Until the last oak falls
Extraordinary unseen photographs from the British direct action environmental movement 1995-1999
Newbury Bypass 1996 – An activist prusiks into a tree. Using a climbing technique known as prusiking allowed protestors to climb single ropes up into the trees pulling up the rope behind them much like a drawbridge
The fight, in 1995 in Newbury, to prevent the felling of 350 acres of pristine ancient woodland to make a motorway bypass is one of the most iconic, and largest, battlegrounds in the British environmental movement’s living memory. That Autumn, fresh from documenting a similar campaign at the Stanworth Valley on the M65 motorway, I set up home in the tree canopy. On and off for six months of that freezing winter lived side-by-side with the protestors. My treehouse was 50-foot up, in an old oak, reached by a single rope.
I chronicled every element of the protestors’ daily lives; from the everyday such as making tea and food-runs; to frightening aerial confrontations with the police; to exquisitely beautiful moments of tenderness, fear, camaraderie and celebration. These were exceptional people: to see, live with, and photograph them as they put their lives and liberty on the line to defend those 10,000 ash, beech and oak trees, to act as human shields for nature. It was indescribably exhilarating to witness the aerial battles between protestor and state and incomparably moving to see the lengths individuals would go to in order to save these ancient trees.
M11 road protest. Leytonstone 1995
26 years ago, the choice to the protestors was already clear: either cut down trees to pave the way for more roads and carbon-emitting cars; or, maintain a planet that could sustain life. As shocking as it is unbelievable, half of all CO2 emissions released since the dawn of time have been emitted since these courageous individuals made their stand at Newbury—leaving the future of all species on this irreplaceable planet hanging so precariously in the balance. If only we’d listened then.
While the battle for Newbury and it’s trees was lost, the cost of policing the site prompted ministers to reverse plans to build 77 other bypasses in the UK, so with their dedication the protesters altered the course of history. And while the experience of being there transformed every one of us, the protests captured the imaginations and changed the lives of many, many more. Newbury’s legacy ripples down the decades. There’s time to listen yet. Newbury happened at the peak of a highly-charged, and hugely important social moment in British history, in which the counterculture grew massively in numbers, bravado, visibility, illegality and fun.
Stanworth Valley M65 Road protest 1995 – A protestor crosses the rope walkway to another treehouse
Environmental protests and illegal raves were probably the two greatest expressions of this era: and there was a dynamic interplay between the two. It was at raves that many were for the first time exposed to, and open enough to receive, environmental or activist ideas. The Criminal Justice Bill of 1994, which outlawed free parties politicised many who had previously only wanted to dance their socks off. With that Bill the Conservative Government of the day had unintentionally created a hybrid opposition: huge environmental protests totally turbocharged with the energy, soundtrack and spirit of the free party circuit.
In the mid to late 90's the two movements that best embodied this hutzpah were Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass. Each regularly shut down British city streets, with massive dance parties and cycle-protests respectively, to protest pollution, globalisation and to fly the flag for environmentalism. Reclaim the Streets was particularly unforgettable: the first movement in history to actually close a motorway, blocking roads with sound- systems and literally thousands erupting in a sudden carnival of bacchanalian revelry, and shutting down Trafalgar Square and Liverpool Street Stations with their muscular celebrations of mayhem.
These hugely celebratory, deeply political happenings proved pivotal in many people’s lives. Their heady, joyful mix of politics, environment, fellowship and music are etched forever in the memories of any of us there, and it was a movement that sent shockwaves reverberating through Middle England.
Newbury Bypass 1996 - Much like an army, a line of police and security walk with the diggers in order to ensure activists do not stop them. The overall police and security cost for the entire campaign was £30 million
The photographs I made during these four years can be seen in my book ‘Until the last Oak falls’ which will be funded by a kickstarter campaign launching this Tuesday 5th Oct. This large 160 page book with over 200 photographs celebrates and sheds light on the important early years of the direct action environmental movement. IT is a timely response and important reminder that we must do all we can to draw attention to the climate crisis through direct action activism and witnessing the photographs from this informative period of eco activism helps us connect to this powerful activist legacy. In turn it helps those who fight for the planet now by strengthening their position by informing them that they do so on the shoulders of those who came before them following a rich history of environmental activism.
Matt Mellen, the editor of Ecohustler was one of the first a couple of years ago to point out just how important it was to get this work out there helping to inspire the idea of this book. This is not a done deal. In order to make this book happen everyone who is inspired by it needs to shout far and wide and get as many people to pledge as possible in order to fund the kickstarter. Then we all can celebrate the publication of ‘Until the last Oak falls’.
Additional words @anniedare
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Stanworth Valley M65 Road protest 1995 – A break before the next wave of evictions come in