Protecting Jones’ Hill Wood from HS2

“I did wonder if I would be afraid of arrest and imprisonment, but after seeing the destruction, I am more afraid of inaction.” Steve Masters, Green Councillor for Newbury Speen and anti-HS2 activist, details his personal journey protesting against the destruction of Jones’ Hill Wood over the past year. 

Durham Farm, Jones Hill Wood

Simon Mortimer, Durham Farm, Wendover Dean (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Steve Masters

Late June 2020, lockdown had eased and I was walking with 40 or 50 people along part of the route of HS2 between Leamington Spa and Wendover. This was a walk organised by the HS2Rebellion and StopHS2 groups, aiming to highlight the impact on biodiversity and communities. I’d been looking to get involved in the anti-HS2 campaign for some time now, however the last couple of years have been more politically focused here in West Berkshire and it is 13 months since my election to West Berkshire Council. I represent Newbury Speen, a ward that was home to many Newbury bypass protests back in the nineties, made famous by Swampy.

By Wednesday evening I arrived, tired and with feet raw from 60 miles walked in 3 days at Jones’ Hill Wood near Wendover. 

I sat around the fire, listening to the residents of the wood talk about the wildlife, the biodiversity and stories of Roald Dahl drinking whisky with the local farmers as he penned the adventures of Fantastic Mr Fox, and was captivated. I fell in love with the place, so instead of continuing to Euston with my fellow walkers, I stayed, moving my tent from the adjacent field down into the wood itself. Four days later, I was 60 feet up in a treehouse that was to become my home for the next 13 weeks.

Living in a wood, come rain or shine, may not be everyone's ideal summer activity, but I loved it – having battled anxiety and depression since leaving the Royal Air Force, it was a calming experience. My mental health improved greatly. Even though I had spent a week or two at Leith Hill in Surrey in early 2017, nothing could have prepared me for Jones Hill Wood. While we were there to protect the wood from imminent destruction, our trees protected us. Spending each night within the bough and branches of my 150 year old beech tree felt like I was being embraced, cradled and held in the arms of a dear friend. Even when the wind blew up to 70 miles an hour, I didn’t feel afraid. We respected the wood and the wood reciprocated, keeping us safe. Standing in the canopy, swaying in the wind many metres to and fro, was exhilarating. I had never felt more alive.

After 12 weeks that tranquility was shattered, at 5:30 in the morning on 1 October they came in their black paramilitary gear, striding across the field on Bowood Lane, protected and facilitated by the Police HS2 Taskforce. We knew they were coming – indeed, I had sat in the bar of their hotel the evening before, eavesdropping. For a moment I was watching them instead of being watched.

They cleared half of the tree houses and all of the ground crew in the first 12 hours. Then the rain came. That first night was sleepless, as my solitary treehouse now had new arrivals – refugees from a treehouse lost – a couple who escaped the clutches of the eviction team and traversed across to my sanctuary. At around 11pm, I made my way to the edge of the wood via rope lines to assist another pair of activists in getting back into the wood after their eviction earlier in the day. For a few short hours, there were five of us in my tiny treehouse, singing, laughing and trying to keep warm and dry. At sunrise on 2 October, we found we were next to be evicted. They came several times in their cherry picker, trampling the woodland floor, churning up the undergrowth as they approached. We saw them off several times with ropes and nets. They retreated each time but not before my sanctuary met its destruction, as each attack parried a little more of my structure. Until around 3pm I was alone, locked onto a device that was secured to the tree. The police removed me that evening, as the temperature fell and the rain continued to chill me to the very core. I was defeated and spent the night in custody before attending the magistrates court in Oxford on the Saturday.

After my release, I returned to Newbury and attended the Green Party Conference, talking about the wood and the events of the previous days. It was such a disappointment to be removed only 36 hours into the eviction. Being arrested so easily was frustrating. I felt I had let my fellow activists and the wood down. I felt I had given up too easily. I felt guilty leaving my comrades to stand up to the might of HS2 and the authorities. I couldn’t rest. I had to do more. The following days were hell, I was restless, I had to make amends, and so at 5 am a couple of days later, I climbed back into the wood and joined the three remaining activists in the last treehouse.

We would be joined by several others that morning and the seven of us would resist until 8 October, before the wood was finally cleared of protesters. The final hours were brutal. On a personal level, I said I would not resist once hands were placed upon me by the police, but the bravery of my fellow activists was humbling. I saw dedicated and passionate young women defend that tree and the woods until they couldn’t bear the pain and onslaught from the police climbers – screaming in agony as their limbs were twisted and beaten as they gripped the tree in order to stop this mindless destruction. They were the heroes of Jones’ Hill Wood for me.

As a Green Party Councillor, I find myself balancing my civic and council responsibilities against my activism. But as a councillor, I have a responsibility to my constituents to ensure they are represented in council here in West Berkshire. Indeed I attended all my council meetings remotely from the wood and dealt with my casework throughout my time in the wood. 

I also have a wider responsibility to protect them and their families from the effects of climate change, and that is why I continue to stand against HS2 and push for a future that is not imperilled by our own inaction in the face of all the evidence. 

It is now late February 2021, and once again we are in lockdown. It's been over four months since I was finally evicted from the Bean Can treehouse in Jones Hill Wood and I feel more restricted and the feeling of lost liberty is more acute now than at at time during my incarceration. There is something oddly liberating about putting yourself on the line and giving up your freedom. I did wonder if I would be afraid of arrest and imprisonment, but after seeing the destruction, I am more afraid of inaction.

Jones’ Hill Wood still stands, but it remains at high risk. The occupation bought precious time, allowing the ecologists and lawyers to build a case against those involved with HS2 who continue to destroy our countryside without the proper authority. They ignore legislation and often seem to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Lockdown prevents me from travelling back to the wood at present, but if the chainsaws return I will be back.