The Eco-Protesters Who Live in Tunnels


    The eviction of the Wendover Active Resistance Camp, better known as WAR Camp, began on an overcast day in mid-October. The camp was situated on a strip of forested land near the Chiltern Hills, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the U.K., where the Prime Minister maintains a country residence. The dozen activists living there had received an anonymous tip that the eviction was coming. At 4 A.M., they waited inside a forty-foot tower they had built out of wooden pallets and tarps. They had filled the space with handmade “lock-ons,” concrete and metal devices to which they could attach their bodies to slow the removal. Finally, just after six in the morning, the activists heard a series of shouts and whistles, a signal that the eviction had begun. “It felt like we were being invaded by an army,” William Harewood, who goes by the protest name Satchel, told me. Satchel is thirty-one, with a lanky climber’s build and a sleepy smile. He was terrified. “It was a mad panic,” he said.

    The residents of WAR Camp were part of a network of activists protesting the construction of HS2, a sprawling high-speed train line that would slice lengthwise through England, connecting London to the North. (An eastern leg, connecting Manchester and Leeds, was recently cancelled). The plans, a key part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “levelling-up agenda,” are hugely ambitious. Trains will travel at speeds of two hundred and twenty-five miles per hour and carry a hundred million passengers a year; some government estimates put its cost at more than a hundred billion dollars. The Conservative Party has recently wrested political control of the country’s less prosperous North from the Labour Party. Under Johnson, the rail line has become a clumsy metaphor for unification.

    Opposition has come from multiple sides. The train will blow past small villages in favor of cities, meaning that those living along the route will contend with the disruption without much in return. HS2 Ltd., the government-backed company behind the line, has claimed that the train line will provide a greener mode of travel than cars or planes. But the Woodland Trust, a charity, has said that the project in its original iteration put a hundred and eight old-growth forests at risk, and has already damaged twenty; the organization has called it a “grave threat to the UK’s ancient woods.” (HS2 has claimed that only forty-three ancient woodlands will be affected. The company declined to comment for this piece.) In 2020, Extinction Rebellion, an environmental group, staged a protest walk along the proposed route. In the past several years, protest camps, organic and decentralized, have sprung up to block construction, building semi-permanent cabins and erecting communal kitchens. At a camp outside Euston station, in central London, protesters built a towering wooden-pallet structure and named it Buckingham Pallets. Satchel told me, “We have a right to defend the Earth.”

    At WAR Camp, the activists crowdfunded wooden pallets and other supplies to build the tower, which they called the Temple, and filled it with bits of metal and barbed wire. “Everything to make it difficult for bailiffs to demolish it,” Mark Keir, a sixty-year-old who has been living at the camps for two years, told me. (The protesters sometimes refer to the authorities as “bailiffs” or “skyliffs.”) HS2 had hired the National Eviction Team (NET), a private company with a specialized protester-removal arm, which used a cherry picker to take apart the tower. For two days, the NET would dismantle a floor or two of the tower during the day, and the protesters would rebuild it at night. A twenty-one-year-old protester, who asked to go by his activist name, Log, to protect his identity, told me that this infuriated the eviction team. “It was great,” he said.

    On the fourth day, the activists were forced inside the tower. Supporters threw in spare battery packs, food, and essential oils. Someone tossed over a pack of hard cider. The eviction team soon breached the tower’s “hell room,” which had scaffolding poles jutting in all directions to slow them down. But the activists had another trick up their sleeves. For the past several months, they had been digging an underground tunnel, hidden by the pallets. As the tower came crashing down, five activists pushed their remaining supplies through the tunnel’s entrance, went underground, and closed the hatch.

    In the darkness, everyone donned face masks and headlamps. Of the five activists who had volunteered to occupy the tunnel, only Dan Hooper, a veteran protester from Wales known as Swampy, had experience below ground. Satchel had been evicted from trees, but never a tunnel. Log had been clearing soil right up until the last moment. “All of a sudden, you have to stop,” he told me. “Then you’re, like, We’re really in this now.” Hooper quickly attached himself to a noose on the tunnel’s door—a common tactic to stop the bailiffs from opening it. Log tried to let his eyes adjust to the darkness, to no avail. The air was chalky, and cold. “You could feel the grain on your tongue if you didn’t have a mask on,” Log told me. Satchel prepared himself for a long haul, writing in a journal he kept, “I had the strong urge to take root and send up shoots today whilst having a sleep in the tunnel.”

    The land that the protesters occupied was not far from the village of Great Missenden, where the author Roald Dahl lived for more than three decades. “Here we are in November and you can really feel the dreaded winter coming on,” he wrote near the end of his life. “This is the real autumn and the countryside is filled with the beautiful colours of dying leaves.” Dahl took the area as the setting for his famous children’s novel “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” from 1970, about a wily fox who lives in a hole, and is at war with three nasty farmers. At one point, Mr. Fox tries to convince his neighbors—badgers, rabbits, weasels—to join him in building a vast subterranean village. “My dear, just think!” one rabbit exclaims, “We’re never going to be shot at again in our lives!”

    Tunnelling as a form of protest in the U.K. took off in the nineties, when activists dug down into forested land slated to be cleared to make way for the Newbury Bypass, in Berkshire, England. (The protesters were eventually evicted, and the woods felled.) For a certain type of determined activist—the non-claustrophobic kind—a tunnel is an ideal vehicle for direct action. It is exceptionally difficult to remove a human being who has burrowed, stubbornly, underground, and construction cannot continue until she is out, lest the tunnel collapse. “Tunnels have come out as a very, very effective way of slowing things up,” Keir, the longtime activist, told me. “It’s a pretty spectacular thing to do.”

    In 1996, Hooper spent a week in a tunnel to protest the extension of the A30 road, near the hamlet of Fairmile, in Devon. The name Swampy was enthusiastically adopted by the British press, which called him “the human mole.” In early 2021, Hooper spent thirty days underground at the anti-HS2 protest outside Euston station, in a public park not far from the British Library. “The soil at Euston was really easy to dig, but it was very unstable,” Hooper told me recently. They were constantly shoring up parts of the tunnel with wood so that it wouldn’t collapse. They couldn’t get deeper than about ten feet underground. Eventually, the eviction team cornered them and forced them to come up. Several of the protesters, including Hooper, were charged with aggravated trespass, but the charges were eventually dismissed. Satchel began living at anti-HS2 camps during the pandemic, after he was furloughed from a job in Bristol. In the fall of 2020, he was evicted from a treehouse he had built in Jones’ Hill Wood, on the route of HS2. “It was beautiful,” he told me recently. “I was quite proud of it.”

    Protests of this kind are under threat in the U.K. Johnson’s government has been pushing a new bill called the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, which could pass this year and would criminalize demonstrations interfering with “the use or operation of key national infrastructure,” including, perhaps, roads, railways, and airports. It would make “locking on”—a tactic that dates back to the suffragettes—illegal, with a potential prison sentence, and would grant the police the ability to bar people from protests on the basis of noise, or other disruptions. Jodie Becker, at the civil-liberties organization Liberty, told me that the bill “could extinguish protests before they’ve even begun.”

    In November, the president of the COP26 climate-change summit in Glasgow spoke at a climate-finance event, and mentioned Swampy. “Today the Swampys of the world are all around us, in boardrooms, in government departments, in multilateral development banks and trading floors all around the world. You, my friends, are the new Swampys, so be proud.” Hooper was, at that moment, in his third week underground in the tunnel beneath WAR Camp. Another activist, Larch Maxey, spoke out on his behalf, decrying the conference as greenwashing. “If only we were all Swampys, we wouldn’t be facing the greatest threat humanity has ever faced,” he said.

    As the weeks wore on, the group underground settled into their new routine. They slept little but had plenty of food and water: “Marmite, peanut butter red kidney bean chilli and Sriracha mayo wraps for lunch,” Satchel wrote. He recorded his dreams and the strange sensation of living without light.

    Soon, the NET tunnel specialists arrived. The NET members bill themselves as “protester, squatter, and traveller removal experts”; their work requires them to burrow into the activists’ tunnel and bring them back to the surface as quickly as possible, but without harming them. (The team declined to comment for this piece.) As the team began boring down, Satchel wrote in his journal, “Lying in the fairy light room it sounds like the bailiffs are just above my head, sound travels better through the ground than I knew.” The activists’ goal was to occupy the tunnel as long as possible, thereby slowing down construction. They raced to expand their underground network, building more places to hide. The protesters used a brick hammer to create wormholes that were sometimes no wider than a body, but the NET had to follow safety protocols—shoring up the sides of the tunnel with wood, for instance—that slowed them down. Satchel wrote, “A lot of the NET tunnel team would have no hope of getting through some of the crawlspaces we have made.” After the NET finally reached the protesters’ tunnel, the activists kept a person stationed between the two tunnels to protect what had become a no-man’s-land. During the long hours, the activists and the eviction-team members would sometimes chat with one another. “There’s nothing else to do,” Log added. “You’ve got to keep them sweet.”

    When the activists weren’t digging, they played Uno, slept, or read. Satchel devoured “Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi,” by Mark Boyle, an Irish environmentalist sometimes called the Moneyless Man, because he lived for three years without using money. The group took breaks where they could get them. One day, the NET had to halt work to avoid a tree collapsing into the tunnel. The activists took advantage of the pause to break out a store of cheeses they had been saving. “A bit of a mad scramble for crackers and chutney,” Satchel wrote. “Lots of laughing and jokes, banter, releasing the steam of being pent up together.”

    It wasn’t always as pleasant. The activists had only one working phone (they had broken the other) and spotty service. Log’s parents had been supportive of his activism while he occupied the tower, but they had asked him not to go underground, and he worried about them. Hooper missed his son’s birthday. “Quite a sad day for me,” he said. There were the physical indignities: dusty air, the constant noise of drilling, pooping in bags. Satchel stayed in a crawl space that was barely larger than his own body for almost twenty-four hours. “I can’t wait to soak myself in hot water,” he wrote. “My shoulder aches from lying on my side for too long.”

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