Captain’s Log 29/01/19 10:39
I’m on a train heading to Preston in Lancashire. I’m crammed on a 4 seater next to some businessmen, who’ve filled the overhead compartment with their luggage. I’m surrounded by bags, wearing about 6 layers and roasting alive. But despite this, I’m incredibly excited. A few weeks ago, I found out I got a grant from the Arts Council to visit 10 places around England as a Door-to-Door Poet. This is my first trip and the first time I’ve done Door-to-Door Poetry since 2017. The idea is to carry on my mission of visiting strangers in their homes and writing poems for them, for free, on whatever they think is important. I also want to explore some places which are a little bit more unusual.
With that in mind, I’m on my way to meet Ruth, who’s going to take me to an anti-fracking occupation camp. Fracking, the process of extracting shale gas from the ground using a high pressure pipe filled with chemicals, has been opposed by a long list of environmental and political organisations. It’s been linked to earthquakes and poisoned drinking water, as well as being criticised for polluting the atmosphere and not being very cost effective to extract. Needless to say, fracking companies- such as Cuadrilla– argue the process is completely safe and cheap, and that any negative environmental effects are purely coincidental.
Ruth, aka Nana Flapjack, is part of a group called the Anti-fracking Nanas. They shot to fame 4 years ago for their eccentric approach, dressing up like stereotypical Grandmas, knitting and making pots of tea. But, despite their harmless appearance, the Nanas were doing some pretty hardcore work; their occupation of a field next to one of Cuadrilla’s fracking sites on Preston New Road had attracted national attention, and led to them being visited by the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Emma Thompson.
Then, late last year, the protesters made the press again, when a piano restorer, a teacher and a soil scientist were given huge jail sentences for blocking a truck carrying equipment. It was the first sentence ever given for an anti-fracking demonstration. It has since been overturned, described as ‘excessive’, and it’s been alleged that the original judge’s family actually work for a company involved in fracking.
And bad publicity isn’t Cuadrilla’s only problem. 47 earthquakes have been recorded in Preston New Road since drilling started, and the process has had to be halted numerous times. As well as this, the costs of policing the regular protests outside have now amounted to over £9 million. Public opinion seems to be turning and, recently, a truck left the site carrying some equipment. It’s led some to speculate that Cuadrilla are throwing in the towel.
I’m interested in entering the scene at this pivotal moment. The idea of a protest actually achieving anything isn’t a very popular one. Having spent a lot of time visiting people in houses, I’m also really keen to find out what leads a person to decide to set up camp and live next to a fracking site. As I pull into Preston train station, I’m struck by how peaceful it seems.
Outside, I stand at a little taxi rank in the sludgy snow, looking for Ruth. I spot a lady with black hair and a yellow scarf. She greets me with a big hug.
“We do hugs here,” she explains. The first thing I notice about Ruth is how, well… normal she looks. She’s dressed in a plain blue waterproof, black jeans; there’s a stereotypical image of what a hardened protester looks like, and it’s not really this. But, as we hop in her car, she immediately hands me a flyer for an anti-nuclear demonstration next week. On the front, someone is wearing a costume in the shape of a big barrel of nuclear waste. “You’ll be helping me make some of these later,” she says.
Ruth explains that Springfield nuclear plant is only a few miles from the Preston New Road fracking site. At first, I think she’s making a sarcastic Simpsons reference. But it turns out Springfield actually is the name of the nuclear plant.
“The plant have no contingency if there’s an earthquake,” Ruth tells me. I ask her if she thinks Preston New Road will close. She seems skeptical.
“It goes quiet for a bit, then it comes back again. They usually time it with something in the news, like the royal wedding. I’ve learned to watch the news in a different way.”
There’s what I’m told is a ‘gathering’ planned at the fracking site tomorrow, and Ruth wants to take me to visit some people who live there. But first, she wants me to meet her friend Barbara. We drive out of town and into the countryside, sludge falling heavy, fields in all directions, the occasional horse. We pass a collection of massive telecom masts, then turn into a narrow country lane and park outside of a neat, detached house at the end of the road. We get out, tread carefully over a little cattle grid, and a lady in a stripey blue jumper meets us at the door. This is Barbara.
Barbara lives outside of a tiny village in Roseacre. Once an IT consultant, she moved to the countryside to enjoy a peaceful retirement. But, 5 years ago, Cuadrilla decided they wanted to start fracking at the bottom of her garden. Now, Barbara has found herself at the centre of a battle to stop a multi-million pound company.
We sit down around the marble table in her kitchen, cuppa and biscuit in hand.
“I was totally oblivious,” she tells me. “At 62, my eyes have been opened.” She then pulls out the big dossiers of information that she took to parliament to try and stop the site being built. It includes detailed statistics and aerial photographs of other fracking sites in the area. She explains that she was part of a public enquiry, so she got special access to them.
“It’s only when you’re on them that you realise how big they are,” she says.
“At the end of my yard, where everyone sits and has their picnics, that’s where there’s going to be fracking- lit up 24/7. There’s bats, we have brown hare, we have deer. Elswick village, 2 miles from the site, won the Champion of Champion’s Village award for Britain in Bloom.”
She tells me about the battle to have this stopped.
“We argued everything. We argued about ecology, noise, visual impact, seismology. In the end, the only thing they rejected it on is traffic.” But Cuadrilla are going to appeal, and Barbara is worried they’ll win.
“People say, ‘You’re a NIMBY’ [Not In My Backyard]. They say, ‘If it was a wind farm you’d be moaning.’ Of course I wouldn’t. A wind farm doesn’t have all the dangers of fracking.” They’re trying to make us protesters out to be ill informed. But we can prove the opposite.”
Barbara shows me the pictures of a truck trying to drive down a nearby lane to reach the proposed site. It can barely fit on the road. This country path is used by horse riders and walkers, but Barbara tells me that, when pressed, Cuadrilla admitted there could be up to 25 trucks moving up and down these lanes every day.
If a car was coming in the other direction at speed, there’s nowhere at all they could go. Take that, and combine it with the fact that the truck could be filled with toxic chemicals, and the fact that it will be passing other trucks nearby, filled with nuclear waste, and you’ve got a recipe for something pretty catastrophic.
As me and Ruth head out of the door, Barbara tells me she’s coming to the gathering tomorrow.
“I go down to the site twice a week. It’s such a diverse group of people, all with a common… well, a common sense, really.” Barbara has invested so much time and money fighting this fight. I think it’s amazing that her and this tiny community have managed to stop this massive company in their tracks. Like her though, I can’t help but worry about what will happen next.
On the way back to Ruth’s house, we stop at Roseacre Wood, where the fracking is planned to take place. The sky is grey, apart from a blood red sunset, bursting through the clouds like a fire on the horizon.
Captain’s Log 30/01/19 08:25
I wake up in Nana Flapjack’s house. She’s kindly offered to let me stay in the spare room while I’m here. I head into the kitchen, make a cup of tea and sit down in the dining room. Today is the day I visit the anti-fracking occupation site. But there’s a problem. As I begin to wake up, my head turns towards the window: It’s snowing.
In fact, snowing doesn’t really cover it. There is an ungodly blizzard. The temperature is minus 3. The radio announces that all flights from Manchester Airport are cancelled. I’m wondering whether today will even be going ahead. But, as Ruth walks in, she seems undeterred. We get our gear together and hop in the car.
“I wonder how dangerous this road is going to be,” she says, giddily.
I’d mentioned that I was worried about the snow last night. Ruth assured me that it never snows here. Or, if it does, it doesn’t settle, because of the salt from the sea air.
“I can’t believe it!” she says now, as we gaze out the window at the sheer wall of white. “I’ve never seen anything like this for years and years. There’s only mad dogs and Englishmen out in this!” I’ve certainly picked a day for it.
We arrive on Preston New Road and turn left into what looks like the front of a garden centre, a short walk from the fracking site.
“This is our base of operations,” Ruth explains. We head through a wooden fence and into a courtyard. There are various caravans, and what looks like a huge greenhouse, which has been converted into a kind of living space, complete with sofas.
I meet a number of people- Jo, a lady who wrote a play about the Nanas, Barbara (from yesterday), as well as Gill and Colin, a trainer and a painter and decorator who’ve travelled from Devon for the occasion. Despite the icy conditions, they all seem in really good spirits. Ruth sets us off making costumes for the anti-nuclear demonstration, while we wait for anyone else crazy enough to come down. Soon, a crowd of 16 have gathered at the gates. OK, so it’s not the 150 strong turnout they have here in the summer. But, considering the weather, I’m pretty surprised.
Today is the ‘Call For Calm’, which happens here every Wednesday. Brought in during a time of heavy (and I’m told aggressive) police presence, it is a plea for tolerance and respect. As part of this, a lot of the women are dressed in white robes, ‘the colour of peace’, which today they’ve put on over waterproof trousers. Ruth has already explained that the main ritual is strictly for women, so I’ll have to stay on the other side of the road while this takes place. She’s also advised me not to tell the police anything and not to let them know who I am, so I’ve left my briefcase in the car.
“If you get arrested,” she says. “Throw your camera into a bush.”
Every week, the police insist on sending an escort to take the protesters, or ‘protectors’ as they prefer to be known, to the site, which today consists of two officers in blue hi-vis vests. In what seems a little excessive, they trudge the gang of us down the motorway, one at the front, one at the back, presumably to insure all 16 of us don’t start a riot. On the way, we pass mostly empty fields and a big pet shop with a billboard that says “Now in stock!” It has a picture of a Guinea pig and a fish under it, as if those are particularly rare and exciting animals in Preston.
I get chatting to Tina, one of the original Anti-fracking Nanas, who occupied the nearby field back in 2015.
“Retired people are the biggest untapped resource for the protest movement in this country,” she tells me. “People are getting to a point where they’re saying, ‘I’ve had my kids, and they’ve grown up. What next?’ And what we would suggest is that you get on your Zimmer frame and get in front of some vehicles.”
After 15 minutes, we’ve arrived. On the left hand side of the motorway is the fracking site, which mostly consist of an ominous, green block in the distance. The area is surrounded by a big metal fence, which has been covered in ribbons and placards proclaiming ‘Frack Free Lancashire’ and ‘No Fracking’. There are a few security guards in a building near the gates, but everything’s locked up. I’m told that the police advise Cuadrilla not to take deliveries on a Wednesday morning, to avoid being stopped by the protectors.
On the other side of the motorway is a tiny hut, with more signs. As the women in white get ready for the Call for Calm, I head over to investigate.
This is ‘Gate Camp’, a site that has been occupied by the protectors for 2 years. It’s a fascinating structure, about the size of a garden shed, sandwiched between the motorway and a hedge. It’s made of wood and corrugated plastic, lined with tarpaulin. There’s a large stove in the centre of the space, with a big metal chimney poking out the roof. As I get to the front, it’s actually surprisingly warm and, considering the weather, it seems to be holding out pretty well. There’s even a small wind turbine on the roof, which appears to be powering a series of phone chargers.
I poke my head in the door and say hello. There’s a collection of people on blanketed seats around the stove. A lady in a green woolly jumper asks me if I want a cup of tea with a distinctly Scottish twang in her voice. I explain about the project and do a special version of my intro poem, which I’ve brought along for just this occasion.* I shake hands with Katrina (the lady in green). She introduces me to Blue, a man with a bandana covering his face who sits reading a book, Liz, a lady with combat trousers on, and Maria, a lady dressed all in purple who, it turns out, is a medical biochemist.
I mention that, as Door-to-Door Poetry is all about writing poems for people in their homes, I’m keen to talk to whoever is calling this home.
“We take it in shifts,” Katrina explains. “4 hours in the day. 12 hours at night. I stayed here the other day, I spend the rest of my time in a caravan down the road. It doesn’t matter who’s staying here at any one time though, we all call this home. Someone else is in charge of bringing the food, or the firewood. Whatever your job happens to be that day, this is still home.”
I ask Katrina what first made her want to go and join an anti-fracking occupation.
“Barton Moss was the first one. I was a member of a local trades council and we went down to show some solidarity.” But, despite living in numerous camps, Katrina tells me this is the first one that’s felt like a home. “You feel the pride from local people. For them to come up and make a brew and cook a crumpet here, it’s a little piece of magic.”
She tells me more about the night shift.
“You trundle up with all your clothes- with your onesie, we’ve got extra reinforced slippers. You can feel detached because you’re on your own, but it’s important to monitor what’s happening on the site. And I know that they fear how much we watch them. I’ve been here when 32 flatbed convoys have come in, carrying some of the worst things you can imagine. But, even if nothing has happened, it’s knowing that nothing has happened on your watch.”
Various people come and go. I meet Edwina, the camp herbalist, who got a grant from Lush to buy herbal medicines for the group. I meet Jeanette, a lady who is walking on crutches, having had a hip operation 3 weeks ago. Then I talk to Miranda, a town councillor who chained herself to the gates of the site along with 14 other people, to stop trucks with equipment. They lasted for 10 hours before they were cut out with electric saws.
“Nearly everyone in the council was proud of what I did,” she tells me.
After all this, I watch the Call for Calm from across the road. A line of women in white stare solemnly at the fence, while Tina lays something on the ground that looks like flowers, as if it’s a funeral. I can only imagine what this means. Next, they join hands and do a circle dance around a big speaker, which is blasting out some folk music over the sound of the traffic. Interestingly, most people driving past are tooting their horns, smiling and waving in support. It’s a reminder that fracking is not particularly popular here. In fact, Lancashire council voted against any fracking in the area, before central government overturned their decision.
Once the ceremony is done, Ruth invites me to come and read some poems to the crowd. After this, we sing happy birthday to a lady called Dot, who is 70 today, then do a barnyard dance to ‘I Would Walk 500 miles.’ The sun is shining and I completely forget about the temperature.
Later, as Ruth drives me to the station, she asks me what my general impressions are. I talk about the strong sense of community I’ve found here. How everyone knows each other and greets them like family. And how the group is made up of very different people too, from walks of life you wouldn’t naturally expect to find at a protest- town councillors, painter and decorators, medical biochemists. These people are standing in front of trucks to stop this happening. And, to put it politely, they’re often a little bit more ‘mature’ than you’d typically assume.
It strikes me that this could be the sign of a new breed of protester. As the government turns to increasingly dangerous options for energy supply, and the threat of natural destruction becomes more and more imminent, everyday people from mainstream culture are taking action which was previously considered quite extreme. And these people are organised and relentless. It’s been going on here for 7 years.
“I think the police thought we’d get bored after a few weeks,” Ruth says to me. “What they don’t understand is that there are some people who won’t be shut up. They will fight and fight and fight.”
And the battle will no doubt be long and difficult. But, when you consider what they’ve managed to achieve so far, there’s a chance they might just win.
*I’m a Door-to-Door Poet
and I know that sounds quite odd.
But this could be worse though,
I could be the riot squad.
I’m not here to arrest you
for a peaceful demonstration.
I just want to ask a question
in a form that’s entertaining.
In school they taught me poetry’s bust,
wrote by toffs who’ve turned to dust
on country manors, deathly shrouds,
serious lords and fluffy clouds.
I found it quite hard to relate,
I grew up on a rough estate-
walls thin as paper used to trace,
the clouds an endless tone of grey.
I’m here to make poetry exciting,
like bungee jumping… But less frightening.
And I’m standing here to find
the subjects that flow through your mind.
Tell me about your life.
OK, maybe not the whole of it.
I’ll stick it in a poem for you,
or have a decent go at it.
Maybe you’ve got a passion
you’d love to hear in rhyme.
Maybe your blood is boiling
from a huge Cuadrilla fine.
Maybe you dropped your knitting needles
down the compost toilet.
I don’t know, I can’t decide for you
cos that would spoil it.
So, cheers for listening to these verses,
I hope I got across my purpose.
Don’t walk away, don’t be nervous:
The Door-to-Door Poet is at your service.