Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Battle for Middle Oak, 1996


In complete contrast, and thirty years after that bright optimism of The Open Road (see previous post), Middle Oak is testament to the deep divisions evident by the 1990s in the now souring relationship between motor vehicle and the countryside. Middle Oak, as it came to be called, stands at an intersection of the Newbury bypass just immediately to the west of the town of Newbury itself.

/>In the early months of 1996, Middle Oak was one of the focal points for protest against the building of the bypass. This nine mile stretch of new dual carriageway required the felling of 10,000 trees and cut through three Sites of Special Scientific Interest, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a nature reserve and a Civil War battlefield. As with other grandiose and controversial road schemes of the time, such as the Twyford Down extension of the M3 in 1994, the Newbury project aroused a storm of direct action environmental protest. From the summer of 1995, impromptu camps sprang up along the proposed route with tents and benders on the ground and makeshift but elaborately connected and protected structures up in the trees themselves. A guerilla war of attrition with the authorities grew in intensity as the winter progressed and pressure mounted to clear the area.


The number of protestors at times ran well into the thousands, but one of the smaller band involved throughout was Jim Hindle. In the later stages, he was particularly associated with the defence of Middle Oak and we have acquired some items of clothing that he wore whilst living up in its branches. There was insufficient headroom in the treehouse for standing, hence the heavy wear at the knees of the trousers.



Jim subsequently went on to write a book about his experiences, Nine Miles. Two winters of anti-road protest (2006), which is a remarkable insight into the extremes of cold, stress, deprivation and danger that these (mostly) young protestors subjected themselves to for the cause, often to the detriment of their own physical and mental health.


Here is Jim Hindle signing a copy of his book for me recently.


In the event, Middle Oak was given a last minute reprieve and the bypass was constructed around it. It was hardly a victory, but a more positive legacy of the protest and the publicity it drew was much greater public awareness and questioning of the lasting damage to the countryside caused by such schemes compared to their perhaps relatively modest transport benefits.

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