by Matthew Magill
"Events such as this have led to stronger bonds forming within them: 'We don't have to be friends, necessarily, but we are comrades'."
Starting over a year ago, and after surviving storms that tore open the Millennium Dome, the Stonehenge Action Camp continues to resist the plans to widen the A303 trunk road, which has been proposed as a solution to traffic issues.
From their petition, the group explains that, "the proposal is to put the road into a tunnel where it passes the stones, but the tunnel would be, at most, only 2.9 km long". The issue comes with the remaining 1.6 km of road that would continue above ground and requires trenches to access this tunnel with the possibility of additional road infrastructure. This network around the tunnel portals threatens not only local ecosystems but all of the archeological material in the wide area that surrounds the stones.
This fear of lost heritage is not without precedent. Despite existing since 3000 BC, our archeological understanding of Stonehenge is still developing. Milestones within the field range from the investigation into the Aubrey Holes, chalk pits surrounding the stones with evidence of human remains and potential timber supports, to the ambitious Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project which endeavours to create a geophysical survey of the surrounding area and hidden sub-surface. The potential discoveries of future research could redefine Stonehenge's place in history and thus its potential loss is incalculable.
Stonehenge HAG are fighting to resist this loss of ancient culture. Aiming to dismiss the plan altogether, the group has also suggested a lesser compromise of a 4.5 km deep-bored tunnel that would avoid damages caused by entry and exit ports. Both options would negate these risks to a World Heritage Site which in turn would breach the World Heritage Convention. As I traveled from St Pancreas to Salisbury train station to Stonehenge and, finally, to the camp in Amesbury, I held on to this anger and upset at the impending destruction.
Nestled into a woodland grove by the Amesbury bypass off the A303, the camp announced itself with bedsheet banners and wooden placards.
Guided by Spoons, a resident of several months, the camp had the expected amenities: two greenhouses for growing food, an accessible toilet, a wooden hut kitchen, and multiple tents and vans for sleeping, storage, and communal space.
But beyond this, I was shown a tent for displaying art, a shared library, a market stall offering miscellaneous supplies (all free), a covered stage, and the equivalent of a multi-faith room: a recently constructed hut for introspection and seclusion.
Having never visited a fixed protest camp, I was amazed by the homeliness. Spoons explained that the materials were scavenged, donated, or reused from dismantled protests such as the HS2 camps that many of the residents came from.
As we returned to the heart of the camp, a smoky fire pit used to heat cast-iron kettles, I was led to the busy kitchen where the conversation turned to the properties of turmeric, recipes for banana pancakes, and the best way to incorporate spices into a meal.
I felt the anxiety of the journey and the surrounding tension of the A303 extension begin to dissipate. Over the sound of céilí music playing from a phone, charged by the camp's solar panel, Spoons explained that Stonehenge HAG was a FINT (Female, Intersex, Nonbinary, and Transgender) camp.
With marginalised groups leading the camp's communal ideology, she and many of the other residents spoke of the masculine tension common in protest camps; a sort of apocalypse-prepping attitude that results in a continual pressure to prove yourself as a resident.
In rejection of that atmosphere, they talked about the recent group event they held to share their fears and worries with each other. Events such as this have led to stronger bonds forming within them: "We don't have to be friends, necessarily, but we are comrades".
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The bonds formed from living in camps together were mentioned several times. As I sat by the fire and listened to impromptu guitar sessions, new ways to reuse tetra packs, and the best scavenging finds, those bonds spoke for themselves. Maybe because so many of the residents are quick to dismiss their achievements, "You say 'difficult' a lot" one later admitted. Despite their humility, I was continually impressed at how every moment was either a chance to learn or a chance to laugh. I saw this unfold as one of the weekenders, when failing to relight the campfire, was quickly walked through a one-on-one fire-building lesson. There was no judgment, no jokes at his expense, simply a willingness to help and a willingness to learn.
The teacher in that scenario, Tide, spoke to me in the group's communal tent. From Wales originally, and having left to live in a protest camp at eighteen, they had been living at this camp for roughly five months. Being familiar with the wider network of live-in protests, they were candid about their experience.
They told me about the joy of living outdoors, but soon echoed the conversation I had with Spoons on bonds, "I felt held...[we're] building real connections". I asked more about this impactful fear-sharing event. They told me about the fear of instability, the what if this doesn't work scenario, and the anxiety that follows which is to submit to the hegemony of capitalism: getting an office job, paying rent, and being forced back into an unfamiliar and unsympathetic world. I could relate to that feeling as while Tide has had an equal hand in maintaining an entire community, that myriad of skills is lost in translation to the corporate world.
"Now that you are here and making a stand", I asked, "...has that climate guilt lessened?"
They continued to explain the ease at which they could ignore climate guilt when in the conventional world, "You can be hit all at once with it, but there's escapism...It fades. Now it's at the forefront of my mind". Guilt seemed a prevalent theme as they described the martyrdom that activists can be swept up in, "For the price of trauma...jail time" and in that vein of activism they told me how many experience police brutality in the process of eviction tactics, as has been the fate of many of the HS2 camps. In their own way, Tide explained how their guilt also came from how easy it is to live at Stonehenge HAG. How that guilt was lessened in more toxic or disorganised camps where the dishes were never done or the food was never good: that feeling of unsustainable martyrdom masquerading as guilt of comfort.
I wanted to end on a high note to celebrate the work that the camp has achieved. There was even word around the fire that the A303 planning team have factored in the protestors into their projections. One of the first things Spoons told me was that the protest was not a binary case of winning or losing against the motorway and that it can be too disheartening to view protest from that perspective. Rather, the point of protest is to create hope and to live within the kind of future you wish to see. So I asked Tide what they would tell people who read this article and feel that hope rise within them,
"Spend a weekend," they said. A limited commitment visit with no online activism or social media posting required. "Just be here". As I left the camp, I felt lighter than I had on the journey there. The hope that buoyed me was a sign, in the smallest and most important way, that the camp had already won.
If you would like to visit the camp or show your solidarity with them through donations of money or supplies, check out their Linktree.
Matthew Magill is an Irish writer and editor. He is also one of the Literature Editors at Radical Art Review. Follow him on Twitter.