“We had networks of tree houses and tree walkways 15 to 18 metres up in these amazing oaks above beautiful streams,” recalls author and renewable energy pioneer Howard Johns of one of the anti-roads protest camps that appeared across Britain in the 1990s.
“And the whole community, all these quirky characters, would live out there together, cooking over an open fire every night, singing songs, telling stories—with reports flooding in from other camps of brutal scenes of eviction. It was an amazingly vibrant scene, with this feeling of utter determination that we could change things.”
In the mid-1990s, Johns was an environmental science graduate and a full-time activist in his early 20s, and lived with hundreds of protesters just outside the southeast English town of Newbury. They were defending thousands of trees from being felled for a huge national road building scheme.
In 1989, the Conservative British government announced a $19bn plan ($43bn in today’s money) to build and overhaul more than 4,345km (2,700 miles) of major inter-urban roads, motorways and bypasses. It declared the infrastructure project the United Kingdom’s largest roads programme “since the Romans”.
But much of the plan, whose aim was to underpin economic growth by relieving congestion - traffic on British roads had increased by 35 percent since 1980 - also smashed through some of the UK’s most pristine nature — ancient woodlands, water meadows, historic valleys and downs or grass-covered hills — places treasured by locals and protected for their biodiversity or beauty.
Opposition to the loss of these pockets of nature was fierce, and from 1992, when building on the first road began, until 1996, portions of the UK convulsed with determined and flamboyant acts of resistance. A new type of protest was born.