Walking the Landscape of HS2 – Jos Smith
In the summer of 2013 Jos Smith set out to walk the length of the first section of the proposed route of HS2 from London to Birmingham. Along the way he visited, interviewed and walked with many of those affected by HS2 or involved with the campaign against it. This essay gives a small glimpse of the landscapes and the lives that have already been put under the heel of what might well be one of the largest and most expensive projects of its kind.
In the early days of the Second World War, a council was formed to commission a new series of artworks of places and buildings that were of characteristic national interest. This was done out of a fear that they might be destroyed by German assault or invasion. The ‘Recording Britain’ project employed 97 well known artists of the day and produced over 1,500 works of art, many collected now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. For those who had read about the project in the newspapers, the sight of an artist looking down on a familiar monument, farm or churchyard must have stirred up deep feelings.
When it first occurred to me to walk the route of HS2 it was, admittedly, with a melodramatic notion of seeing a landscape under a similar threat of destruction. In years to come I wanted to have a frame of reference, a sense for what might be lost to this disturbing new architecture of speed: rails and cables raised over lakes and flood planes on viaducts, deep hill-top cuttings through the middle of ancient woodlands, fenced off ventilation shafts over huge, two-lane tunnels, endless maintenance depots, service roads and towering embankments. Not to mention the distressing new noise of twenty-eight high speed trains tearing back and forth every hour. A frankly dystopian landscape of excessive capital investment offering nothing at all to the people either side of it.
HS2 belongs to what have come to be called ‘megaprojects’, a modern global phenomenon: the Channel tunnel, the Øresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden, various enormous new airports and superhighways, and even a $65 billion tunnel under the Bering Sea linking Russia and the USA. In fact, the cost of HS2 far exceeds even the most ambitious of these. While these projects are often overseen at the national level, the financial interests at stake are always intertwined with more complicated international relations that suggest something very new in the development of our land and infrastructure. As the idea of walking the route grew on me, it seemed to become a way to set that very human measure of travel on foot against the bewildering scale of these megaprojects: two scales, the incompatibility of which is becoming a more and more familiar experience for people around the world.
I am not the first angry rambler to take to the proposed HS2 route. The first was Lizzie Williams, a campaigner who walked from Birmingham to London in 2010 when the plans were released. As she went, she knocked on people’s doors with her books of maps – farmers, businesses, residents – and she pointed out the route in detail to ask them if they knew what was being planned. Lizzie brought with her a simple neighbourly courtesy, but one which stretched the traditional, local sense of ‘neighbourly’ and helped to connect up all the different communities being affected. She helped the campaign to develop a collective identity and is still thought of very fondly by residents across the country today.
It was after one such doorstep conversation with Lizzie that Charlotte Jones initiated the Ruislip Against HS2 campaign on the outskirts of London. Charlotte, or Lottie, as she prefers, had heard of HS2 but assumed that it would just mean more trains than usual travelling on the track at the end of her garden. In fact, she wasn’t really sure what to make of this woman with a backpack telling her that the new railway would mean an expansion well into her and her neighbours’ kitchens. Very unlikely, she thought, someone would have told them. What would any of us think of such a conversation? But a seed had been planted and step by anxious step Lottie confirmed the story.
Petitioning her local councillor for help, the advice Lottie was given was that a local campaign would need someone to commit their time and resources to it. Volunteers. Someone like her and her neighbours, Keri Brennan and Christine Leonard. But they were no campaigners, or at least not back then. Now the three of them, all working mums, lead Ruislip Against HS2. They speak with an expert’s recall for precise figures, technical terminology and legal process and not a day goes by when they aren’t working on or thinking about the campaign.
Few people who are not directly affected by the proposed route have any idea of the impact it has already had on the lives of those fighting it day in, day out. There is a familiar look of resigned exasperation that you recognise all the way up, especially those who are trying to build careers and raise children at the same time. Where the hell do I begin? they are wondering when someone like me turns up to ask questions. Their ordinary, daily routines have become insidiously entwined with a bureaucratic nightmare that, at times, they still find difficult to believe. They are up against a cohort of government employees who are being paid to engage in a battle that they are fighting in their evenings and weekends.
Perhaps more than Betjeman or Wordsworth, today Kafka might be the author to turn to in understanding the landscapes of HS2. If you want to attend a community forum event, you can’t just turn up. You must be invited or be part of a recognised action group or register as a stakeholder. Otherwise you will be turned away by the bouncers that stand guard on the door. Lottie describes a meeting at which the HS2 representative argued with people about what their local area is called because he misread the map. There have been presentations given on the wrong area, presentations given with maps that are out of date, or even, in one case, upside down. She recounts one consultation at which a map relating to compensation was presented but all properties on it mis-numbered. Crowds of people left thinking – quite wrongly – that their house or business was to be demolished or that it was to be preserved; that they were, or were not, to be awarded compensation.
Andrew Gibbs in Burton Green defends the HS2 representatives. He has found many of them to be generally affable, well-intentioned, careful to listen and understanding. The problem in his mind is that they have been made completely powerless to do anything. ‘Token’ is the word that comes up again and again in relation to the community forums. There are so many layers of people, paperwork and due process insulating those who have any power, Andrew argues, that everyone can do their job with diligence without ever risking any change to the predetermined plans. Just the wrong amount – or perhaps just the right amount – of insulation.
This is a familiar story in the planning of many such projects around the world in recent years. Bent Flyvbjerg, an expert on these megaprojects, suggests that ‘civil society does not have the same say in this arena of public life as it does in others; citizens are typically kept at a distance from megaproject decision making.’ These projects operate on scales so vast and global that we may not have the apparatus available yet to relate them to people or communities without damaging effects. The Scandinavians, who have seen an unusual number of record-breaking infrastructure developments recently, even have a term for precisely this failure. They call it a ‘democracy deficit’.
There are already rumours of breakdowns and divorces under the stress of the campaign. Jane Sanchez-Gull, fighting for her home near Euston Station, tells me about some of her neighbours in council flats: pensioners who have said that they hope they die before they find themselves moved out, rehoused and their block demolished. To call it a battle is not too strong a word. When Dan Mitchell, an engineer of some merit, opens meetings with HS2 now, he sets a tone that their employees find uneasy: ‘Ok, so you’re here to destroy our countryside, our jobs and our houses. We’re here to destroy this project and your jobs.’ It is a bottom line that he feels needs restating.
There are times when walking the route feels like an exercise in your own private ghostliness. Out in the wide Northamptonshire fields being stared at by cows with the indifferent rush of traffic in the distance; or deep in an overgrown railway cutting watching a woodpecker circle up the trunk of an ash. Walking can often make you feel like this, intimately part of a world on the margins of our human existence. It’s part of the thrill. But here you look down at the map and up at a forested hill behind you, or out over the snaking Grand Union Canal, and you try to make sense of a future tunnel exit or a proposed road bridge twelve metres high. There’s another old barn, there’s a pub or a gym or a farm that will have to go. You begin to feel just a part of the clutter in the way of a grand idea, a domineering future, before which you can’t help but shrink a little. That’s a different kind of ghostliness.
Megaprojects have this effect on people. Their bewildering scale can make you feel simultaneously very human and diminished almost to nothing: very, merely, human. The cost of them tends to be so large, in fact, that experts have suggested that whole nations may be affected in both the medium and long term by the success or failure of just a single project. In Hong Kong the $20 billion Chek Lap Kok airport which opened in 1998 ran so out of control that it had a negative effect on the growth of domestic product and is thought today to have cost their economy $600 million in the end. It is hard to understand what it might mean to be walking on foot along the route of – to be talking to people whose daily lives may be overshadowed by – such a project, possibly one of the biggest and most expensive in history.
On the edge of Stoke Mandeville there is a circle of trees and railings around a pile of rubble grown over with grasses and hedgerow plants. A sign on the gate reads: ‘this is not consecrated ground but visitors are asked not to interfere with the gravestones.’ Were there no sign you might not have noticed any gravestones at all. These are the remains of a twelfth century church, once the centre of Stoke Mandeville and all that is visible today of the old village, deserted now as the new centre is sited half a mile to the north. It’s a very intimate and curious place, somehow both kept and wild at the same time.
The Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society suspects that the remains of fishponds at the site might indicate that buried here somewhere is the ruin of the moated manor house of the Anglo-Saxon Bishop Wulfwig. They may never get the chance to find out though, as the route of HS2 goes right through the middle and everything will be dug out, bulldozed or built over. Is such a site as this worth sacrificing for HS2? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the scale of your perspective, but the feeling is, at times, that to argue for the human scale is to cling on to the past, to be mired in the insignificant minutia. The effect of this is powerfully dehumanising.
Bent Flyvbjerg suggests that the thinking behind projects such as HS2 attempts to emulate what Bill Gates has called ‘frictionless capitalism’: the free flow of people, like the flow of goods through vast containerised cargo docks, moving in a fashion as simple, smooth and automated as possible. High speeds, great power harnessed, historically unmatched investment, great technological leaps: time and space are bent to the will of politicians making ours a smaller and smaller world. There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, as Doreen Massey has pointed out, it might only be a smaller world for those who can afford it, or those who live in the correct places to benefit. For many, looking up at the enormous new viaducts or tunnel mouths, whose windows shake every two or three minutes, it will not be the world that feels smaller.
Secondly, there is that term ‘frictionless’. It masks a very dulled sensitivity to the local landscape by stepping further back and back, widening the gaze, refocusing on the bigger and bigger picture. So big, in fact, that you can no longer see the detail, the ‘friction’, so to speak. This is a problem of scale again. It suggests a smoothing out of a global landscape at a scale too large to acknowledge anything like a village or a farm and the results can be violent. ‘Frictionless’, in the end, really describes a form of detachment that conveniently distances the decision-makers from the very real effects of their decisions. But this is their loss too. There is life in the friction. These diminutive human forms haunting this future landscape – tens of thousands of them – are refusing to let their lives and their communities feel relegated to the past. They are taking a stand because they care deeply for the places under threat. This is a sign of health and life, however fragile.
One morning, walking north-west from Amersham, after crossing several fields I came to the edge of a wood where, tied with string to a wooden gate, there was a blue cardboard tag, like a luggage tag. There was no one around and it was quiet except for a thrush singing out of sight among the high foliage. Lewis Carroll sprang to mind as I lifted it to read the handwritten message. ‘This path leads to Mantles Wood which will be destroyed by HS2’. Nothing to explain the note: it just hung there, clear and to the point.
Later on that day, there was a long, brightly coloured scarf wrapped around the trunk of a tree, with another note attached: ‘Stoke Mandeville, a much loved village. HS2 will cross this road 500 metres from here. It will change this village forever.’ There were other trees here and there with brightly coloured scarves wrapped around them, in the village and on footpaths either side.
As it turned out, they had all been made by the same woman. Sat in a field outside Aylesbury that evening, I spoke with her on the phone. She asked to remain anonymous, for various reasons, but explained to me why she had done this. Her father had died about three years ago, just before the plans for HS2 were announced, and when she saw that the route cut across many of the footpaths that they had enjoyed walking together all their lives, she was incensed. She felt it was a personal attack, an assault on the memories that she and her father had shared, and so, an artist in her spare time, this seemed to her a natural response.
‘Yarn bombing’, as this kind of guerrilla artwork is known, is something usually done in urban environments, juxtaposing the concrete and glass architecture of late capitalism with the maternal, vernacular textures of wool (the artist Olek has famously knitted a pink and purple jumper for the bull on Wall Street). Like Lizzy Williams’ walk in 2010, these yarn-bombed trees are gestures of neighbourly concern, registering outrage but also communicating something of a defiantly humane care for a loved place. They stand to juxtapose, in this case, the lack of courtesy involved in the planning process.
Further north in Burton Green, Deirdre Vernon, a retired school teacher, and one of those responsible for the ‘white elephant’ campaign, joined me to walk the length of the Kenilworth Greenway. This is a wooded bridleway and cycle path that runs on a stretch of disused railway line from Kenilworth north-west through her village. It’s a Sustrans route now and what Warwickshire County Council calls a ‘linear country park’ with a recent survey (by the University of Warwick) recording over five thousand people using it per week.
The rail route would run beside this path and then eventually cross it and drop into what they call a ‘green tunnel’ which is really a railway cutting with a turf roof. For the duration of construction, which has been estimated at a highly ambitious seven years, the end of the path that connects to Deirdre’s village will be impassable. After this, should you wish to take a weekend walk along a wooded footpath running next to a route shuttling trains at cacophonous speeds twenty-eight times per hour, you will be free to do so.
Linear parks were an initiative to emerge from the 1944 Greater London Plan as a means of creating passages for communities to leave the cities and towns behind for restorative open spaces. From the European Landscape Convention to Natural England’s Landscape Character Assessment, a growing body of literature today acknowledges how important such features as this are, not just to our health and wellbeing but, as Ken Worpole has argued, also to our sense of political and cultural identity. The threat posed to such landscapes should be understood fully as a threat to the political and cultural identity of the people who live there, perhaps even to all of us in the long run.
Deirdre has helped to organise an exhibition of sculpture along the Greenway, large animals and insects made from great loops of willow celebrating the park’s biodiversity. She has also been involved with a community scarecrow competition which saw straw-headed figures in overalls and wellington boots (even one couple in full wedding dress), posing with their arms spread wide to walkers. She didn’t make these events about HS2 but she admits that it was at the back of her mind.
The yarn bombing, and these scarecrows and willow sculptures, are intriguing. At some level, to a slightly jaded eye, they are just helpless gestures of defiance before a planning machine that will never recognise them. They do not speak the same language as the megaproject planners they are up against, so what’s the point? But actually what they’re doing is helping people to articulate their care for these places. They’re marking their social and cultural value in ways that have significance to those who live in the area and walk it regularly.
This is a kind of value that can feel difficult to argue for today, but it might be all the more important for it. There is a very forceful agenda at work pushing growth, development, improvement, acceleration, globalisation and social mobility at any cost. It pushes these things as the only rational choice in a period of crisis. This attitude is dismissive of the local sense of place and of complex forms of cultural identity. It doesn’t want to hear qualitative arguments. It won’t get mired in the detail. There is an urgent momentum of development to keep up, and who wants to be an unbeliever in such an evangelical crowd?
There are various sub-cultures mobilised against this trend in Britain today, cultures promoting local distinctiveness, ‘slow’ lifestyles and an ethos of ‘small is beautiful’; cultures that offer alternative models of development. 2012 saw the fifth International Festival of Art, Technology, Music and Film adopt the title ‘As Slow As Possible’ (from John Cage), intended as an island of respite from the London Olympics with its motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’. There were arts events held across Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland that stretched, measured and marked the passage of time, exploring the representation of duration itself.
One of the stars of the festival, film-maker James Benning, has argued that to slow things down is to accentuate concentration, patience and learning ‘so that time is a function of becoming more intelligent.’ This festival came soon after various organisations had taken issue with George Osborne’s claim that in the UK ‘the default answer to development proposals is “yes”’: haste and arrogance at the expense of care and intelligence. The clause was, of course, struck from the final draft of the document.
To slow things down on the scale of a landscape, say, to walk what is planned to be a High Speed rail route, you begin to enumerate what will be lost. The cost side of the cost-benefit ratio becomes a territory populated by communities, ecosystems, scenery, places, recreation and jobs while the benefit side of the same ratio pales and recedes into promises, possibilities, questions and doubts. It is a very sobering experience.
Some years ago now, in his Reith Lectures, the conservationist Sir Frank Fraser Darling offered a warning: ‘That nineteenth-century notion of inevitable and absolute progress is still believed, and it pushes us forward rather than leads us on to that which we truly desire.’ We are in another phase of being ‘pushed’ today. It might be a fine line between being pushed forward and being led, but it is one that is being deliberately obfuscated today in such a way that might bring our very democracy into question.
Towards the end of the walk, at an anti-HS2 meeting in a community centre in Balsall Common, I looked around and saw numerous faces that I’d spoken with and walked with along the route. They were all collected together in one place to hold a Skype conference with a group further south. There were tea and biscuits while they wrestled with the speed of the broadband: engineers, accountants, teachers, artists, parents, retirees. An odd and uncertain mix of characters from different counties and backgrounds, who have come to know each other over this issue. A community who have coalesced out of feelings of powerlessness under the heel of their own government.
Peter Levi once wrote that he loved the landscape of Britain ‘with an insecurity of passion’. It’s a very telling phrase expressing the kinds of tension at the heart of our landscape that have made it feel, in Levi’s word again, like ‘a survival’: worried over, believed in and fought for. Such personal feelings are the foundations of our culture, from the household to the village, district, borough, town and city, to whole regions and the country itself. They inform and shape our democracy from the ground up in ways that are crucially important today when so many forces are shaping it from above and beyond.
On the train on the way home, I found myself thinking of one woman in particular that I met along the way. Trish Lewis lives just outside the ‘safeguarded’ zone in the valley of Wendover Dean. The farm next to her will be bought at just over market price and the farmer, nearing retirement age anyway, seems happy enough with this. But Trish and her husband will receive no compensation, despite their house recently being valued at nil by the mortgage company. From over the hill to the east there will be a seventeen metre high viaduct sloping down out of the Chilterns shuttling trains at tremendous speeds, so they promise, every three minutes. Her house will likely be in the actual shadow of this viaduct each morning.
Trish is a flamboyant woman, a member of her local amateur dramatics group and she was, in fact, one of the volunteers who danced at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. When we arrive she’s in the garden shouting at the butterflies to get off her cabbages and she greets us with open arms and a smile, offering us lemonade and explaining her hope that they will make an exception. But there doesn’t seem to be any obligation upon them to do so and I begin to wonder how much of this is a brave face. As we sit she points out a helicopter passing low overhead: “There he is, David Cameron. He flies out to Chequers now you know. He won’t drive.” Her house, it seems, is directly under the flight path between London and Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country house retreat just a few miles to the north-west.
As she comes to wave me off under the oak tree at the gate, she explains the name of the house: Deri Grove. Deri is ‘oak’ in Welsh, a reminder of her mother who gave them a little money towards buying the house. And that’s what stays with me travelling home: Trish sitting on a lawn chair at the bottom of the valley looking up at the helicopters, wondering if this one or that one in the lofty airspace above her has David Cameron aboard.
Jos Smith is a freelance researcher, writer and poet currently working on a history of the arts and environmental charity Common Ground (funded by the British Academy and based at the University of Exeter). He lives in north Dorset.
The title photograph here is by author and photographer Daniel J Norwood. You can find more of his work here.