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Twyford Down: Five Years On

Looking back on Britain's first road protest

Written for Twyford Rising, 1998

Recently I drove - or rather, was driven - through the Twyford Down cutting. It was the first time I had been anywhere near Twyford since the great road was forced through that sad old hillside five years ago. I always swore I'd never drive through it, but on this occasion I had no choice.

"This is Twyford Down, apparently," said my father, who was driving, as we began to shear through the cutting where half a hillside used to be. "Can't see what all the fuss was about, myself."

From a driver's point of view, you could perhaps see what he meant. From the north, as you approach the Twyford cutting on the M3, there isn't that much to see. On motorway journeys, which I try to avoid if at all possible, I usually shut down and just tick over, like a computer on standby: if I hadn't had it pointed out to me I might not even have noticed. If you know what you're looking for, you can clearly see St. Catherine's Hill to the right of the great chalk tear in the Earth, and you might remember where the Dongas (the tracks, not the tribe) used to run, and the view across the untouched Down at sunset or in the early dawn. But from a car, it's nothing special. It's not the biggest motorway cutting around by any means, and you can get through it in thirty or forty seconds, traffic permitting. No big deal. Just another scar on the landscape.

That's the perspective from the car: through the window, from inside the metal box. Radio on, air vents blasting, pushing ninety, going somewhere. That's what you see, if you see anything at all. That's the perspective of most people today. And that's exactly the perspective that condemned Twyford Down to the fate it suffered just a few years ago, and from which it can never recover.

Speed. Speed and time. That was what sealed the fate of Twyford. I used to know all the facts and figures, but I've forgotten them now. How many minutes was the cutting supposed to save on the drive between London and Southampton? Twelve, was it? Those of us who tried to stop it happening always pointed out how ridiculous that figure would sound as time passed: how history would condemn the soulless, short-sighted men who decided that, to save a driver less than a quarter of an hour, something priceless should be lost forever. Just five years later, and the numbers, the reasons, the justifications sound hollow already, if they can even be remembered.

Why was Twyford Down dismembered? Perhaps to prove a point, perhaps to make a profit, perhaps even because somebody somewhere in the distant past actually thought it was a good idea. But the real reasons are much deeper. They lie in the skewed priorities of a society that is willing to eliminate thousands of years of history, and a place of aching beauty, for the sake of a few minutes that will never even be missed. And they lie in the dying souls of a nation that can no longer see beyond its windscreen wipers to the reality beyond.

What has changed since Twyford? A lot, we are told. It could never happen again. We have a new government. We have a new transport policy. And we have, of course, a New Britain. But the factors that came together to tear Twyford apart are still with us. The few hundred people with their feet on the ground were defeated by the silent masses with their feet on the accelerators. The people who could hear the birdsong, who could smell the scent of evening, who could feel the past still living in the earth of the present: they lost. The people whose sense of place has been eroded by dashboards and airbags and McDonalds drive-ins, the people who don't know even what county they're driving through, most people: they won. Nothing of that has changed. Everything still gets faster, and bigger, more cut off from the soil and the seasons.

There's no conspiracy here: no big bad government or corporation breathing down our necks, looking for the next landscape to rip the heart from. But more landscapes will go nevertheless, and it's our way of life that's to blame: if not all of us, then certainly most of us. What's to be done? I'm not sure I know: the answers aren't easy. But I do know that what happened at Twyford Down changed something forever: not just the look of a landscape, but the attitudes and visions of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people, who - at Twyford and since - have been prepared to put up a fight in defence of beauty, of stillness, of place, of a set of values that no balance sheet can ever reflect. Let's start there, and see where it takes us.