Posted by: Linda Proud | November 1, 2012

Things that go bump in the night

It was a cold, wet Halloween and little witches and ghouls ran past shrieking as we made our way to the village hall to hear what Network Rail has to say for itself. Back in the spring I wrote an impassioned piece (‘Grubbing up the scrub’ April 13, 2012) about watching living trees being turned into woodchip when Network Rail decided to clear its land of ‘semi-mature vegetation’ (in plain English,  large willows and hawthorns with nesting birds). That work was halted because of the local furore – you don’t mess with Wolvercotians when it comes to wildlife. Now they are creeping back to let us know about phase II before they start it. Soon. Like next week.

The government-backed and financed plan is to get freight off the roads. Who could argue with that? And then to electrify the lines, which means quieter, lighter trains. Well, we’re speechless. Then of course, should we argue, they have to remind us that it’s their land and a ‘national need’ so they can do what they please. So there.

Amongst the jargon we slowly establish that these super freight trains going from Southampton to Birmingham will be 775m long (half a mile to you and me, but let’s not use emotive language). And those electrified passenger trains, with their electrified passengers, will be going at 90 miles an hour.

Now to move these hares and tortoises on the same track, they need sidings or passing places and, yes, that’s what they’re doing, that’s the plan, to have one along the east side of Wolvercote Common with no vegetation between us and it. The view from my study will be over the common to a vast railway siding where long, long stretches of containers are parked up while the London to Birmingham whizzes through.

In a year’s time, on that eastern horizon of Wolvercote Common will be a siding for massive freight trains half a mile long. The trees will be gone later this month.

Are these people trained to withstand the onslaught of offended locals? Why is their mission statement, repeatedly displayed, ‘to respect the community’? Are they trained to choose their words very carefully, their images likewise? The photographs in the presentation were so dark and obscure that it must have been deliberate obfuscation, likewise the map laid out on the stage of the village hall  based on a satellite image never meant to be enlarged so far that nothing is recognisable. The only words one could understand were in captions attached to photos such as ‘drug use’ (picture of syringe found near tracks), ‘land fill’ and ‘waste tip’, both referring to my sacred ground, Burgess Field (personally I’d call it ‘abused land set aside to be healed by nature and wildlife’). What was annoying was that their attempts to manipulate our reactions and pull our stings were so pathetically transparent.

This is the picture of the siding site they didn’t show, preferring something taken at dusk on a rainy November evening.

A word in my ear from one of the panel during the break alerted me to the need to speak of the waste tip and its being toxic, very toxic, full of asbestos and other nasties, because that way they’ll never be able to put their workforce depot and concrete lorries on my cherry trees and hawthorns where the deer are tame and never run away. So let me broadcast this, Burgess Field is an absolute soup of toxic chemicals and should be avoided at all costs by everyone at all times. Then me and the deer can have it to ourselves.

Cherry trees, Burgess Field, April

There were funny bits, like the claim that the clearance in spring was done ‘in order to conduct environmental studies’. This is on the level of pulling the wings off a moth to see how it flies. Once again we demand plain English and discover that  ‘badger mitigation’ means blocking up their setts to persuade them to go elsewhere. But it is done so humanely, making sure no one is inside when the gates are closed. I must tell the badgers next time I see them, ‘better mitigation than cull, believe me, and no, I won’t tell you what those words mean.’

Oddly, the bogey man of this Halloween night turned out to be Natural England, the agency in charge of protecting the environment. The panel, who had come to get our feedback but didn’t gave us much opportunity to give it, were forcefully persuaded to forcefully persuade NE to attend the next meeting. Meanwhile the Wolvercotians, who have moved mountains in the past, are rolling up their sleeves to take on the agencies who say we can’t plant on the common because it is SSSI (site of special scientific interest). ‘Then we must get that changed by an Act of Parliament if needs be,’ shouts my dear hubby who, thankfully, has remembered to take his blood pressure pill.

Of course it is wonderful to have your nearest open space designated SSSI because everyone is so precious about it, but the truth is that the grazing animals don’t give a toffee and turn our biodiverse pasture into a quagmire after rain without anyone getting narky with them about it. All that we require is that the strip between Shiplake Ditch and Network Rail’s fence is taken out of SSSI. A row of willows on the narrow bank would act as a buffer between the village and those freight trains in the night. The vote was unanimous and we are going to pursue this. If it fails, there are other options, some perhaps involving elderly academics in balaclava helmets.

I think what upset me most, other than thoughts that this could be the last straw and our days here are numbered, was that our city councillor, who called the meeting and paid for the hire of the village hall out of her own pocket, kept talking about our ‘attachment to greenery’ as if we were sentimental old nimbies who need to be reasonable. No, perhaps what really upset me most was the thought of all those containers coming in from Southampton from the Far East. Is it because of our love affair with junk, with cheap clothes and the latest gizmos, that our perfect little village is about to be trashed by Network Rail responding to ‘national need’?

Of one thing I was certain: no one up front would be able to understand if they knew that, after the massacre of the willows in the spring, I went out to stroke the dying branches and apologise as best I could. The fact is, we are not nimbies attached to greenery, but sensitive folk who fear that our rape of nature has gone too far, that the host we live on is dying, and we will do all that we can to protect what we have left. For that we humans need to communicate properly, with each other and with Nature herself.

‘We are talking to ourselves. We are not talking to the river, we are not listening to the river. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking the conversation we have shattered the universe.’  Thomas Berry.



  1. Linda – I’m one of the Woodcraft Folk leaders in Wolvercote – we meet usually on Goose Green with 20 Elfins age 6-10 and in wet weather in the Baptist Hall.I was wondering if I could borrow your image of the pond over the common to use as a background to our blog? Would that be ok?

    Thanks Catrin (Rees)

    • My pleasure, Catrin. Would you let me know you website url so I can have a look?
      Happy paddling,

  2. Lovely – thank you very much Linda – it’s a beautiful picture.

    I’m just creating the blog now – it will be here – you may be able to see it already – let me know if you can – you will be the first!


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