As part of Nicola Chester’s series on The Clearing she asked the writer and photographer Vron Ware to explore the themes of Place, Protest and Belonging.
It is a huge pleasure and honour to be invited to contribute to this series of essays in The Clearing. Although I have not met Nicola in real life, I can’t help but feel kinship with her because I know exactly where she is writing from. Inkpen, Combe, Shalborne, Ham, the gibbet, these are all words I learned in childhood, having grown up ten miles due south of there. I can visualise the landscapes she describes not just through her luminous writing but also because I have stood in some of those places myself, marvelling at the views while buffeted by the wind. But it is not merely my primal connection to the region that drew me to her work.
What I appreciate about On Gallows Down is the way Nicola describes her rootedness as a deliberate and creative process. Her sense of belonging to this small place is driven by loyalty to (as well as curiosity about) the many other life forms that make the place habitable. It’s an active ecological connection, made from living on and learning from the land. There are layers of difficult history to unearth as well as discovering trails that point to possible futures. And the protests that she describes, from Greenham Common to the Newbury Bypass, these were generation-shaping events that continue to reverberate beyond the chalk downland of rural Berkshire. In the end it was here that our eyes met, so to speak: in the shared commitment to hold our ground, wherever we call home.
A fox barks in the London night and the curtains stir. A draught of cold air sneaks through the barely open window. There’s a full moon tonight and a prolonged spell of high pressure means that the temperature has dropped and the sky is clear. We strain our ears for the sound of owls, but instead we hear the fox bark again, this time much closer.
An interminably long goods train rumbles along the deep cutting on the other side of the house, its creaking joints betraying its heavy load. When we first moved here in the early ‘90s we were told that this line was used to transport nuclear waste across the city. The whole house would tremble every time it went past, mostly late at night. Since the entire network has been electrified the trains are much quieter but who knows what they carry now. At least they keep freight off the roads.
Just yesterday we were warned not to take strenuous exercise outside because the air pollution in London was likely to hit Band 10, the highest recorded level since the last peak in March 2018. It seemed incongruous as there was brilliant sunshine all day but you could see from the photos that there was a thick brown cloud smothering the city first thing.
The fox barks again, a hoarse, unearthly croak. Now it’s right outside and for a moment I worry that it’s rummaging through our compost. I suspect it’s got other things on its mind though: January is peak mating season for foxes. I wonder how their lungs are coping.
On the other side of our borough they are about to start work on a new incinerator. There’s a campaign to try to block it but it looks as though it’s going to happen. Just thinking about it, I start to feel tired and then the adrenaline begins to rise. I may not get much sleep tonight.
It’s not just about the predicted effect on air quality – the 700,000 tonnes of CO2 to be released every year. Or that the incinerator is being built in one of the most deprived areas of the capital where pollution levels are already dangerously high.
Traffic is a huge problem but plastic is the killer. If it’s not recycled efficiently, it’s either burned or buried. Either way, it’s not going to disappear. It’s in our guts, our breath, our mothers’ milk. Everywhere. Deep in the polar ice-caps.
Campaigners are arguing that the money needs to be spent on recycling education as well as improving the facilities to process plastic. Recycling levels in this part of London are hovering at 30 per cent and fell even lower during the pandemic.
A new incinerator with state-of-the-art technology to burn rubbish ‘incentivises the production of waste’, says Carina Millstone, founder of the Stop the Edmonton Incinerator campaign. ‘We know we need to decarbonise the energy grid, but we will keep on having to feed the beast and be producing more polluting energy.’
A few days ago I unearthed an old folder containing material from the road protest movements of the early-mid 1990s. In 1989 Margaret Thatcher promised that her government’s road-building programme (Roads to Prosperity) would be the biggest since the Romans. Funny how our leaders think it’s smart to use the ancient world as a benchmark for something new.
Although it was a surprise to find all this again, I had not forgotten what happened. How most of the new link roads, bypasses and motorway extensions built during that decade were stalled by huge waves of protest that disrupted work, caused delays and added enormously to the cost. Some of the most contentious sites were places I knew: Wanstonia: a huge swathe of NE London, the Newbury Bypass and Twyford Down in Hampshire.
The leaflets and newsletters look like relics from a different time, not just because they are so evidently pre-digital. There’s so much wit and wordplay, evidence of seasoned organising and careful planning. Their arguments against the destruction of natural habitats and historic rural landscapes were linked to campaigns in city streets as well. In both, many were prepared to risk their lives to save human communities as well as wild spaces.
There’s even a copy of Dear Tree, the book of letters to the 250-year-old sweet chestnut destined to be felled on George Green in Wanstead. Registering the tree as a legitimate address for the people living in its branches delayed the clearance for several weeks. The inevitable eviction is described in minute and painful detail.
At certain times of year we get used to hearing tawny owls at night. Usually it’s the female, with her piercing tu-whit. Occasionally she’ll get the answer she requires. Not tonight though. I try to visualise a sleeping owl, hoping that it will calm my hyperactive brain.
The campaigners insisted that new roads just encourage more traffic. As the decade wore on, this became an accepted fact and after the protracted Battle of Newbury, most of the £23bn programme was scrapped. But it wasn’t just about roads either.
The Tories had inserted a whole raft of measures into the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 in order to increase police powers to evict, arrest and detain. A whole section was aimed at preventing festivals, unlicensed raves and free parties, making squatting illegal and further limiting the rights of travellers to move around the country. There was no denying it was aimed at young people.
The front cover of The Roadbreaker (No M11 link road campaign newsletter) from July 1994 has the headline ‘Silencing of the Lambs’. Inside there’s a double page spread with details of all the relevant clauses. ‘The bill would effectively silence any protest,’ they wrote. It would ‘be a gag over our mouths and an end to any gathering of people to protest against injustice.’ Like the Police Bill going through at the moment, it showed that the government was scared.
Some of the letters in Dear Tree were short and sweet: ‘You’re doing a grand job!’ The longest covered two pages. Some addressed the tree directly, others praised the activists in its branches. Not all were from London, or even from the UK. One cited Chico Mendes: this was a fight for humanity.
The fox barks, the curtains stir and my heart is racing. In the far distance I hear an ambulance. These are sleepless times.
Vron Ware is a writer and photographer, based mainly in London but with roots and branches elsewhere. Her most recent book – Return of a Native: Learning from the Land, published by Repeater Books (2022) – demolishes the fantasy that the English countryside exists as an escape from modern life. Writing about rural protest, land ownership, food production, war, colonial history and everyday life, she reveals why it is so important to understand how even the smallest place both contributes to and is the product of world historical forces. Return of a Native is also available from Little Toller’s bookshop.
Read more about Vron and her work on her website.
Photographs by Vron Ware.