In the dull north German morning, they moved slowly towards their final destination. The blue flashing lights of the police escort provided the only colour in the uniform grey cloak of the landscape.

Beside the road, the cast aside remnants of the protesters last stand. Thousands of them who came to block the path of the 11 lorries carrying nuclear waste to the former saltmine which will be its home for now, and many worry may be their home for always.

The police came after dark. I have never seen so many: hundreds upon hundreds. Each pair assigned to one protester, lifting up the dead weight, moving them to the side and starting over again. The police queued to take their turn. There were the odd shouts of anger, but this was largely peaceful and dignified. 

It took hours. The demonstrators covered a lot of ground. The roads to the area outside Gorleben were blocked. No cars, no buses - even bikes were eyed suspiciously. Yet through the woods and along the roads came thousands. They carried beds and banners. They brought food and defiance.

'Government is wrong'

They'd travelled from across Germany. On the makeshift public address system, there were announcements for people looking for lifts backs to Munich, to Berlin or even as close to the Belgian border as possible.

And as they were many, they were varied. From the archetypal environmental protester with the mated dreadlock hair, various facial piercings which to my eyes looked painful and inconvenient, walking with his dog on a string to the middle-aged couple, clean and tidy, sipping coffee while looking as if they'd walked out of a top-of-the-range outdoor clothing catalogue.

"The people don't want this," one man told me. "The government is wrong." Opinion polls suggest he's right, with the latest saying three quarters of voters object to plans to extend the life of Germany's 17 nuclear power stations beyond the planned switch off. The last should now close down its reactor in the second half of the century, 20 years later than scheduled.

"We cannot trust Merkel [the German chancellor]," said one woman in perfect English. "She has always wanted this. That is why were are here."

The nuclear waste convoys have been going on for years. The waste from the plants in Germany is shipped off to France, reprocessed then put on trains back to Germany.

Kumi Naidoo is Greenpeace executive director. He's like an environmental rock star. Everywhere he goes he is stopped for pictures and for autographs. He is passionate and charismatic. "Each of the 11 wagons carry more nuclear waste than a Chernobyl disaster. And we allow it to be shipped through towns and villages in France and Germany," he says.

Sheep part of protest

Arriva, the company charged with shipping the waste, calls his language "incendiary". They say he's wrong. But tens of thousands agree with Naidoo. It's why they've taken to the streets, why they've chained themselves to the train tracks, why they've made the passage of the train slow and laborious.

One woman - she would only give her name as Evelyn - made her sheep and goats part of the political movement. "We live here, we need the land and the storage of the waste will bring problems for years to come," she said.

And so she parked her herd - hundreds of animals - on the road the convoy will take on the last part of its journey. "I will stay as long as I can."

Outside the saltmine, the protesters know the police will win. "We will make it difficult for them but the convoy will get through," says Julian, a fresh-faced realist.

And it does. Hours behind schedule. Once safely inside, the police can go. The job is done. And like a black wave they move down the street in their hundreds towards the minibuses and coaches that will take them back to Hannover and Cologne and Berlin and other places around the country.

Most of the protesters have gone. The battle lost but the point made.

The policing operation has cost millions - but Angela Merkel knows there will be a political price to pay.  This is the biggest anti-nuclear demonstration in Germany in years. It drove people from loud tuts and shaking heads in their living rooms to the wet streets and muddy fields. And they came in their tens of thousands.

They talked of the betrayal they felt by the government's u-turn on nuclear power. They won't forget that at the next election.