THE M3 - A ROAD TOO FAR?
Twyford Down and St Catherine's Hill are names that to the people of mid-Hampshire became synonymous with modern day history after the Government's transport department sheered a gigantic motorway cutting through one of the most protected sections of landscape in the UK.
“Twyford Down is now permanently split by the cutting that carries the M3 extension on a route chosen only for maximum convenience for the City of Winchester. The planning process itself was biased towards the interests of the developers and the voices of the small number of villagers and environmentalists were effectively silenced by a system that denies protesters the right of appeal. The same decisions were made at Newbury, and again protest was silenced by a system that gives a right of appeal only to the developer.
“The scale of the protest, and the anger that each decision induced should have had an effect upon those who make planning decisions. The City of Winchester saw the fiercest protests against the unnecessary destruction of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and it may be thought that this experience would affect future decisions in the area. Sadly, at the first serious test since Twyford Down Winchester has yet again failed to respect the landscape in which it is set.” — © copyright Steve Firth 1998
The above quoted analysis was written by a participating protester. I worked as a journalist and independent observer in the episode over its peak five years. Twyford Down had for many years been designated as both an SSSI (Site of special scientific interest) and an AONB (area of outstanding natural beauty). It was a site containing known settlements dating back to pre-medieval days.
The A33/A30 linked Southampton and Reading. With the advent of motorways across the UK, plans were drawn up and the new M3 constructed, intended to link Southampton to London.
However, objections were raised over the exact course of the road through Twyford Down and St Catherine's Hill, where the new motorway was to pass close to Winchester city. The three-lane motorway section from London reduced to two lanes a few miles north of Winchester, and the motorway status ended at a set of traffic lights at the junction of the A33 with the Morestead Road, a busy junction serving Winchester city centre.
The route planned for the continuation of the road crossed water meadow land belonging to the Cathedral Diocese and land owned by Winchester College. The college steadfastly refused to come to any agreement, holding firm to the environmental protection of the land it owned, and the government held back from issuing a compulsory purchase order on the collegeperhaps not wanting to sever its close links with the institution.
"The landscape around Winchester, a countryside lost, its history hidden and ignored, unveiled itself to me. St. Catherine's, for millennia a gathering-place of many tribes, a sacred hill ringed with trees – a meeting place of many paths and old trackways, linking hills and monuments the length and breadth of ancient Britain. Trackways trod deep into the land by travellers' feet. As I learned more of the land, my anger began to rise. History was repeating itself. Two thousand years ago, at the beginning of this age, tribal leaders gathered at this place. King Arthur, Queen Boudicca—pagan Celtic warriors, protectors of the land—fought against the Roman invaders and their straight roads and square towns, that threatened our already highly-sophisticated culture."
© Alan Lodge (http://www.gn.apc.org/tash/indra.htm)
Meanwhile a number of protest groups were established over the 20 years for which the argument spanned, moving from public inquiry to public inquiry and culminating in the Twyford Down Association, set up by some prominent local business people as an 'official' umbrella protest group.
A number of alternative proposals were submitted to the government's transport department, including the option of a tunnel through Twyford Down, estimated at some £75million above the government's own proposals for the cutting.
While the legal arguments continued, concerned environmentalists mounted a concerted campaign to halt the proposals, some setting up tree camps and living on Twyford Down itself to stop any clearing of land. At one stage a father carried his new born child into the path of a bulldozer clearing land for the motorway, protesting that his child had the right to the conservation of a historically rich part of his country's heritage. It was all to be in vain.
The Twyford Down Association took the government to the High Court in London, accusing it of breaching its own environmental regulations. The case was lost. Meanwhile however, the issues had been brought to the attention of the European Union environmental Minister of the time, Carlo Ripa di Meana, who put it under the spotlight and ruled that the UK was to halt progress on the road, plus over a dozen other road developments across the UK, until the EU had properly examined the issues.
Mr di Meana issued an official EU interim statement that the UK was considered to be in breach of environmental concerns by going ahead with its M3 route proposals. The UK government chose to ignore the accusations. Later the same year the UK took over the presidency of the EU and surprise surprise Mr di Meana was promptly removed from office.
In the early 1990's, the section of M3 motorway was completed from Southampton to the southern reaches of Twyford Down leaving just the one small section incomplete. It then became obvious that the Government intended to press on with its plan to gouge a huge cutting through Twyford Down to carry the road.
Scenes of confrontation continued and erupted into ugly violence as protesters attempted to halt construction on sitecoming under attack by private security guards illicitly paid to guard the site by the government through Treasury funds. Later, many environmentalists caught up in the affrays received large cash compensation settlements from the Government, ordered by the High Court.
At one stage, protesters gathered outside the Winchester office of the local Tory MP of the time, Gerry Malone, eager to speak with a man who had been elected MP for the region but who had never officially visited the area under threat nor spoken with those organising the protest, who included Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace as well as the local Twyford Down Association. Mr Malone's reaction was to lock himself inside his constituency office and call the police to claim that he was under siege from and being 'threatened' by those outside his office.
Progress was much slower than the government wished as scientists and archaeologists worked on the settlement sites, documenting uncovered history and removing as much as possible of the site to museums. That there was much left behind and obliterated by the road is without doubt. Within two-and-a-half years, the peaceful and proud Twyford Down had given way to the savage scar of a gigantic cutting and the reddish grey expanse of asphalt.
"I arrived at Twyford Down one cold April night unprepared either physically, emotionally or psychologically for what was about to begin. A magical journey of over two years, that was to change my life and affect the lives of everybody near to me."
Readers keen to locate further details of this 20-year-long environmental battle should contact the Winchester Extra newspaper at Winchester, which has a comprehensive collections of news cuttings and documents relating to the saga.
The Winchester Extra can be located through the web site news links directory at http://www.newsquest.co.uk
or by telephone 00441962-852000
by fax 00441962-842313
related: NRA gets go-ahead for M3 at Lismullen, Ireland, despite historical status
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