...A performance of ecology, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Bluebells, fading now, hover in a pointilist’s dream over the rich red-brown leaves that fell last autumn from the beeches that now provide a rich green canopy above. Holly, flourishing in the dappled shade, reflects the light with a mirror-like gleam.
Yet open your eyes wide and look into the distance, and there’s trouble in paradise - very powerful, destructive trouble that even the smartest fox couldn’t stop.
It’s the diggers and bulldozers of the HS2 juggernaut, powerful, of course, fueled by seemingly endless, uncontrolled spending on fences, security and heavy machinery, and the wicked calculation of powerful lighting and endless noise directly designed to drive away the animals that once populated this tiny piece of aged woodland, a scant survivor in this nature-depleted land that’s now been eaten away.
The wood is on the side of a hill, and down in the valley there’s what could be a picture postcard image of English countryside.
If the massively expensive, economically indefensible HS2 project continues, however, there’ll soon be an aggressive straight line, a raised viaduct, then a high embankment, cutting straight through this landscape. And a speeding flash of train as often as 28 times an hour.
Yet what a visit to this site helps reveal is that the damage is far from just that thin line, or even all the visual and noise pollution around it.
For all of the destruction of the wood thus far is not for the line itself, but for a construction road, and down in the valley one of the inhabitants of the protection camp that occupies the surviving woodland tells me, one field is going to go, permanently, to a run-off water catchment. Not something designed for wildlife, just to manage the impacts of the train line.
It was something I learnt first back in 2016, when I saw on the outskirts of London the damage to nature being planned for construction depots, electricity supplies and worker accommodation.
And, now, after long hard work by a Green Party campaigner, it has emerged through freedom of information requests that water supplies in this area of Buckinghamshire face a significant risk of destruction due to aquifers being damaged by tunnelling. Something there’s also grave concerns about in London.
...A performance of ecology, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I visited the woods with the Green Party by-election candidate for Chesham and Amersham, Carolyne Culver, who’s making opposing HS2 a major part of her campaign, in a constituency that faces significant blight - and no benefits - from its destruction.
Such visits provide a far greater depth of understanding than any briefing paper can. So I was able to look in detail at the paltry “mitigation” efforts that are supposed to “offset” the environmental destruction.
A farmer’s field, forcibly seized, planted with trees that HS2 is supposed to tend for 10 years. Then it will be handed back to the farmer, to tend - by legal force not choice - for another 10 years, then do what they like with it.
So very probably, in 20 years time, this former arable field will be returned to that state, the trees chopped down - the “mitigation” for loss of precious ancient forest lasting a mere two decades.
In the next door patch is something even more risible. Large tree trunks are being tipped off the back of lorries, dumped into trenches, and set upright, supposedly to be new homes for displaced bats.
Around them is being dumped soiled scraped from the felled woodland next door. This is supposedly “relocating” the ancient forest ecosystem. It can only be described as “offsetting theatre”: a performance of ecology, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
All of this for HS2: something I, and the Green Party, has been opposing for a long time.
We want better trains, we demand better trains, and so we campaign on the issue up and down the land. But what we want is the right train in the right place. Just like the trees, which in ancient woodland should keep standing just where they are.
The case for HS2 started off with proponents proclaiming this was all about speed: we had to have it, for productivity, they said.
Then when it emerged that their calculations were based on the risible assumption that business people don’t work on trains, it shifted. This is to get people off planes, it was said. Then it emerged that that “modal shift”, the degree of change, from planes it claimed it would deliver was one percent.
So now proponents have settled on “increasing capacity on existing lines”. They come piling in on social media every time HS2 is mentioned.
The idea was that mobility needed to keep increasing, that more and more people would have to travel into overcrowded, overstrained London.
And Birmingham would be made its commuter suburb, businesses from the North going to London more quickly to make deals, rather than crossing the country east to west on the dreadfully inadequate services that trundle along those routes.
Oh, but supporters said, there would be extra capacity for local journeys into Northern and Midlands cities too. And again, this would just ship more people from their hinterlands, the areas gasping for the air of economic activity seeing their workers and businesses swooshed away more efficiently.
It was a disastrous economic model in 2019, and it looks even more like the product of a past age in 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted our way of working, made the office far less a centre of business life, meaning a whole rethinking of mobility.
Mobility actually means miserable hours of commuting; the separation of parents and children, and of partners, in this nation with extremely high rates of family breakdown; the weekday-emptied communities where people sleep and seek leisure in two short weekend days of concentrated frenzy.
That there hasn’t even been a reassessment, a pause to consider, a recalculation, will, from a future perspective, be one more astonishing sign of government dysfunction and mismanagement in an age riven with it.
But I take hope from the calm and the peace of the wood, and the people who’ve come to dedicate themselves to its preservation. They remind me of the anti-fracking campaigners - indeed some of them were anti-fracking campaigners - who fought such a long, often seemingly hopeless, battle against the government pursuit of a new fossil fuel source.
As does much else about HS2. The campaigners tell me - and I saw for myself - the massive costs of building HS2, the well-documented waste and mismanagement (a National Audit Office report makes grim reading), the armies of security guards and acres of fences that are clear signs of a project that does not have public consent or support.
It is highly reminiscent of fracking sites, whose economics, as well as its politics, was ultimately shown to be undeliverable.
Voters will have a chance on Thursday, 17 June 2021 to send a message that they want the destruction to stop, that they want their wildlife, and their land back, their peace restored.
And they can give the whole country a chance to look again at the many other ways we can rebuild from the pandemic, spreading out prosperity around England rather than trashing a swathe north from London so even more people can get there quicker.
Natalie Bennet is a member of the Green Party and a member of the House of Lords.