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Emma Must
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I am flicking backwards and forwards between my poem Human Chain, published 30 years after the anti-road protests at Twyford Down in Hampshire – and the photo from March 1993 which inspired it. It begins: 

Looking at the blocks of chalk passed hand to hand
by the protesters – silhouettes of black
against the white and desecrated land,

like Lowry’s workers near a factory
or a thinning stand of trees –
each caught in the act of putting something back –

The photo shows Department of Transport bulldozers destroying a beloved mile-long chalk hill in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in its quest to build the ‘missing link’ of the M3 motorway. And us, a group of protesters, symbolically attempting to rebuild the hill. 

Looking again at that photo in the middle of this current, decisive decade as we collectively face the climate crisis, I am asking myself, what can we each put back now? 

In the 1990s, the frenetic direct action and mass protests against the motorway through Twyford Down changed the nature of environmental campaigning in Britain. It invigorated a national grassroots movement against ‘the biggest road-building programme since the Romans’, launched in 1989 by Margaret Thatcher’s government. By 1998, all but 37 of the 600-plus road schemes originally proposed had been cancelled. Truly a victory for people power.


But now the Department of Transport is once again on a ‘road-building spree’, warns campaign group Transport Action Network. In the middle of the climate crisis this makes even less sense than it did in the 1990s. Transport is the UK’s largest carbon emitting sector, and produced 24% of the country’s total emissions in 2020. Most of this was from road transport. And the number of cars on the UK’s roads keeps on growing. Award-winning science communicator Paul Behrens forcibly illustrates why this matters so much for climate change, calculating that, ‘each litre of petrol burnt in a car melts over a tonne of glacial ice’.

What’s more the Ethical Transport Association, organisers of Green Transport Week, note that the car is being used for increasingly short journeys: ‘as a proportion of all car journeys, 24% are less than 2 miles and 58% are less than 5 miles.’ Such trips are perfect for walking or cycling. It’s a no-brainer: invest in walking and cycling, and public transport, instead of roads. Yet, in March, transport secretary Mark Harper slashed the amount of money being allocated to active travel. Transport Action Network are seeking a judicial review of these cuts. They urgently need to raise £40,000 to pay for the case and have launched a crowdfunder.  

I’d like to return to my poem about that photo taken at Twyford Down in 1993. Here’s the second half:

how insignificant the cars and lorries
in the background are, how clear and strong
the image of people aligning is –

still moving to rebuild the Down.
We are only ever passing through.
We are supposed to pass this on.

No one wants to witness roads being gouged through precious landscapes, like we did in the nineties, or to have to respond by taking direct action. We can reduce the pressure for building new roads by leaving the car at home. For longer journeys, take the bus or train. For short journeys, try walking or cycling. Active travel is win, win, win, win: you’ll feel amazing because you’re using your body; you’ll be less stressed because you won’t have to struggle to find a parking space; you’ll save loads of money; and you’ll be doing your bit for the climate emergency, not to mention better air quality. You will find yourself smiling at the world, and the world will smile back.  


Emma Must is a poet and former full-time environmental campaigner. Her poetry collection, The Ballad of Yellow Wednesday, was published by Valley Press in December 2022.


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