(All photographs by Harriet Bazley and Jill Beauchamp; click on any picture to see a larger version in a new window)
London Region CND had booked a coach to take protestors from across the city on the four-hour journey down into Somerset to attend the Hinkley Point demonstration, leaving the Embankment at 7·30am. This involved some early rising out in south-west London, but in the end we and our Wimbledon banner made it with plenty of time to spare!
The tops of the skyscrapers were disappearing into low cloud over the Thames when we arrived, and it looked like being a hazy day. However, things were clearing up a bit by the time we boarded the coach.
As part of the info pack issued on the coach, we were given sheets of blank paper and instructions for folding Hiroshima paper cranes. This kept us occupied for some time, not least because we had no means of cutting the paper to make it square before starting to fold it! But we achieved a pair of respectable looking cranes in the end and took the opportunity to pose them for a portrait when the coach pulled in for a rest break in brilliant sunshine; they raised the tone of the car park considerably and we thought about leaving them there as a peace statement, but were afraid they might be regarded instead as rubbish.
After we passed through Bridgewater the roads started to get smaller and greener and the low-lying mist returned, until finally our coach lurched its way cautiously through a gate onto a windy hill-top patch of grass, among ranks of other cars. Many extra layers of clothing were hastily pulled on as we packed our bags (and in some cases, clambered into our costumes) for the day. With the parting injunction to be back at all costs before half past five, when the coach was due to depart, we were set loose to follow the crowd out of the improvised car-park and down into the lane.
It was very quiet, very rural with hints of a neighbouring sea-shore, and there was no sign whatsoever of any nuclear power station beyond the hedgerows and meadows. In fact, we had the feeling that we were setting off for a pleasant hike in the countryside.
Reality intervened when we heard the muffled sounds of drums and noise-makers from over the brow of the hill up ahead. We still couldn't see any power station, but this was because the narrow road was entirely choked with protestors — if this narrow lane was the main access road for Hinkley Point, the group who were planning to blockade the base obviously weren't going to have much problem assembling sufficient bodies to carpet the Tarmac!
Somewhere on the road up in front of us we could hear amplified voices and it became evident that in the distance a rally was in fact taking place. A folk group called Seize the Day were apparently performing, and our neighbours in the crowd were indignant that we had never heard of them: they had played at Glastonbury and their members had been involved in a recent direct action occupation on the site of the proposed new power station, as reported in the Guardian last month. From where we stood, however, we could hear practically nothing but tambourines and see nothing at all.Presently the Ambling Band came threading their way through the crowd: we would see — and hear — more of them later on.
After a while, with some pushing, we found ourselves just on the edge of the circle of bodies for whom the speakers were audible — in front of us there were hushings and shushings as people tried to listen to the public address system, while behind us the crowd were talking cheerfully among themselves. Caroline Lucas, clearly accustomed to public speaking, gave a rousing (and audible) address and was followed by Kate Hudson, and gradually things got sorted out a little as the front rows of the circle were instructed to sit down so that those at the back could hear better.
There were obviously not nearly enough people present to surround the entire perimeter of the power station, so after much confused debate it was eventually decided that the demonstration should proceed along public footpaths to the left and right of the main gate, decorating the fence with coloured strips of cloth as we went, and all make as much noise as possible at a quarter past two.
It was only at this point, as the crowd thinned, that we of the Wimbledon contingent actually got a glimpse of the power station gates in front of which we had all been massing for the past hour!
We had no idea where we were going or how long it would take — someone had informed us in tones of doom that it took three hours to walk around the entire perimeter of Hinkley Point, which meant we would be hard-pushed to make it back to the coach in time to get back to London — but as we went through the gate down into the first field the crowd were spread out in a bobbing, brightly coloured line in front of us so we took the joint decision simply to follow them and see what happened; after all that sitting around on the coach and then standing around in the lane we were in the mood for a nice brisk country walk, along footpaths and over stiles, on what was by now turning out to be a sunny Saturday afternoon.
The entire perimeter fence was marked at intervals by glossy boards notifying passers-by that this was a Nuclear Licensed Site, a warning of unknown legal import but sufficient intimidation.
In the distance, a long flat ridge along the horizon hinted that the marshes and drainage ditches amongst which we were walking — and amid which the reactors were set — were held back from the sea only by a stout sea wall.
And lo and behold, as we climbed up the final slope we found ourselves standing in a stiff breeze and gazing out into the mist over the Bristol Channel.
It was quite windy and we took a unanimous decision to fold up the banner — which we had carried over stiles and through the mud to this point — and proceed with it furled!
The public footpath actually runs along the narrow strip of land that separates Hinkley Point B from the sea itself; immediately to our right the reactor buildings loomed above us in the mist, while to our left lay an extraordinary sea-shore comprising layer after layer of fossilised mud-flats.
Much speculation took place as to the origins and purpose of this strange offshore structure, which emerged gradually into view as the sun began to burn off the sea-mist. When finally fully visible it bore a strong resemblance to the Roman Colosseum!
It was at this point that we began to meet demonstrators heading in the opposite direction and were reassured that (after half an hour's walk) we were in fact halfway around the perimeter and thus in no danger of missing our return coach — we decided that it must have been three miles rather than three hours required to complete the walk.... 2·15pm arrived as the appointed noise-making hour while we were passing close under the reactor walls, but protestors here were somewhat thin on the ground and the cries and bashing of sticks didn't feel as if it was making much impression on the monolithic structure. I'm afraid we didn't join in.
As we came round the point we found ourselves within a stone's throw of the twin blue blocks of the Hinkley Point A reactors (now obsolete and being "left to cool" until 2025). A considerable number of security personnel were positioned behind the fence at this point, watching the protestors closely — presumably in case we tried to interfere with the preparation works going on for the new reactor complex, which were being undertaken in anticipation of the planning permission they had yet to receive. In fact the demonstrators were doing nothing more threatening than sitting down and eating lunch...
On the other side of the fence the ground had become little more than a moonscape.
We borrowed a sheet of proper origami paper (it was square, for a start...) from a couple who were busy trying to remember how to make paper cranes, and produced from memory a pink bird that was rather superior to the earlier efforts; practice makes perfect! This one we did leave behind to decorate the reactor fence.
On the far side of the reactor site we followed the path up through an ancient wood, now sealed off with shiny new fencing and brand-new warning signs (which we were later informed had no legal force). At one point an alarming crashing of branches on the far side of the fence turned out to be an eager Alsatian guard-dog dragging his handler through the woods — possibly in quest of trespassers!
From the signpost at the crest of the wood it was only a short walk back to the main gates, where people were beginning to filter back to their cars in the afternoon sun as the twenty-four-hour blockade brigade were settling in for the long haul. We admired (and patronised) the striking Thunderbox portable composting toilet, a miracle of green organisation which resembled nothing so much as a child's wooden playhouse.
The Nuclear White Elephant was still parked in the lane, an ingenious piece of papier-mâché construction. Later on we saw it departing behind its bicycle power supply, busily flashing and emitting a warning sound.
A former nuclear power worker spoke to the crowd, assuring them that if he could be converted to fervent opposition, then anyone could — an apostasy that was fervently received. Banners lined the hedgerows, including one that had evidently been painted by a talented artist: "COMING SOON: Hinkley, sequel to Fukushima".
We met and talked to Peter Le Mare (of Little Peace Boat fame) who had come up from Penzance and was planning to spend the night camped out at Hinkley Point. And then just as the 24-hour-blockade brigade were starting to settle down to an evening meal and the rest of the demonstrators were drifting homewards, the most interesting part of the day started, which was a guided tour over the nature reserve area which was due to be affected by the new development.
Our guide was one of the members of the group that had occupied an old barn on the site until they were evicted by court order, and he was able to show us around the area with intimate personal knowledge of every hedgerow and skylark meadow. We were shadowed from a distance by an off-road vehicle that could be seen bouncing over the fields in its haste to get round in front of us every time they worked out where we were going: we were also subject to surveillance from a threatening CCTV tower that had been hurriedly flung up in the middle of a field to focus on the occupied barn, and which swivelled to track every move we made in a very Orwellian fashion.
We were taken to see the barn (which had been fenced off)and had it scrupulously explained to us that while those named in the injunction were of course not permitted to re-occupy the building, there was nothing in law forbidding anyone else from doing it.... Time was growing short to get back to our coach for the return to London, so we hurried on; but behind us, a sizeable proportion of the crowd chose to amass in front of the barn and throw all their weight upon the offending fence, which bent and then gave way altogether under this remorseless pressure. There was a certain air about it of the storming of the Bastille.
Cries went up for someone to climb the roof; but the security guards had been summoned and were rapidly arriving, so with discretion proving the better part of valour the barn was re-evacuated.
With time getting on, the party had to split. The main group went down towards the sea to visit the ancient wildwood, while the Ambling Band led the remainder along the route back to the main gates of the power station — somewhat to our relief, as we only had half an hour left to return to the coach and didn't want to get lost! But there was no danger of that while we could simply follow the music, so like the children of Hamelin we were drawn after the bright pink instruments and the cheerful (and sometimes cheeky) melodies; and thence all the way back to the car-park and home in the gathering dark.