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Pic: Gideon Mendel

Claremont Road - At This Juncture

Memories Of The No-M11 Link Rd protest

While we're at it... Not quite having its 10th anniversary, but well worth recalling. This is one person's account of the famous protest...

My own involvement in road protest goes back to 1992, when I was living near Oxleas Wood, an 8000 year old ancient woodland in south-east London. Oxleas was then threatened by a vast road scheme called the East London River Crossing (ELRC) and, as a local cycle campaigner, it was clear that this lunacy had to be opposed somehow - but how? Local campaigners at Oxleas had given years of their lives to public inquiries, mortgaged their houses to mount legal challenges, organised rallies and festivals - so far to no avail. Some of them were now formulating plans for a direct action campaign to defend the trees. This was late '92, and the forces of Tarmac were already gathering around the Twyford Down defenders' campsite. So I went there initially to get my head around this direct action stuff, knowing that it might soon be the only option left for Oxleas Wood. Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded, thanks to the phenomenal impact of the Twyford campaign, whose reverberations shook the Department of Transport to its core. The crunch point came in July '93, when several campaigners defied the threat of imprisonment by continuing to protest at Twyford in breach of injunctions taken out against them. It took the government just two more days to announce that they were backing down on Oxleas Wood.

For me, the lesson was clear: direct action was inspiring, exhilarating, and - despite the fact that we hadn't stopped the Twyford motorway - it was incredibly effective. We also knew that the Oxleas decision was merely a tactical retreat; far more of the Government's roads programme had to be defeated before we could claim a genuine, lasting victory. Our problem was that the next big road-scheme on the list, the M11 Link Road, was a very unpromising venue for a rematch! Unlike Twyford or Oxleas, there were no Sites of Special Scientific Interest, no 8000-year-old woodland, no obvious appeal for the green-minded radicals who had been central to the Twyford campaign. Most of the route ran through a run-down area of housing that had been neglected ever since the road's "imminent" construction had first been announced 30 years previously.

From this apparently hopeless starting point, I still marvel at the way this campaign - the Cinderella of the three nationally known road schemes at that time - came to be the longest-lasting environmental direct action campaign of the '90s. At the outset, I'm pretty sure that none of us thought this campaign had any hope of taking off. Still, we pitched ourselves headlong into it, despite the odds.

We had some good fortune: the local myth that George Green - the first stage of construction - would remain unscathed (because there would be a tunnel section under it) was exposed at just the right moment. There was a 250 year old sweet chestnut tree in the middle of the green. When it became clear that the destruction of it was imminent, someone started building a tree-house. Then the contractors started putting up wooden fencing around the tree. The local children started bunking off school to obstruct them, and carried on doing so throughout the week. That Saturday, a few local residents planned a "tree-dressing" ceremony for the children but at the last moment, the security guards broke their earlier promise to allow the event to go ahead. Prevented from reaching their tree, people started tearing down the fences. The children joined in, followed by their lollypop lady, and then their parents. An entirely spontaneous action to reclaim their commons had brought radicalism to Wanstead.

Then when someone wrote a letter addressed to "The Tree-house, George Green, Wanstead E11", and the postman delivered it, one of the campaign's friendly solicitors latched onto another opportunity: He took the letter to court, claiming it as proof that the tree-house was a dwelling, which meant that the Department of Transport spent a month sorting out the legalities of a proper eviction. Next thing we knew the tree's new mailbox was flooded with mail from people who wanted to be phoned up when the tree was next under threat. There were four hundred people huddled round the tree in a raging storm at 5.30AM on the December morning, when the massed army of police, security and bailiffs arrived for the sweet chestnut's final execution. Thanks to a combination of popular resistance and thick mud, it took them another 10 hours to cut down that tree. All these years later, it still brings tears to my eyes to write about the sadness and the joy of that day.

The campaign had now fully taken off, and would now last for another whole year as a continuous direct action campaign. Its next major focus was a row of four houses just next to George Green, one of which had been the home of Patsy Braga, probably Wanstead's most ardent anti-road campaigner. Over time, all four houses became squats, indeed Pasty moved back in as a squatter. This was the moment for a Declaration of Independence from the UK, and the foundation of the Independent Free Area of Wanstonia - with our own passports, and a 9-year old as our Minister for Education! Wanstonia also ended in a "tragic-spectacular" eviction in mid February '94.

During "Operation Roadblock", we planned days of action every weekday for a month, with short training sessions at the beginning of each day, to make direct action accessible to as many newcomers as possible. Enormous numbers came, discovering the power they possessed working together to halt the bulldozers. Others - notably Earth First! Groups - would come to stay and were invaluable in maintaining the last remnants of sanity among the now exhausted "old hands" of the campaign!

By mid April our attention turned to defending Claremont Road in Leyton, the last intact street on the route. Gradually the whole street was squatted and, over the course of the summer, an extraordinary scene emerged. The paintings, indoors and outdoors, became crazier and crazier, as did the sculptures in the street. So did the people, the parties and the defences. Bunkers were built beneath the houses and in the roof-spaces. Houses were filled with car-tyres - a barricading technique which was beautifully symbolic - the government would have to dispose of the unsustainable waste product of the car culture it so keenly promoted. Cargo nets were strung up above the street, attached to trees or chimneys; wooden towers started sprouting from the rooftops. One day the bailiffs, police and security guards tried mounting a "guerrilla" eviction of part of the street. The wooden towers worked magnificently - so we started getting really ambitious! Over the next two months, we scavenged enough scaffold poles to create an enormous tower 100 foot high above the Claremont rooftops.

We named the tower after Dolly Watson, a wonderful old lady who had been born at 32 Claremont Road in 1901, and still there almost 93 years later. It was her simple wish that she should be allowed to die there, undisturbed by the road-scheme, but ill health forced her away some months before the bailiffs arrived. She could hardly see or walk, but her handling of the media interest she attracted was truly inspirational. Take for instance her forthright response to one journalist's question about her new neighbours on Claremont Road: "They're not dirty hippy squatters", she retorted, "they're the grandchildren I never had. The eviction itself took four days to complete. At one point, the bailiffs were gobsmacked to discover a tunnel under a garden, linking a Claremont bunker to a house on the adjoining street!

If Twyford was the campaign that launched the 1990s road protest movement, M11 was the one that anchored it, providing a platform for others to take off from, such as the campaigns at Solsbury Hill near Bath, the M65 near Preston, and the Pollok Estate in Glasgow. The next phase of road protests - campaigns such as Newbury and Fairmile - brought awareness of the issues to every tabloid reader in the land.

PS Remember Oxleas Wood and the East London River Crossing? Ken Livingstone is poised to give the go-ahead to the "Thames Gateway Bridge" - it's the same old river crossing with a different name. Ken's scheme stops short of Oxleas Wood of course, but it will cause an absolute traffic nightmare on the surrounding local roads. And any child can work out how they will "solve" THAT problem when it arises.

Roger Geffen

To read more about the amazing and inspiring road protests of the nineties see... George McKay's 'Senseless Acts Of Beauty' and 'DIY Culture' (both Verso). Gathering Force (1997, Big Issue), 'Copse' by Kate Evans also visit Tash's website - http://tash.gn.apc.org