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Twyford Down

When the Department of Transport (DoT) announced the scheme to replace the A33 Winchester Bypass with the final section of the M3, there was widespread outrage. The road would destroy two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, two Scheduled Ancient Monuments & an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

This was the most protected landscape in southern England, yet in just 2 years it was to change from a beautiful piece of historic land to a motorway.

The scheme was opposed for decades & became the subject of an official European Community environmental complaint. The European Community were ignored, as usual, by the UK Government, & the complaint was later dropped amidst allegations of back room negotiations. The initial protest was led by the Twyford Down Association, local people who loved the Down, & adopted the conventional campaign tactics of lobbying, rallies, marches & legal appeals. They succeeded in getting the scheme reassessed, & reassessed again, but the Government finally went ahead, despite numerous legal & political challenges. At this stage in the anti-roads drama, there was no national campaign to co-ordinate support, & this was initially a local affair.

National Friends Of the Earth intervened at the start of construction with non-violent direct action, but were forced to back off by the threat of massive legal costs. But while FoE camped on the threatened water meadows, a group of local young people were living on St. Catherines Hill in the 'bender' dwellings which originated with the Gypsies, & which have become standard quarters in every protest site. These were the folk who were to become known as the Donga tribe.

They took their name from the ancient system of track ways that crisscrossed the downs. The Dongas celebrate an ancient way of traveling - Slow, local & human in scale. What they oppose is the invasive, speeding inhuman roads of the car culture. The name was to prove prophetic: Those ancient track ways were formed over thousands of years by traveling people, & the Donga Tribe now walk these lands, & care for them, much as our ancestors did. It was partly the perceived failure of the conventional campaign adopted by FoE & the Twyford Down Association which inspired the Dongas, & it is interesting to see how mainstream environmental organizations have shifted tactically over the last few years. At Twyford there was a degree of antagonism between the Dongas & FoE.

"The Earth was still being fucked about & fucked up & nothing was happening, they weren't doing anything new, they weren't solving the problem, because it's still going on, like, so something had to be done stronger than that."
Laugh of the Dongas.

For FoE, the Earth First! & Donga activists were a rogue element - An unpredictable ally who rejected conventional campaign tactics.

Many EarthFirst! activists "see the use of conventional methods of protest such as legal challenges as not only ineffectual & often expensive, but playing 'their' game by 'their' rules" (Iain Donald, quoted in Senseless Acts of Beauty, McKay).

Simon Fairlie of The Ecologist went even further:

"The Dongas have put the entire spectrum of the British environmental movement to shame; their conviction has exposed the hypocrisy of pragmatism."

Quoted in Senseless Acts of Beauty, McKay.

Friends of the Earth had to withdraw from the Down or face massive legal costs. Retreat was seen by many activists as a failure of their strategy, & FoE was characterized as an ineffectual establishment lackey. Although FoE had little alternative but to leave, their action caused considerable friction, splitting a potentially powerful alliance.

But as the road protest movement matured, these two approaches learned from each other. By the time of the Newbury bypass, FoE & EarthFirst! were in co-operation, not conflict.

When the bulldozers arrived on the Down in February 1992, they met with massive resistance from all sorts of people. Despite their ideological differences, 70-year old life-long Tories stood firm beside the young Earth First! activists who were to become the Dongas Tribe. Soon after the Tribe made camp on the Down, & began their campaign of non-violent disruption. But the State fought back.  

The violent eviction of the Dongas by Group 4 Security on 9 th. December 1992 became known as 'Yellow Wednesday' after the colour of the security guards yellow jackets.This was the first time that a private security company had been used to evict protesters. Such companies give a minimum of training, & will employ almost anyone who will work for the poor pay they offer. It would be another two years before any of them had to wear identification numbers.

Unidentifiable, unaccountable & often undisciplined, many were little more than paid thugs. The violence continued for three days, & many of the security guards were so shocked by the violence of their colleagues that they resigned.

Environmentalist David Bellamy said that he'd never seen anything like it in 22 years of campaigning. Thirty-two security guards quit within the first two days of conflict at Twyford. Although the camp re-formed in February 1993, the Dongas were devastated & shocked by the State's reaction to the protest. But direct action continued throughout Spring & Summer, including 'Operation Greenfly' in May '93, when 200 protesters occupied a temporary bridge on the work site. It took 300 police in riot gear all night to evict them. There were 57 arrests.

The next big challenge to Government power came in July 1993. The High Court granted the DoT an injunction against named protesters entering the site. Two days later over 500 people marched onto the Down, including several named on the injunction. Seven of those named were later sentenced to 28 days prison for breaking the Injunction. It was a classic of Non-Violent Direct Action, reminiscent of Ghandis' refusal to recognize British law in the fight for India's' independence. Mr Justice Alliot, one of the presiding judges, described the protesters as,

"fundamentally decent & motivated by a concern which to them overrides anything else".

Twyford Down invasion. Copyright Adrian Harris
Site Invasion ©

Over the following months actions became less frequent, & the camp dispersed. The main focus now were large demos & actions, like those held on 28/29th November 1993 & 3rd January 1994. On 2 July 1994, 1500 people attended largest-ever Twyford demo, a Mass Trespass against the Criminal Justice Bill (CJB). The wide range of groups at the protest showed how strong the alliance had now become. Friends of the Earth, GreenPeace, EarthFirst!, Liberty, the Green Party & dozens of others were represented. In a move calculated to frighten moderates away from supporting roads protests, the DoT tried to sue 76 named protesters for 1.9 million, sparking an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons. They later offered settlement on payment of 1000, which all the protesters refused to pay.

The charade finally ended on 31 st. July 1995, when the DoT asked the court to drop the case. Meanwhile, Tarmac were suing the DoT for extra costs incurred on the Twyford contract & dozens of activists sued Hampshire police for unlawful arrests during the protests.

The Dongas evolved: some helped organise the direct action network of Road Alert! & Alarm UK, which was so effective over the next few years. Others stayed closer to their earthy roots, & wandered the land with horses, donkeys & handcarts. Wherever they went they inspired, empowered & helped others in the struggle for change.

The University of Winchester is working on an archive of the Twyford Down campaign. If you would like to know more or have any material you would like contribute, please get in touch.

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related links: M11 Link Road, Newbury, Stringers Common, Reclaim the Streets, 100 Days of Protest, A Corporate response
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