The controversial HS2 rail route is slicing through the English countryside, destroying some of its most beautiful ancient habitat. Many protesters are out in an attempt to protect the trees and forests. Luke, Rebecca and Ben travelled 50 miles, on horseback, down the HS2 line from one protest camp at Crackley Woods near Kenilworth to another at Rosehill Farm, Buckingham. Along the route they stayed in soon-to-be-chopped-down forests, scouting new locations for a protest camp to aid their attempt to halt the massive HS2 project. This is a photo essay of their journey.
I met the protesters halfway through their two-week journey. Shandy, Stoic and Gabs the three horses, were packed up and ready to leave when I arrived. As we began to walk I discovered that everyone has been living on camp for five months. “It’s a hard lifestyle that comes with a really good purpose; we are fighting a battle for a really good reason,” said Becca.
Luke and I took it in turns to ride Shandy, with Luke generously carrying my backpack much of the way as I rode. Luke is a qualified tree-surgeon I met about two years ago at an anti-fracking protest camp in Kirby Misperton. Protesters up and down the county helped bring about the total ban on fracking in the UK. This fight doesn’t feel that different: protests supporting locals in their quest to protect the nature and wildlife around them.
Luke explained that when they first arrived at Crackley Woods in February 2020, all the trees were still there. Now it’s as dry as a desert, and they needed to find a new place to set up camp. It seemed like the trees, some over 500 years old, had been given no significance.
Occupying the forest by building treehouses and camping out in them is the best way to slow the felling. It’s a very organised process and camps are needed in order for the protesting to go ahead.
Wherever we stopped for the night, word got out to landowners and we would get a visit. Once they knew we were anti-HS2 and that we were travelling the line looking for a new camp, we were welcomed as friends. The locals and protesters share feelings of anger that taxpayers’ money is being used to destroy the forests and disturb people lives living on or near the line. Everybody we met along the journey was against the HS2 project. As usual, the views of the locals are ignored.
“I believe the government could be lying to us and is doing stuff that isn’t for our benefit,” said Luke. Ben said: “I’ve seen the impact it’s had on locals and activists and it doesn’t make me feel great.”
We stopped for water at a landowner’s house who had been forced to sell their land to HS2. The daughter, Amy, told me that her family had lived there for over 100 years and although the land was taken months ago they still hadn’t been paid. “It’s so sad, meeting families that set something up their whole lives and seeing them lose it all just like that. Seeing the impact HS2 has on people, it just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Becca.
We slept at sundown and awoke early. The woods provided a real sense of untouched nature. Up until the start of the HS2 project many of the forests were protected nature reserves, some of which people were forbidden from entering. As we travelled, the only sounds were the horses hooves, birdsong, rainfall, and the wind in the trees. One night we awoke to the sound of deer surrounding our camp, barking at each other ready to fight. These animals are being moved on and many will not survive.
It doesn’t seem like there’s been a review of HS2 since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. We all know how much our lives have changed and we have become aware of how much money the crisis is costing us. The fact that HS2 will cost taxpayers £106bn seems even more wasteful now that video meetings are reducing our need for face-to-face meetings and the travel that comes with them.
Clive Higgins, the landowner at Rosehill Farm, has had part of his land compulsory-purchased by HS2. He was letting protesters set up a camp on one of the fields he still owned. “It’s sad and unnecessary what’s happening here. They have ripped down 50,000 trees either side of my land this year so far. It’s the greatest deforestation of Great Britain. The UK already has one of the lowest tree coverages in Europe and the new trees that they are planting are already dying in the hundreds.’
Becca said: “When I was a kid I would always play in the woods and it’s so nice to be living here try to protect them.”