WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY TALIA WOODIN
After protesting corporate destruction of the planet with Extinction Rebellion, activist and photographer Talia Woodin sought a more localized approach to her passions: joining the groups forming collective resistance to Britain’s biggest environmental threat High Speed Railway 2.
For most, 2020 was a year of solitude—one that will go down in history as the year the world locked down in response to a global crisis, with community and group activity limited to zoom calls and camaraderie relegated to socially distanced hangouts. But my Pandemic Year didn’t pan out quite like this. While the world was consumed by the impacts of COVID-19, my life revolved around another invisible threat: the capitalist pursuits of the United Kingdom government epitomized in a destructive rail infrastructure project and a fleet of grassroots resistance.
If you’re not from the UK, the acronym HS2 probably means very little. Some may have a vague association of the term with trains, but rarely does mainstream knowledge encompass more than that. Despite living in what many would regard as a prime example of democracy, very few Brits are aware that our government is currently funneling billions of taxpayers money towards the unnecessary infrastructure project High Speed 2 that is decimating our countryside and countless communities, all whilst our health services are left to collapse under the weight of a pandemic. HS2 is being pushed through under the guise of ‘sustainable development’ when the reality of it couldn’t be further from that.
“The amount of life that’s contained in a single branch of an Oak tree… and the lack of respect that they’re shown. If it actually benefited people, working people, then at least there would be some justification,” says one protester who goes by the name Jellytot who, earlier this year, officials behind HS2 attempted to imprison for peacefully resisting the project.
I have witnessed this firsthand when I worked and lived with the communities that live and breathe their resistance to HS2. Having spent the previous year working full time as a media coordinator for Extinction Rebellion, lockdown had given me yearning for a more local and immediate cause to throw myself into. As a result, In May of last year, just as lockdown eased enough to allow me to escape London, I moved to an outdoor adventure center turned resistance camp. The land, owned by one of many locals having their property seized by HS2, is on the banks of a chalk aquifer that will soon be drilled into in order to construct a viaduct over which the rail line will run. In doing so, HS2 will risk contaminating the drinking water of around two million people in the West London area. This isn’t something they’re quick to admit to, however, as doing so may damage their meticulous public image.
For months, Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre (or HOAC) served as one of a number of occupied sites between London and Birmingham, the route of Phase 1 of the train line. In squatting on land intended to be used for the project, protesters are able to delay work and cause financial disruption, in the hopes of preventing the vast amounts of destruction that HS2 will entail.
By my second day at the site, I was learning to climb and had made my way 40 feet up an ash tree that now no longer exists. Climbing and occupying trees due to be felled is one of the central tools of resistance used by the campaign. In woodlands across the country, groups have set up sites, partly on the ground and partly suspended in the branches of ancient Oak trees, Beach, and Willows—all threatened by HS2. In my time on the campaign, I have stayed in easily a dozen of these trees, in anything from hammocks to two story treehouses. Living within the habitats and ecosystems set to be destroyed by this project has given me a newfound understanding and appreciation for all that we must defend on this planet.
Thanks to my parents’ work in Green Party Politics and Environmentalism, I spent most of my upbringing in and around activist spaces, making this line of work somewhat in my blood. I came to the campaign aware of the possible complexities and challenges faced by living and working in this way. However, nothing could have fully prepared me for the impact of moving from a London house share to a transient woodland community. The sites, having grown out of a decade long fight against initial plans for HS2 in the form of the StopHS2 Campaign, attract groups and individuals from a broad range of backgrounds—and with an even broader range of incentives, tactics, and ideals. From local pensioners to middle class ‘hippies’, families with young children to working class folk, young anarchists and veterans of the Environmental movement that have been at it since Greenham Common—this campaign is a true microcosm of left spaces in our society.
There are roughly seven of these encampments within the 135 mile distance between London and Birmingham. Functioning as one large, transient, outdoor household throughout the past year of the pandemic, protesters have been able to continue to resist the threat of HS2 safely within our communal bubble. By using a network of shared vehicles to travel between sites, remaining within the same network of people and living in outdoor spaces mostly away from any large cities, we have successfully remained safe from the threat of the pandemic. Masks are worn during actions, to ensure both protesters’ and HS2 workers’ safety and anonymity—but for the most part, we are one household (hence the lack of masks in most images).
Although all serving the function of bases for the campaign, each camp is a unique space with varying purposes depending on the land that they occupy and their proximity to HS2’s construction, amongst other things. For example: Crackley Woods Protection Camp situated just outside of Coventry is viewed as a ‘safe site’ due to it being on private land, whereas Denham Ford Protection Camp in the Colne Valley is more on the frontlines as it occupies land required for the project. The latter is the site on which I spent the majority of the summer months. Situated on the banks of the River Colne, protesters at this site have been able to delay HS2’s construction of a bridge over the river for over six months. During this time, six tree houses, ranging from 20 to 60 feet off the ground, were constructed in surrounding trees all under threat of being torn down. Outdoor showers, a compost toilet, tarped roof kitchens, and communal spaces are also featured at Denham and the site has at times been home to over 40 protesters.
But I’ll never forget the first day I arrived at Denham Protection Camp. The site was in full-on ‘eviction preparation mode’, a practice that over the coming months I would become an expert at. In dealing with protesters, HS2 has employed various private security firms, including the National Eviction Team (NET), who function as hyped up bouncers whose job it is to clear out protesters from occupied sites in whatever brutish manner they deem fit. In preparation for such evictions, protesters pull off incredibly complex defense strategies, which often require working throughout the night, as was the case on my first day at Denham.
In order to make evicting us from the space as difficult as possible, protestors take on a whole range of roles from occupying trees, in aforementioned hammocks and houses, hiding in lock ons, and underground tunnels that require specialist machinery to extract, and staying up all night on lookout. Others will be preparing food parcels to send up into the trees for protestors that are often left defending the canopy for weeks without returning to the ground or will be preparing to livestream any possible assaults or misconduct on the part of the NET, an unfortunate aspect of this work, but one that many protesters view as a necessary thing to endure. “We are the lucky ones because we get to be here, we get to be fighting against something and for something we love, something that around the globe people get shot for doing so,” says Indra Donfrancesco, one individual familiar with the brutality protesters often face, having been one herself for almost three decades.
One quickly gets used to this siege-like practice and I can say that there’s no better way of getting to know the community that you’ll be living and working with than by helping to construct a tree house at four o’clock in the morning. What is most remarkable about the campaign is the extent to which communities have been built and maintained despite the context of threat and imminent destruction. Not only are we in active resistance to a specific destructive project, we are also creating a space in which alternative ways of living and resistance to much broader destructive systems can be explored. In the moments between blocking machinery and climbing trees, communal meals are cooked and shared, music is played around bonfires built from locally sourced and chopped wood, and protesters young and old come together to share and explore what it means to defend our environment—not as individuals, but as a whole.
HS2 is the most expensive infrastructure project in UK history. Predicted to cost upwards of £100 billion of taxpayer money, it is an unnecessary and hugely damaging project, made even more illegitimate by the current pandemic. HS2 will destroy 108 ancient woodlands and 693 wildlife sites—five of which are of international importance and protected by UK law—33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 2000 homes and businesses, and 19,500 permanent jobs.