'Under Margaret Thatcher, the government had decided to build a network of new motorways and trunk roads in order to realise her dream of universal driving. Hers was a programme not just to facilitate car ownership, but also to close down the alternatives.
We fought for Solsbury Hill because of what it was, what it represented. It was one of the few quiet places in a corner of England that was becoming ever noisier; a scene of slow beauty, of rough pasture, elder coverts and dense hedges, capped with an ancient hill fort. It epitomised the places we were losing to development in every county.'
– George Monbiot
'There's still a few sad bastards who like country and clean air.'
– P.A.I.N, 'Beltane'
I've disturbed one of the ant nests, my blood red DM knocking off the top third of their grassy fort. A reflection of the hill, spilled soil and pissed off yellow ants boiling up from the earth. A premonition in miniature. Fuck. Indra laughs, you're supposed to be an environmental protestor, and here you are kicking the shit out of an ants nest. Thanks love, I think, but I chuckle along with her, as the golden insects swarm in irritation over the ox-blood leather. One of them disappears down the inside of my boot; I whip it off in alarm, Indra laughing all the time. I find the ant, but it's crushed, dead, by the time I get it out. Sorry sunshine.
Indra knows a fair bit about the plants and animals, we’ve been out on the hill, her showing me what’s what. I asked her to show me, I want to know. The sky is eggshell blue. That’s a vetch, she says as I tug my muddy DM back on with difficulty. Little purple pink flowers. A pastel blue butterfly with black frilling round its wings flaps languidly in the late spring sunshine. A Chalkhill Blue, she says immediately. I like Indra. We carry on, back to camp, her pointing out flora and fauna of interest, me taking mental note, willing myself to know more. She tells of the time she saw muntjac in the woods of Bedfordshire, of escaped wallabies in the Peak District. I’m quite new to the protest.
The sun’s going down on the hill. I can see a few hard-hats off in the distance, a couple of coppers too, a slow storm gathering. When I get a moment spare I’m reading up on this place. Solsbury Hill. Couldn’t say I knew much about it before. I’m a London lad, barely been out to the West Country before, I might’ve been taken as a kiddie by the old man but I’m not sure. We normally went farther afield, camping in the middle of bleedin nowhere. Good cider round here. Funny accents. The hill feels ancient, lying here dreaming of its days as an Iron Age hill fort. One of the other guys, an older hippie bloke called Jed, he’s clever as fuck and knows the kind of stuff I’m into, he’s lent me this book, The Hill of Dreams, by some taffy called Arthur Machen. Good stuff, what I’ve read so far. So much that I still need to read, to learn, to do.
We’re near Bath. We went for a trip there for supplies, some cooking equipment, big pouches of duty free baccy, some bevvies. Nice place, reminded me of Canterbury, of York, all those other heritage cities sitting in the shadows of their history. Gaggles of European teenagers being herded around town by their clipboard wielding elders, fat Yanks snapping away furiously as if the scenery would disappear any moment.
Jed tells me of how Arthur led his Britons, here by the hill, against the invaders from Saxony, going down in legend. The story felt familiar as he told it. Another fight is coming.
That cunt Peter Gabriel wrote a ‘spiritual song’ about this place, reaching number thirteen in the British charts back in 1977. There are more punks here than Genesis fans, from what I can see. I fucking hate Genesis. The villages of Swainswick and Batheaston continue their sleepy existence below the hill, so bloody English, their protector now threatened by the motorcar, the automobile that will become compulsory, rendering pedestrians obsolete, ramblers sad folk of the past, cyclists an eccentric sub-culture fighting a doomed fight. We get told we’re standing in the way of progress. Some of the villagers don’t want the road either, they tell us. They do drive, though. The automobile’s self-fulfilling prophecies as it motors ever forward. More cars? We need more roads. More roads? We better get a car. The meadow ants on the grassy hill are unconcerned by such arguments.
A moribund Celtic Earth Mother, Sulis, gave her name to this hill. Indra tells me she was worshipped at the thermal springs in Bath, a place the Romans called Aquae Sulis. They conflated her with Minerva, tangling history and culture. I named one of the small black piglets we keep as pets after her. Sulis, that is. What have the Romans ever done for us, we would joke. It confused those other pigs, the fat wheezing ones who looked baffled and amused by our presence. They are ignorant of their history. The younger ones, angry stupid looking men with, yes, porcine eyes, stare silently. Grunt when spoken to, these keepers of the peace. They look at me like they wouldn’t piss on me if I was on fire. The feeling’s mutual.
The Government talk of Britain’s grand past. It seems hollow. Especially the mutterings of The Witch, no longer in the seat of power but with her legacy all around, cut into the Earth, open wounds long to heal. The scar legacies, a capitalist cicatrix. How could her talk be reconciled with what they wanted to do to the country. Rip open our history, perforate the land’s memory, tarmac over any dissent in the great rush to progress. Assume that everyone wants what they say, or better still, tell them that they do. They want to be Americans, listening to Springsteen, driving down Route 66 or something. I like The Boss, but I am English.
It rains, like it does in England. I am up in the trees, working with rope, creating temporary shelters and tree-houses that my child-self would marvel at. It sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud, but sometimes I can really feel them, alive. Well, they are alive, I know that. I can’t say what I mean. The old words won’t fully form. It sounds like stupid hippy shit when it does come out, even to myself. I wish I could express myself better. When I am up there in the canopy, I keep thinking of ‘The Parliament of Trees’ from Swamp Thing. I am a big comic book fan. I often wonder why people seemed to be able to accept these radical ideas of environmentalism, earth elementals, the force of nature, in fantasy, folk lore and fiction, but not apply this to their own lives. To reality. People dismiss these impulses, though it clearly has, pardon the expression, taken root in the human psyche. I’m willing to make fun of myself. But there is truth there. Everything we have, that we are, comes from the land in some way and to destroy that for the sake of a faster journey down a dual carriageway…madness. Insanity reigns. The great rush to nowhere. Build your way out of a problem, dig to freedom. Soon the only places we will be able to buy food from will be in the giant out-of-town supermarkets, only accessible by road. The car becomes necessity, personal choice strangled and put in line. Drive or starve.
I do not own a car.
Of course, I arrived at the site by bus, and yes that came by road. I’m not saying that we don’t need roads. I’m not. Only a moron would say such things, but there has to come a point when some people, even a minority like us, say enough is enough. In a way, we’re the conservatives. I remember, a few years ago, a film nut friend of mine showing me a mock-doc, Punishment Park. In it, a bearded American man, pounded by unforgiving sun and hunted by men of the law, says something quite profound that stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing of course, you can’t get the bloody thing on VHS, but he says something like: At some point in history the honourable thing to do may be to be a policeman, a soldier, a judge. Right now I feel the only honourable thing to be is a criminal.
He says this with no joy, just weary resignation.
Tonight is Beltane. People vary on the spelling. Indra tells me The Old Irish spelling of it is Belltaine, or Beltaine. We Anglicised it, mixed it with up May Day. But none of those dodgy old geezers dressed up in green and white for us, no way. Today we’re having a party. A celebration. I had sat and smoked as Indra and others worked on the poster, to be later photocopied and handed out wherever it could. I handed them out in Bath and in Bristol. An old lady with purple rinse hair told me to get a job. Some first year student girls in grunge T-shirts, they were pretty fit, showed some interest. Yes, we went by car.
BELTAIN ENVIROMENTAL FAYRE. GATHERING OF THE TRIBES ‘94
Home-made and rough hewn, every available bit of space was crammed with handwritten information. A professional designer would disapprove.
THE SPIRIT OF TWYFORD DOWN GETS EVER STRONGER
In the centre of the poster sat an image of what looked like, to me, the Green Man, a Jack in the Green. Stupidly I thought about the Swamp Thing again. Although it could have just as easily been some sort of sun deity. Sulis? I didn’t know. It did look impressive though, and felt like it was the appropriate image.
PROTECT THE HILLFORT
The day was warm, sunny. People were camped, chatting. Some travellers arrived, some of the Dongas too. They were the ones who’d been at Twyford Down in ‘92, protesting the Winchetser bypass that destroyed in its wake two SSSIs, two ancient monuments and one Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. One of the most protected areas in England yet in two years reduced to a mere motorway. Insanity reigns. I spoke to some of the Dongas. Nice people, by and large. They told me, when I asked like a awestruck little boy, they took their name from ancient system of track ways that used to crisscross the country. Leys. I could remember seeing them on the TV in my mum’s place in Islington. They travelled in an ancient way, slow, human in scale, they said. They said the opposed the inhumanity of the motorcar. I agreed with them on that point. The crazy Earth First! Fuckers had been involved as well. I didn’t know what I thought of them. I wasn’t much good in a scrap.
Like I’ve said, I’m a big comic book fan. I love the Hellblazer comics that involved the New Age travellers, disruptions of ley-lines by the Tories in order to disrupt the land’s power, and an Earth spirit called ‘Jallantilliokan’. Bullshit, mostly, but a lot of fun. It taught me about the Beanfield, the travellers, police bastards. Stupid, but there you go. School never taught me these things. Two intertwining dragons, elementals, bursting forth from northern Scottish seas, it was compelling to my teenage self. Relevant fantasy to sink into, which fed, a little, into my own life. Or I took it and ran with it, one of the two.
Some of us here in the camp refer to us, collectively, as ‘internal refugees’. Indra says it a lot, almost like a mantra. I try and untangle what that means as I sleep near the stars, rope and tarp for a roof. I am agile and good up in the trees. We are settling, those of us who can, up here in an attempt to halt the oncoming destruction. They can’t take the trees until they take us. Some of the older guys here sing the Specials tune ‘Monkey Man’ at me whilst I’m clambering up into the branches. It makes me laugh.
I wonder where all this will end, shivering in the damp, smoking endless rollups. I am mud spattered, bedraggled. My hair needs washing and my beard is expanding in all directions. People, my parents included, would say I was crazy. I am twenty one years old. I lie awake in the trees, looking at the stars, thinking of when my old man took me and my brother round Blean Woods in Kent. To Pegwell Bay. The White Cliffs of Dover. He’s probably responsible for me being here. I smile when I think this, at what he’d say to that.
Today is Beltane, everyone’s busy getting ready for the celebrations. Old Tom has his cider stall set up near the bottom of the hill, strong scrumpy for a pound a pint. I’ve downed a couple as the day has progressed, I’m feeling a bit woozy in the pounding heat. It’s a good day for it, weather-wise. Perfect, even. People are slowly arriving in vans, on foot, in groups, alone, teenagers, great big bearded men, punks, hippies, a couple of goth looking types, some acid casualties, ravers, a few people from the villages come to check out what’s what, students, travellers, a whole gamut. There must be a few plainclothes here too, as well as the small but noticeable police presence. Fuck them, I don’t want to think about it, not today.
I’m up in the trees again, I like it up here, especially today. I can see everything coming together, the English countryside unrolling before me, the crowd thickening, the bonfire for later being built, it’s fucking massive, it’ll quite a sight when it’s aflame. Jed is here with me, it took him a while to get up here but he’s not in bad shape for a feller pushing forty. He’s catching his breath, building a big spliff, looking up at the eggshell blue sky, as a butterfly flits around us. I remember something from Indra’s tutelage. A Meadow Fritillary, I tell him. He smiles and continues working on the spliff. Jed is wearing a ridiculous multi-coloured tye-dyed hippy T-shirt. I take the piss out of it, he responds in kind. That punk shit that you wear, honestly. A load of old noise. He’s a good feller. We sit up in the canopy and talk of forgotten books, parliaments of trees, Jallantilliokan, Arthur Machen, John Cowper Powys, Thatcher, the Tories, a few personal anecdotes, parts of the country we love, nature, the Green Man, Sulis, how we’re looking forward to tonight, what drugs we have on us, who we know that’s coming,. We know that bad times are coming. We keep the conversation positive.
An exaltation of skylarks launch themselves from one of the neighbouring trees, tiny bodies whirling through the air in search of an insect lunch. They are in decline, being wiped out by modern agricultural practice.
Indra appears at the bottom of the tree.
‘Oi, Ewoks, are you coming down? We could do with a hand setting up some of the stalls.’ She is laughing as she says this.
‘Alright, keep your wig on, we’re coming’ shouts Jed in reply. ‘Ten minutes, yeah?’
Indra agrees and saunters off. I watch her as her figure grows smaller, before being swallowed up by the ever growing crowd. Somewhere, the dull bass thump of a sound-system has started up. Jed lights the spliff, his head shrouded in white smoke. We share it, as we watch a small piece of history amass at our feet, and further in the distance the police, security in blue hardhats, behind them the roads alive with endless traffic, the villages, jeopardised trees and green, tarmac and swelling towns, all of England.
Tonight’s Beltain. This is our day of celebration. If everything else goes wrong, if JCB and the diggers come and tear us apart, we will always have this.
Gary Budden is the co-editor of the upcoming anthology Hackney: Acquired for Development By…, and currently editorial assistant at Ambit magazine.
For four years he co-ran Out of Step Promotions, who put on an eclectic mix of punk, ska, folk, hip-hop and spoken word, in venues ranging from massive crumbling squats to the intimate settings of bookshops and cafes.
He has worked for the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, Richmond Literature Festival and the British Film Institute.
He has written for Stalking Elk, The Flaneur, Menacing Hedge, Canary Magazine, Whippersnapper Press, Brain Cloud, Distorted Magazine, Cigarette Burns, Hackney Hive and Hackney Citizen.
He loves punk rock, literature, and being a vegetarian. He lives in London.