about books journalism links contact2 home2
The Battle for Lyminge Forest

Life with the professional protesters.

Day 1: Nick Ryan spent two days living with the environmental protestors in Kent discovering the hard reality of living rough. Here?s his account.

3:15AM: Disoriented. Can?t sleep. Keep rolling onto the gallon scrumpy bottle left by the previous occupant. Something skitters across my face - a spider or earwig? Although a breeze stirs the spruce outside, the air inside my ?bender? (a tent-like construction made from lashed hazel and a mishmash of plastic tarpaulins) is cloying, humid. It smells of plastic, damp earth and mildew, clogging the back of the throat.

There are dozens of such structures scattered around the woods, flashes of blue plastic sheeting sitting incongruously amongst the pines. They are cheap and easy to construct, and can be taken down quickly. Some are huge communal affairs, covered with a floor of rugs, and have stoves and even windows. Mine, however, is small, messy and uncomfortable and has (not surprisingly) been abandoned.

8AM Wake proper. Many protesters are still asleep, but mainly because they?ve been on nightwatch for sudden evictions, or digging tunnels throughout the night. As local electrician Worzel (also known as Barry) says: ?Some locals complain that they see the protesters just sitting around sleeping, or smoking pot - but what they don?t realise is that they?ve been working all night.?

At least one camp will wake this morning to find a ?You?ve Been Busted? sticker on one of its treehouses or down a tunnel, put there by the mischievous Blue (23), Lyminge?s erstwhile leader. A countryside management graduate, he?s lean, articulate and handsome - some say he?s the new Swampy of the protest scene, but with greater charisma and intellect. He likes to keep the different camps on their guard, and is constantly checking the communications system - whether that be wiring his mobile phone to an extended aerial from inside one of his tunnels, or checking with the camp?s own security teams via walkie talkie. Organisation is very good - locals have a rota to come and help, CBs connect camps to each other. There?s even a safe site organised for after the eviction and everyone gets press training for dealing with the journos - wondered why all questions being answered in same way.

By his own admission, Blue?s a professional protester. Along with a small band of what he refers to as ?eco-warriors?, he?s been at the Newbury bypass and Honiton A30 road protest sites. There?s plenty of first-timers at Lyminge as well, but others have come straight from the Manchester runway protest and most recently Guildford, where a road widening scheme was opposed and won. A character called Wizard, all long hair, glasses and a bad case of impetigo, thinks they can do it again here. ?Why not?? he says as we sit around a firepit. ?They forget that we won that one, don?t they??

(I soon discover everyone has a ?Site Name?, after meeting Blue, Wizard, Merlin, Captain Planet, Whinger, Viking, Orc et al. Partly to protect identities, I guess, but partly because it fits the communal, slightly anarchic feel of the place - you don?t ask about someone?s past unless they volunteer the information. Also notice most protesters are young, and predominantly male. Few stay in the scene beyond a couple of years).

9AM Daily routine begins. First, find toilet. Choice is eponymous ?shit pits? dug a few hundred feet away in the spruce, or head down to the Forestry Commission site entrance for a real loo. Opt for the latter, despite protestations of a girl down there in a caravan who says she would never use one of those ?things? again (she prefers the natural way).

Return, ambling up past huge pines and rope walkways being constructed by mad-looking Germans scrambling about 60ft above my head. Someone later calls them ?climbing tarts?, because they self-consciously parade about wearing their climbing harnesses. The walkways look terrifying - two ropes. ?Stand on one rope and simply hold onto the other,? a young guy called Devin explains (with a wicked grin). Later, I spot him shuffling around the top of a 100ft pine, building a walkway.

10AM Share weak tea with the taciturn Blue, who?s been here for the past three months, tunnelling like mad. My disused bender is behind his ?Faulty Towers? and ?Rat Trap? complex - this is a series of two Mad Max-like towers, built from scrap wood and metal, which stand above tunnel entrances. They?re equipped with carpeted bedrooms, and one actually has a kitchen on the first ?floor?, which you reach by scrambling through a metal drum and then climbing up through a trapdoor.

Despite the wind and lack of protection (we?re situated on a plain of low spruce trees) it?s very snug, and kept well-supplied by the locals. They take it in turns to bring food and supplies to the Lyminge protesters, or take them off for showers and baths every now and then. Blue seems to get a large share of the female visitors and is constantly plagued by a fan club of posh young girls, riding about the forest on their ponies.

12PM The various sites now begin to stir and the air fills with the smell of woodsmoke from the numerous firepits. Late breakfast/early lunch ensues. Tunnellers already off down their tunnels - won?t see them for several hours now. Notice the slightly sweet undertone of pine. Smoke, earth and pine - everpresent smells. Even the unwashed tunnellers, who sometimes go for two weeks without a shower, reek more of these earthy scents than BO. Question Blue about when he last had a shower. Replies: ?What?s the point in washing if you?re just going to go down the tunnel again?? Fair point, I decide.

Have decided that tunnellers are a breed unto themselves anyway. Solitary, a little crazy maybe - like serious mountaineers and rock climbers.

Incredibly possessive about their tunnels. Blue has had three months to dig his tunnel complex so far, and it extends in several directions, has all sorts of twists and turns, doors, slopes, etc. Some parts you can only go in feet first, it?s so tight. One of Rat Trap?s systems is even concreted. There is constant paranoia about snoopers working for the State. But you can instantly recognise the tunnellers by their Lyminge ?sun tan? - the red sandy earth which cakes their hair and body after working underground.

4PM End up at Gone to Pot, a homely, gypsy-like camp populated by a mixture of professional protesters such as Mike (a posh, extremely articulate tattooist) and visitors from Germany and Sweden. Mike lives in a treehouse over 100ft up in the air, suspended between two pines. Too afraid to follow him up there (unlike the photographer, who has sprouted spider?s legs). Go on water collection duties after that, a necessary evil that not even journos can escape. Pass character holding can of Special Brew. Smiles at me, lifts can, and utters ?thank God for St Giro!? Mercifully, the ?Brew Crew? as they?re called are few in number. ?Wait till you see the eviction junkies,? someone tells me later.

6PM - 1AM Rest of the day passed flitting between camps, enjoying tea and chatting away. Get back to the bender late, fail to sleep again until early hours.

Photo © Dominick Tyler

Other stories in 'The Battle for Lyminge':

The battle for Lyminge forest

The latest major environmental battle is unfolding in a forest in Kent. It?s being heralded as a possible re-run of the Newbury protest and is taking shape on a private property development.

Life with professional protestors

Day 1: Nick Ryan spent two days living with the environmental protestors in Kent discovering the hard reality of living rough. Here?s his account.

Going underground with the eco-warriors

Day 2: Nick Ryan spent two days living with the protestors at Lyminge Forest in Kent for MSN News. In this account of his second day Nick ventures underground.

You can buy this article, and seek new commissions, either by contacting me direct or my syndication agency, www.featurewell.com

IFJ Special Commendation Winner


To keep in touch with new projects, columns and other regular developments, join my newsletter.