill.
Thomas took a beating from a security guard yesterday morning. He’s got a big purple swollen eye that he can barely see through. I wanted to cry when I saw him. It’s not as bad today. He’s sleeping it off in the bender.
Like I said, I’m pissed off.
I try and dampen down these emotions, focus on some positives. I’ve changed these last few months, changed for the better. I feel scared and I feel honest. Think of it as political paganism, I don’t want to go down the route of so many hippy cretins that I’ve met over the years, weed smoking bullshitters from the Home Counties, spouting crap about crystals and Atlantis.
But I am here, and I do feel something. I think I always did.
I check on Thomas, he’s still sleeping, his face mauve and navy, so I decide to go for a walk, or go see if there’s something I go help with. I walk past the benders, most of them empty, everyone’s out manning the barricades, in meetings, getting ready for what we know is coming.
He’s locked himself to the JCB. A fucking D-Lock round his neck, strapped to the axle of a towering crane. The press are here, the filth too, bemused looking construction workers, all of us. Thomas, you idiot. I wonder where he’s put the key, as I stand there helplessly looking on with Jerad and Sofia. I wonder what Marge would think.
ITN are here. Absurdly, he speaks to camera with the lock still wound round his neck.
“It’s a shame it has come to this kind of extreme direct action to make our point,” he says, surprisingly calm considering the circumstances. It almost makes me laugh.
A yellow haze. The Romans are coming to clear out the savages. England is coming to destroy Albion. Trojans rooting out vestigial giants.
They advance, Group 4, shimmering iridescent, canary bright, protecting the advancing machines. I briefly consider the employment opportunities all this has created. People need the work, I suppose.
It escalates in the shape of a freeform nightmare, murky on the details. Groggy with sleep, we try and spring into action as best we can, desperately trying to halt the march of progress, the glory seeking boys coming in useful as they clamber up onto the JCBs before being dragged down bodily, beaten, pulled along rough earth by their hair. Clothing is torn and skin is ripped. Aggression and fear stinking the air. There’s shouting and screaming. Somebody thinks, in the tumult, to contact the press.
An ugly bull-necked man in yellow. A raised fist, a sort of joy in his face.
I feel blood trickling into my left eye, my head swimming from the blow, crimson vision, a redwash. I’m the red dragon. What the fuck is happening? I feel sick, get your fucking hands off me! I can feel his hands over me, Grope 4, as they pull me away from the digger by my hair, pressure on my chest and groin, get off me GET OFF ME, I hook my right fist into the fat fucker’s face, watch his nose crumple through dragon eyes, somewhere else far away in the distance I can hear Sofia screaming, Thomas is yelling, bellowing bull-like, GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF HER, Jerad has gone down, he’s bleeding, is he moving? We’re good people, help us, why does this have to happen, I want green spaces for my children, for my mum, for my fucking dad, for everyone. Searing pain rips up my right arm, I’m cut, flesh scraped along flint and through hawthorn, my blood mingling with the soil, the skin parting to reveal the chalk beneath. My dragged body scraping a muddy rut into the damp earth. I taste soil, coppery blood, dying grass, dew.
My vision’s gone fuzzy, but the dragon is a being that needs no eyes for seeing. It lives on, in spite of the things we have done.
The lights in its eyes go out.
She’s in The Independent today, that Bryant woman, talking of how she tried to stop a motorway. I met her once, had tea with her and Marge. She was old school, but nice, in her way. We both loved animals, plants, the Down.
Today’s the first time I’ve been back since ’93, the mass protest that landed me in prison for a month. For banging a drum and standing in the white wound. I stand looking out at the six lanes, the streaming traffic, the constant thundering rumble. I never know where they’re all going.
I hadn’t seen Sofia in a year before this minor pilgrimage; she’d left London after I’d got serious with Thomas. Met a feller herself, moved out to Bristol, settled in Stokes Croft. We’d met up in Winchester, grabbed lunch in a small café, chatted, sipped coffee. It was good to see her.
Sofia lights a cigarette as we look out over the traffic. One lonely lorry driver, I think, notices the two of us looking down on the black tar river, his neck craned to see what kind of person would be walking on the Down. There’s no one else around.
It’s the height of summer. A few bees flit around us, and I hear a solitary skylark off in the distance. A Red Admiral butterfly lands briefly on my shoulder, and is off again.
I finger the scar on my right arm, a legacy of flint and hawthorn. My white wound.
The traffic continues, forever.
Gary Budden is a writer and editor based in London. He is Editorial Assistant at Ambit Magazine and Editor and Co-Founder of Influx Press, an independent publishing company focusing on site-specific literature.