By Sharron Ward. 14 December 2021.
I happened upon the Stop HS2 Denham protection camp purely by accident.
It was May 2020. The UK was just starting to ease up on its first shock Covid 19 lockdown which began on March 26. I lived in West London and as a nature-lover, I enjoy walking in nature, especially amongst the trees. Being a kiwi, it’s being in the great outdoors and connecting with nature that keeps me sane and makes me feel at home. As restrictions started easing, I was desperate to get out of London, but I didn’t want to go too far away. So I searched for the nearest large green space and chanced upon Denham Country Park on the edge of West London - nestled on the border with Buckinghamshire. I’d never been there before and I was absolutely amazed at this enchanting haven of green space – with a huge nature reserve and a chalk stream – the River Colne running right through it. The majority of the world’s most precious and unique chalk streams are found in England. Chalk streams are rivers that rise from springs and are naturally filtered through chalk bedrock. It means they are crystal clear and usually free of sediment – a rarity in English rivers. It was a literal breath of fresh air and the river water was mesmerising, cool and crystal clear.
I made a mental note to come back when it was warmer for a swim. As I walked the beautiful trails I marvelled at the lush and majestic trees growing - from oaks, to chestnuts, alders, to ash and more. I’d even posted about my visit on Instagram it was so beautiful. There were various signs declaring that Denham Country Park, part of the Colne Valley Regional Park network was important for biodiversity, especially the string of wetland habitats. These provide homes for the plentiful wildlife species living right on the very edge of London. It’s also part of a national nature reserve, a special protection area and has 13 “SSIs” – sites of Special Scientific Interest. I was astonished that I’d never heard of this place before – especially as it was so close from my home.
But it wasn’t until early August, that I managed to finally visit again – and go for that dip. As I crossed the picturesque wooden bridge over the River Colne, I noticed a banner declaring “H2O, not HS2” and “Our Amazon” strung up along the willow trees gracing the banks of the river. Puzzled by this, I investigated further. Along the very same trail that I had marvelled at just months earlier, was a series of giant ugly heras fences surrounded by construction workers in high Vis jackets and hard hats. Perplexed, I asked the security guy what was happening and he told me “it’s the HS2 project – for a high speed rail line that you or I will probably never use in our lifetime.” They were cutting down the beautiful, elegant majestic trees. I couldn’t quite believe that such destruction was allowed to happen in a nature reserve and a site of special scientific interest. I was also surprised that I’d never heard it was happening right on my doorstep.
Walking further into the woodland, I found who had made those banners. It was a merry band of eco-warriors who had formed a makeshift protest camp on the banks of the River Colne – the Denham ford environmental protection camp. The camp had been going for several months and was well-established with several tents, solar showers, a community kitchen with camp fire, compost toilet – everything including the kitchen sink. The tree protectors had built a series of platforms up in the trees, making makeshift homes where some were also camped out. They were literally living in the trees in a desperate attempt to stop them from being chopped down.
They are a hugely dedicated and brave bunch of what I would term “eco-warriors” who are literally living on the climate frontline. They are made up of people from all walks of life – from pensioners, to local residents to Extinction Rebellion activists. An off-shoot of Extinction Rebellion called HS2 Rebellion and another activist group Stop HS2 has sprung up. Many of the protectors living and visiting Denham camp are young women and men, who don’t necessarily align with any of the groups. But they’ve all adopted pseudonymns associated with nature – like “River,” “Blackbird,” “Swan,” and “Ash.” Many of them have been arrested countless times from either locking onto Lorries and other HS2 construction equipment or from scaling trees literally to stop them from being destroyed. All of this is in an attempt to delay and slow down the HS2 project – and so far they have managed to do just that.
The camp is set up literally right next door to the construction site where the protectors are under constant surveillance from the large CCTV apparatus installed across the river and from the construction workers themselves who constantly take photos on their phones (in fairness, the activists do it back and film and video their every move and post it on social media in an attempt to document their activities).
There are several protection camps sited up and down the route of the train line from Birmingham to London – from Wendover, to Crackley Woods – to the now infamous Battle of Jones Hill Wood - the woods that inspired Roald Dahl to write his book the Fantastic Mr Fox. These woods have now largely been decimated. These protests are the first significant large scale non-violent direct action protests since the 1990s when protestors lived in the trees to try and stop the Newbury by-pass being built. Even “Swampy” who gained notoriety during these protests has famously made a comeback. After occupying a beacon tripod in the River Colne back in November 2020, Swampy at the time of writing, is holed up in a tunnel in Wendover - they’ve taken the fight underground.
Swampy occupying the River Colne credit: HS2 Rebellion
HS2 is the UK government’s high speed railway project. Phase one of the line is currently being built from Birmingham to London – so that commuters can reach Birmingham 20 minutes earlier than they currently can. As much as it’s easy to joke that who in their right mind would want to get to Birmingham 20 minutes earlier, there’s environmental destruction happening all along the line on a devastating scale. But surely a train line is a green project – it will help get people out of cars and cut down on greenhouse gases won’t it? You might think that, until I learnt some horrifying facts about this project.
And so, naturally as a documentary filmmaker whose primary focus is on conservation, wildlife and the climate crisis, I began to film.
Sharron Ward filming Stop HS2 protests at West Hyde, Denham
Many activists I met and filmed such as “Swan” told me the reality. All along the route, around 108 ancient woodlands are at risk of being decimated to make way for this railway line. That’s 108 ancient carbon sequesters that we will never get back. In some kind of sick twisted joke, HS2 Ltd claim that for every tree they’re cutting down, they’ll plant more in its place. But has the Woodland Trust points out, it will take countless generations to mitigate the destruction of ancient woodland and we simply don’t have that time.
As the recent IPCC reports, we’re facing ecological tipping points right now – the UN has warned us that we’re at Code Red for Humanity. We’re running out of time. HS2 Ltd admits that the railway line itself will never be carbon neutral in its 120 year life span.
Astonishingly, the general public appears to be largely unaware that the train line itself is being built on thousands of kilometres of concrete slabs. HS2 is literally concretising nature. They didn’t pave paradise and put up a parking lot – they want to pave it for a railway line.
Too often, the popular criticism of Extinction Rebellion activists, of HS2 Rebellion or of the recently formed Insulate Britain is that activists are a “bunch of hippie, tree-hugging soap dodgers with nothing better to do.” But what I found was the complete opposite. Hippies, yes certainly, tree huggers most definitely. And a group of hugely committed and well-informed people from all walks of life – from ecologists, writers, doctors, lawyers, students and local residents – some whom had never protested before. Veteran activist “Swan,” used to be a fashion designer, until she could no longer stand by and watch the planet burn. Dr Larch Maxey was a university lecturer in geography before he gave it all up to commit his life full-time to stop HS2. They’ve been arrested on numerous occasions and Maxey spent a month underground in a tunnel under Euston Station earlier in 2021.
There’s evidence too, that the felled trees from HS2 are being used to fuel Drax – the biomass power station in North Yorkshire which until recently heavily relied on producing power from burning coal. But it’s been recently revealed in the Telegraph, that Drax's 'green fuel', which is made from wood pellets, produces more carbon than coal. And a Freedom of Information request from HS2 Rebellion revealed that 63% of trees felled by HS2 are chipped, created for biomass and burnt for fuel, believed to be primarily sent to Drax. If it’s not bad enough to chop these carbon stores down, they’re also being burnt en-masse to be released back into the atmosphere.
And as many activists pointed out to me, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, train travel in the UK has reached an all-time low. With the advent of zoom meetings and working from home, people are now commuting significantly less.
And let’s not get into the cost of UK taxpayer’s money. Currently, HS2 is projected to cost the UK tax payer £200 billion. That’s our money being used to line the pockets of big corporate contractors to effectively kill the UK’s biodiversity.
But if that wasn’t enough, the cruel irony is that the HS2 train line isn’t even going to run through Denham Country Park. They’re cutting down thousands of trees to build a service road to move 3 pylons that are in the way of the train line. In so doing, they’re building a bridge across the beautiful (and the once pristine) chalk River Colne in order to transport it out of the area. Many activists and local residents told me that they didn’t have to do this. It was all avoidable, they say. “They could have just taken them down and transported them out via the Grand Union Canal, which runs right alongside the pylons.” say campaigners Mark Keir and Swan. This is - I’m told how the electricity pylons got there in the first place many years ago. Apparently, according to the activists, part of environmental legislation is that the onus is on the constructors to find a solution that is least damaging to the environment – but as we have discovered with most political decisions these days, the UK government and big business gets a free pass.
And it’s not just carbon stores that are at risk. In other parts of the Colne Valley, HS2 plans to build a viaduct which will span the Colne Valley Regional Park and will require several hundred concrete piles to be drilled deep into chalk ground which holds huge amounts of water and supplies more than one billion litres each day. Activists and environmental organisations say that at risk is London’s water supply as 20% of London’s drinking water comes from this river. Drilling through the chalk aquifer could risk contaminating the supply say campaigners. So, this is what that banner meant.
In the face of COP26 – a global climate conference the UK is ironically hosting, many find this brazen hypocrisy a step too far. Whilst advocating for a halt to the deforestation of the Amazon and to other forests around the world, the UK ignores it’s very own Amazon – made possible by HS2 – in what has been billed by Conservationist Chris Packham as “the largest deforestation project in the UK since World War I.” And as veteran stop HS2 campaigner Mark Keir, so eloquently puts it – “This is the most nature-depleted country in Europe. To have this rare wet woodland and wreck it, is just absolutely crazy. Everything’s dying and we can’t afford it.” Mark also points out that there are 17 species of bat roosting in the area and there are only 18 species in the country.
Mark Keir at the site of the oak tree felling, Denham Country Park
In the film, Swan refers to an incident that changed her life and one she is still traumatised by. It was a hot summer’s day in late June 2020. Across the River Colne was a 600 year old majestic Alder tree that had stood the test of time. What it must have seen in its lifetime is hard to imagine. And the amount of C02 it must have sequestered over those years is difficult to guess. It wasn’t even really in the way, but next to it, was the site of where the bridge HS2 wanted to build across the river to transport those pylons. Over 2 days, in what has now been infamously called “The Battle of the Alder Tree” several tree protectors constructed lines across the river – suspending themselves on these lines and up some trees in a valiant attempt to stop it being cut down. The police and NET were present and cut their safety lines (this is undisputed and there’s plenty of footage showing this). By cutting their lines, this caused one of the activists to fall 20 feet into the water – who was later hospitalised. Larch and Swan were both at one time on those lines across the water when Swan’s line was cut too, causing her to fall 20 feet into the River. As she said, she could have died that day. But instead, she was arrested. It took hours for HS2 to finally cut down that beautiful stately tree before it was massacred in the middle of the night.
Alder Tree felling credit: HS2 Rebellion
Swan & Larch on the line, The Battle of the Alder Tree, Denham Country Park credit: HS2 Rebellion
Swan told me that for her the climate crisis is real – “it’s not this intangible ‘thing’ that’s just out there somewhere – it’s here, right now it’s real – because my life is in jeopardy. All our lives are in jeopardy,” she says.
And it’s very real for Larch Maxey too – “the science says that if we don’t bring emissions down in the next 3 months then our chances of survival as a species are massively reduced.”
Tree Protector Swan at Denham Country Park
At COP26, Boris Johnson made a stirring speech that we all must pool together to save the planet, “because humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It’s one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock, and we need to act now.” He referred to the “crowds of young people outside “watching and waiting for action,” and talked of “the children who will judge us, the children not yet born. And their children …” But what does Johnson do to those young activists demanding action on climate change? His government criminalises them, arrests them and intimidates them. HS2 is a government project that his Cabinet approved.
In a somewhat perverse statement at COP26 announcing plans to halt deforestation by 2030, Johnson later said that they were collectively “ending the Great Chainsaw Massacre, with more than 85 per cent of the world’s forests to be protected by the end of this decade,” but he failed to mention the tree massacre happening right on his own doorstep.
The response of Johnson’s government and Priti Patel the UK Home Secretary, has been to criminalise environmental protest. The increasing criminalising of Extinction Rebellion and HS2 Rebellion activists who glue themselves to construction equipment or Insulate Britain activists who block roads, is a creeping and chilling attempt to silence dissent and the right to peaceful and democratic protest. There have been several attempts in the last 2 years by HS2 Ltd to actually have activists put in prison for non-violent protest. Dr Maxey himself was on remand in prison for two weeks before he was released on bail. HS2 Ltd has also successfully applied to the High Court to injunct some of the land so that protestors can be arrested merely for standing on it. And now many human rights lawyers believe the proposed Police and Crime Bill in the UK could have a chilling effect on peaceful protest. Disturbingly, some environmental activists have filed complaints that they have been intimidated as a precautionary measure in case they plan to protest.
At one point, the Met labelled Extinction Rebellion and climate activists as extremists – alongside far right groups who should be reported for their extremist ideology. Climate activists would rightly point out that multinational fossil fuel corporations responsible for covering up and denying evidence of global warming are the real climate terrorists here.
It’s a sick hypocrisy when those who are trying to warn us of societal collapse are penalised - instead of those who are hastening that societal collapse and the extinction of species with great speed.
In Denham Country Park – and indeed at all the environmental camps up and down the HS2 construction line, HS2 Ltd has employed their very own security force known as the National Eviction Team (NET), who are high court enforcement officers. They “specialise” in the eviction of environmental protestors. Activists have alleged many transgressions, assaults and intimidating tactics by the NET and I myself have witnessed some of these. Many of these assaults have happened under the watchful eye of the police such as at an event on September 7 2020 at the Denham site. And at other protection sites, despite witness statements and complaints made by the activists – no action has ever been taken against the alleged offenders – bar one incident when four NET employees were suspended for assaulting and breaking the jaw of HS2 protestors.
As Stone tells me in the film, at Denham, on 7 September activists were sitting in the river singing, holding hands in an act of non-violent defiance. Another protestor had scaled a tree to stop it being cut down – in a stand-off that lasted hours. There is footage of NET employees attacking and holding down activists under the water. It is quite literally, a David and Goliath battle. Other assaults have been reported, yet despite many arrests of the activists, to my knowledge there has not been a single arrest of anyone attacking the protestors.
Stop HS2 activists protesting in the River Colne, Denham Country Park credit: HS2 Rebellion
It’s not hard to see on social media – on Twitter in particular, a divisive culture war playing out against climate activists who are seen as being too extreme and overly-hysterical. There are two viral videos that stand out in particular – where members of the general public are seem to remonstrate and attack Insulate Britain activists. In one of the videos – a lady is seen to aggressively use her car to push forward an activist sitting on the road – in an attempt to nearly run her over. In another, a male member of the public is seen to squirt ink in the faces of several activists who are passively resisting, sitting down in the road blocking it. What we are witnessing here is the last dying vestiges of those that want to desperately cling on to their way of life as they have known it. Those people who don’t quite realise the true nature of our planet in peril, and who quite simply feel they’re being inconvenienced because they can’t get to work in their cars on time. And I can understand that sense of frustration. It’s hard to let go, to realise that change must happen, that we need to go cold turkey on our reliance and addiction of fossil fuels – in this instance on petrol and diesel that is fuelling our cars. Like the dinosaurs that were forced into extinction around 65 million years ago – will these dinosaurs too become extinct?
Like turkeys voting for Christmas – they don’t see that they are willingly aiding and abetting their own demise.
One typical filming day, in September 2020, I accompanied the tree protectors to a site in Denham Country Park. It was a location that was most definitely not on the approved site plan that HS2 had been granted licence to fell. On that site, that day I witnessed (and filmed) many trees being felled – they were literally razing the land – it looked like a scorched earth policy. Many activists stood by bearing witness, many like Stone and Mark tried to reason with the tree surgeons and security, to no avail.
Only days earlier, activists had witnessed giant oak trees being felled on this site – and the sad remnants of these once majestic oaks lay on the ground scarred, battered and broken – devoid of their branches, as if their limbs had been torn off. These oaks were hundreds of years old and were sequestering carbon to help us breathe and to provide habitats for wildlife. We witnessed many burrows in these felled oaks that would have made perfect nesting spots for birds and bats. It’s where I filmed Swan telling me how she feels seeing these majestic oaks cut down in their prime, as she sat on one of the stumps. As Swan puts it bluntly – “if we want to mitigate the climate and ecological crisis, then we need every tree that we have in the planet to survive. And yet here is HS2 cutting down trees every day.” It’s still unclear why HS2 Ltd cut down all those oaks – some activists fear it’s purely to sell to Drax to burn as bio-fuel.
Destruction of trees, Denham Country Park
A recent investigation revealed that HS2 Ltd has to date, in August 2021 cut down 116 hectares of trees – that’s the equivalent of around 290 football fields. Around 15 hectares of that is believed to be of trees that are over 400 year’s old – ancient woodland. This really is the UK’s Amazon. And so far, not a single mile of railway track has even been laid.
There have been many allegations of wildlife crimes taking place – the UK’s Woodland Trust has been documenting them. HS2 Rebellion activists too have spent many months monitoring the wildlife and the alleged contraventions of the Wildlife Act by HS2 Ltd. This was particularly the case in Jones Hill Wood, but like many times before, it seems the Wildlife Act is not fit for purpose - if it is not adequately upheld. The grotesque and quite inexplicable decisions of Natural England – a government body whose supposed purpose is to uphold and protect Nature – has been questioned many times by HS2 Rebellion and other environmental organisations. As Mark Keir pointed out to me, “having a bat licence enabling HS2 Ltd to disturb bat roosts is in itself a gross contradiction of protecting a rare species of bat.”
It’s here at the end of the day, I found another tree protector, sat quietly on her own, amongst the piled up corpses of murdered trees, surveying the devastation. She was sat quietly crying. Silent, sad, angry tears. As I was filming her, I was fighting back the tears too.
Yes a great deal of the responsibility lies within the corporations and governments that have stayed complicit in their greed for wealth by burning fossil fuels, extracting every resource out of the planet, of over-fishing, of de-forestation, the list goes on, but while we must hold them to account we must also look towards our own consumption, to practice what we preach and to demand renewable energy, engage in a circular economy and check our over-consumption. And we need to perhaps patiently educate those who simply don’t get it.
There’s a comment from Stone that echoes in my head. “When you talk to the other side, they don’t understand the connections they’re destroying. Like with the mycelium the relationship they have with the trees and with the soil, it takes hundreds of years to properly cultivate and by cutting these trees down and devastating this land, that’s all ruined.” I often wondered if some of the workers knew what they were doing, or did they just not care? The individual workers might not get it, but the Johnson Government behind the project certainly does. To quote Boris Johnson in his own words at COP26 “For tens of millions of people around the world it is literally a matter of life or death…”
That rich soil, those trees we’re never going to get back. It’s the lack of connecting the dots, of understanding how the eco-system works and how the plants, the soil, the insects, the birds and the bees are all inter-connected. When we lose one link in the chain, we start to lose all links in the chain. This is something I am learning and beginning to understand more. We’re losing bio-diversity at an unprecedented rate. I recommend watching an excellent documentary that explains how mycelium literally are the cells of most life forms on earth – it’s called Fabulous Fungi. In fact, it should be compulsory viewing for HS2 Ltd and their contractors – or anyone tasked with cutting down trees for that matter. But perhaps they don’t care – money speaks louder than social conscience perhaps. They’re too busy stuffing their pockets for the now too worry or think about the future – in a myopic act of suicide.
Stone at Denham Environment Protection Camp
But I care. My heart breaks for the planet, for the wildlife, for the sea creatures - and for us.
I think of the carbon sink we’re losing, of the CO2 those trees were sucking up so that we can breathe, I think of the trees and the intelligence they hold and how they are living breathing entities, communicating with one another – now all gone. And I think of the wildlife – the birds, the bats, the water voles, and the insects whose habitats are now destroyed.
There’s a horrifying scene I can’t get out of my head. I’m sitting on the banks of the beautiful River Colne filming. Across the river is a giant bright red pipe line – literally a mechanical dragon. It’s piping concrete – a harsh, corrosive, chemical unnatural mixture into this beautiful, natural and what was - unspoilt environment. It’s presence amongst the trees and along the gentle burbling stream is so incongruous, so out of place, it’s sickening. It’s pouring litres and litres of concrete to make the foundations for an unnecessary bridge across this tranquil river. It’s Ecocide – because that’s what it is, its pure wanton destruction to ecosystems, committed with full knowledge of the risks and the damage it’s doing killing our planet.
Filmmaker Sharron Ward filming the metal dragon, Denham Country Park
I would often go home at the end of a day’s filming and just feel numb. And sad. Sad for what we’re losing and what we’ve lost every day because of this project. Sad for the utter senseless waste for a train line that the UK doesn’t need and for the habitats lost to the many species that live in those trees. Sad for the trees, who are the lungs of the earth, who help us breathe. Whenever I hear the sound of a chainsaw now, I bristle, I feel physically sick, like a kind of PTSD.
I usually make observational films that document objectively a movement or an event taking place of national or international significance for major broadcasters and streamers. But on this occasion, I decided that the climate crisis is accelerating at such an alarming rate that it was time to advocate for the cause – and editorialise a film to be used for the Stop HS2 campaign – I can’t think of a better use of a film to show, albeit briefly, what motivates these Tree Protectors to do what they do, to sacrifice their lives, their work and their freedoms to stand up for a cause that quite literally could save the lives of generations to come.
When Swan told me that she feels like it’s her limbs being torn from her body when she sees the branches cut from a tree, I know how she feels. I feel exactly the same way. Watching day in day out the senseless destruction of these beautiful trees, made me want to scream. But I was at the time; a filmmaker objectively “observing” what was happening and documenting it. I didn’t scream out. But I can no longer stay silent. As they say “silence is violence.” And so I am now screaming, crying, wailing, shouting and demanding action too, demanding that we fix this sorry mess that corporations, governments and we (older generations) have helped to create.
Swan at the site of felled oaks, Denham Country Park
It is the young climate activists such as Squid, Stone, and Talia Woodin in particular and their inspiring commitment and sacrifice that gives me hope for the planet and for humanity. The youth, they say will inherit the earth – but what kind of earth it is, is in the hands of all of us.
Talia Woodin at Denham Environment Protection Camp
We owe these activists a huge debt, one that some of us might never repay.
I’m glad I stumbled upon this inspiring protection camp that August summer’s day.
And yes, Boris and the world leaders at COP26 – as Johnson himself says – the eyes of the world are on you and we’ve got your number - and your number is up.
You can watch the short film Meet the Tree Protectors Stopping HS2 here.
Sharon Ward is an Emmy & RTS-award winning documentary filmmaker who founded Katalyst Productions that is now dedicated to documenting the climate crisis, conservation, wildlife and natural history. She is based in the UK and New Zealand.