CHILKWELL STREET TRAFFIC SURVEY
A361 history part 4: diary entries, October 2017
It’s October 3rd 2017, not long after the Autumn equinox and less than a month before the Celtic festival of Samhain. It’s a chilly early morning with an almost completely clear sky, unlike recent mornings that have been grey, damp and humid. The air is still, with little breeze, and there’s mist along the river: the River Brue, here on the Somerset Levels. When I reach it I see water vapour rising from the surface in spite of the cold air. The sky is blue-grey, brighter over to the east as the sun gets ready to rise.
I make my ‘payment’ to the river – an offering of little stones from the riverbed at Marchey, on the River Axe. ‘May you remember’ I say softly, as I toss them into the water: a reminder that this was once a far more substantial river that joined the Axe near what was then called ‘Martin’s Isle’. It flowed on towards Brean Down with a much greater sense of pride than the modern Brue has now, disconnected as it is and heading for the sea at Highbridge along straightened, man-made channels. ‘May you remember, and be joyful’. (1)
I spend a little time with the river. A pair of swans swim sedately past, moving very slowly upstream. The river itself is calm and slow; it seems happy, at least for now. I am feeling disturbed though, by news of a possible new road scheme. The plan to extend the Glastonbury ring road along the route of the old railway line from Tin Bridge roundabout to Steanbow, past West Pennard, has been revived. It would be paid for with the help of substantial collateral development, designed to promote ‘economic growth’.
Unofficially, Glastonbury is recognised as the most economically promising town in Somerset. This is since the local alternative community rescued the High Street from shuttered-up emptiness and started putting on events that drew visitors from all over the country and beyond. (2) We don’t need anything to promote our ‘economic growth’. We just need to be left alone to get on with it.
I walk back towards home, picking up a couple of pieces of firewood on the way. I’m on Plungen Drove, or Kennard Moor Drove as it’s called on the map, which rises gradually out of what was once boggy moorland flooded from Autumn through to Spring – and lush grazing land from Spring until the Autumn. Now the occasional landrover roars by, and a bicycle or two. The sound of traffic on the Butleigh road, several fields away, is noticeable but fairly unobtrusive in the background. Glastonbury Tor forms the horizon up ahead. Small birds flutter by, as well as a few pigeons and crows; they will soon be joined by the starlings – which fly past each morning, in growing numbers from late October onwards.
The road’s slight rise reaches a t-junction and I turn left onto Cinnamon Lane. This was once the main road into Glastonbury, coming down from Ponter’s Ball and following the course of the lane as it skirts the lower slopes of the Tor. Along the way are an orchard with a handful of sheep grazing around the apple trees, a field of maize where sometimes I see deer, two or three plots with sheds and barns and a few more sheep, one or two houses – low level development, doubtless different from what is being envisaged for the far side of the Tor. I walk past the children’s playground which is on to my right, empty at this time of day. The grass has been recently cut.
Cinnamon Lane takes a sharp right steeply uphill. The old road into Glastonbury would have continued straight on, through what is now the Actis housing estate, to arrive finally at the Abbey. As I turn right, I realise that I am in fact already climbing the Tor, though the National Trust property begins only on the other side of the A361. As I get near to the top I become more and more aware of the steady flow of traffic up ahead. When I reach the junction I have to wait until it has passed, holding my pieces of firewood: several cars and vans and a few larger, heavier vehicles. The aggregate lorries marked ‘Hanson’ are on their way to feed construction work at Hinkley Point, preparing to build a gigantic new nuclear power station on the Somerset coast.
After a short while there’s a break in the stream of traffic, though by now there’s some more coming from the opposite direction. It’s very rare that I get to walk across the road without waiting. A harsh and noisy different world is moving in diesel fumes nose to tail at right angles to my walk. Once I am finally across I turn left down the pavement – which is lacking in width, with these great trucks advancing at speed towards me. I cross Well House Lane and then I’m in Chilkwell Street, where the noise and vibration of heavy lorries is a near-constant backdrop to everything. ‘Something must be done about it’ … but that’s been said for years.
I go into my house and close the door behind me, shutting out the worst of the vehicle noise. Tomorrow morning I won’t be taking my daily walk down to the river; I have volunteered to help with a traffic survey and I’m on the early shift, 8 a.m. to 10.
My 65th birthday. I am now officially an old age pensioner.
I see Indra briefly in the morning, on my way home from doing a bit of shopping. I knew her mother years ago. She’s extremely bright and extremely committed to her politics – she’s one of the organisers of the anti-fracking campaign, but that’s just the latest of her involvements. She talks about the conversation she’d had with Ian Tucker after I’d left, and about her friend Rob who is on the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group, and probably other things too but I couldn’t take it all in. I would see her again and talk more soon.
My friend Lilli, who lives just up the road, calls round in the afternoon to give me a birthday card. I tell her that ‘retirement’ isn’t really what I’m up to – I’m still working, I’ve just moved my office home and I’m planning to concentrate much more on my writing. Anyway I have been warned that as soon as you retire you’re likely to find yourself very busy and wondering how you ever had time to go out to work. Already I had volunteered to help with the traffic survey.
Lilli hadn’t helped with the traffic survey even though she’s a member of the A361 committee. The committee has been set up by the Town Council to look at the traffic problem along the A361 – along Chilkwell Street and Bere Lane – and under whose auspices the survey had been done. She tells me that they have been consistently ignored by the County Council’s Highways Department, which has failed to answer letters and emails and which has promised to answer questions though no answers actually come. Her conclusion, and I would guess the conclusion reached by most local people involved with this committee’s work, is that the County Council has already made up its mind.
Presumably, I thought, they have decided to build a new road along the old railway line route behind the Tor.
Not only that, however; they would propose to raise the finance by offering partnership contracts to developers, who would pay for a stretch of road and in return have access to adjacent land for development – to build housing, warehousing, Travel Lodge hotels and all the rest. The road itself might provide relief for Chilkwell Street in the short term, but overall it would attract more traffic rather than reduce it. Most of this apparently came from a meeting of the A361 committee held last August. It had been attended by our MP James Heappey, who addressed the committee at some length.
The development might start at the Tin Bridge end of the railway line route but would inevitably spread, over the years to come, so that more and more land on that side of Glastonbury would be built on. The Tor and Chalice Hill would gradually become boxed in and divorced from the countryside. It all added up to a huge ugly disaster.
That was why Lilli had decided not to support the traffic survey.
I am invited out to dinner by some friends, for a low-key but enjoyable birthday celebration. I arrive feeling somewhat shaken up by what Lilli has told me. She said that she really wanted me to hear her take on the situation – clearly a lot of people in Chilkwell Street feel differently, as do most people on the committee. She must have been feeling isolated. I reply that I feel ready to hear it, especially after my short conversation with Councillor Ian Tucker. The evening is dominated by further conversation on the same subject. Amongst other things, I am reminded that the following evening, Saturday, there’s a benefit gig at the Assembly Rooms to raise money for the anti-fracking campaign.
I thoroughly dislike the idea of fracking, of poisoning the water in order to extract shale gas and to allow the fossil fuel industry to continue for more destructive years. Nevertheless I’d decided some time ago to stop my involvement in activist politics, which often seems like a way to expend masses of creative energy with little chance of success, and of causing division and polarisation. However, this news about the road proposal feels like something that I can’t ignore – even though I’m not sure what my response should be. I decide to begin by talking to people, and there will be several people I’d like to talk to at the gig; so I decide to go. It will only cost a fiver for an OAP who can claim a concessionary rate.
If it hadn’t been for the political edge I would have stayed at home; it is, however, a brilliant evening. First up is a woman who plays what I think could be described as Flamenco Rock; that gets people moving as soon as they arrive. Then there’s a trio called Invisible Gem. They are far from invisible; a latin-looking woman with black hair in a pony tail and flashing dark eyes plays violin and sings in both English and Spanish. I meet a couple of 5 Rhythms dancers from the Town Hall group and really enjoy the dancing. Then Seize the Day come on, and it’s so good to see them for the first time in ages.
Theo from Seize the Day is the first person I meet when I arrive. He knows all about the road proposal, even though it’s not supposed to be public knowledge yet. Theo and Shannon first formed the band on road protest sites about twenty years ago, and they’re still going strong, still spreading the message and supporting activists in one campaign after another. Theo also stood for parliament in the Frome constituency at the last election and got a surprisingly large vote. I also see Indra, and Rob – who lives and works at Paddington Farm, next to Ian Tucker’s house, as well as joining one of these many committees and sub-committees that seem to be springing up recently – the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group.
Indra and Rob are enthusiastic. Rob is a young man who grows and sells organic vegetables, and he’s a member of the Development Land Focus Group, a sub-group of the NHP Steering Group. He had found himself the only one on his committee, a group of otherwise middle aged men, to speak up against the road scheme. It has clearly already been discussed at some length all over the place, even though it’s supposed to stay out of the public domain until after the full Town Council meeting coming up on Tuesday; I have talked to a string of people by now, and they all seem to know about it. Indra and Rob want to stay in touch. I am pleased to see both of them, but not sure what sort of commitment I want to make. A protest campaign isn’t what I’m looking for, but I’m not sure what is.
There are plenty of cheerful protestors at the gig, many buying ‘Frack Off’ knickers and underpants. A woman from Lancashire speaks from the stage: she tells us about an artesian well that the frackers had hit, so that water came shooting back up their drill hole; and about the blanket injunction intended to keep all people who disagree with fracking away from the drill sites, so that one farmer has been arrested for walking across his own field. There’s so much about this that reminds me of the Greenham Common campaign, CND and the peace camps. Towards the end of the evening it’s announced that there’s been more than £1,000 raised and that this will go to support the camp in Lancashire.
The proposed road scheme is getting under my skin. I find myself thinking about the Town Council meeting on Tuesday – perhaps I should put my name down to speak from the ‘public gallery’ (which is a few rows of chairs at the back of the council chamber). The conviction that the importance of standing up against more ‘economic development’ that is now putting the sacred heart of Glastonbury in danger is growing. The Town Clerk’s office is open at the Town Hall from 10 am to 12 noon every weekday, which is when I should turn up if I want to register to speak briefly, about any issue that I want to put before the Council.
Kevin Redpath comes round to see me during the afternoon. He’s a friend and a neighbour, a fellow resident of Chilkwell Street, and also Vice Chairman of the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group who are producing a plan for the community “that will guide planning decisions”. In reply to my main question he tells me that the group has no remit to discuss road-building schemes. This is a bit odd because Rob’s Development Focus Group clearly has been. Anyway, we have a useful discussion.
I also receive an email from Lindsay MacDougall – as do the others who have taken part in the traffic survey – providing a summary of the results. In a 12-hour period there were 9,426 cars and vans, 81 motorcycles, 346 rigid lorries and coaches, 236 articulated lorries and 220 quarry lorries (110 going out, and 110 coming back). There were also 995 pedestrians, of whom 387 crossed the road. “The zebra crossing application is to be made at the end of this month”. She added that “there will be a report back at the Town Council meeting on Tuesday at 7pm, where there will be an opportunity for more discussion and feedback”.
She also thanked those who had helped get some “really great publicity” into this week’s local paper. The article, on page 2 of the Central Somerset Gazette, is based on an interview with Carolyn Blair and Keith Saggers, who live opposite the Chalice Well and who took part in the traffic survey. It also reported local MP James Heappey as being “heavily involved in the campaign to get something done”. It didn’t mention that he is Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Transport Secretary. Mr Heappey was quoted as saying, “The only real long-term solution … is a new road bypassing Walton and Glastonbury, which will need to be funded by local development and central government.”
The article also quoted Keith and Carolyn as saying, “We’ve been here five years but it [the traffic] has definitely intensified in the last three. You take your life in your hands when you try to cross the road … We’ve had three sets of guttering ripped off, our bin has been dragged down the street and the vibrations are terrible.” A ‘spokesman for Somerset County Council’ said, “Although we’re aware of concerns raised locally, the A361 is a designated freight route and is currently considered the most appropriate route for HGV traffic. We understand this is not welcomed by all, but we have to consider that any change to the freight route would lead to more large vehicles using other potentially unsuitable routes in other locations.” (3) The ‘other locations’, of course, are those that carry more political clout than Glastonbury, which no longer even has a County Councillor of its own.
When it did, the last one was Liberal Democrat Alan Gloak. I remember, about 15 years ago, a meeting held in the Rifleman’s Arms about just this issue of traffic on the A361. It has been a problem, and the County Council has known it’s been a problem, for many years. What I remember was a crowded meeting and lurking at the back, watching but keeping his head down, was Alan Gloak. It became clear that it was he who had allowed the A361 to become a designated freight route. How much choice he had about this I really don’t know, but it seemed to be the result of a ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ deal with other Councillors from other parts of the county.
I am very nervous about speaking at the Town Council meeting. I go to the Town Clerk’s office shortly after 10 am and put my name on the list of people to speak, then I go home and scribble a list of bullet points. I would only have three minutes, but thinking about it takes all day. My nervousness might have put me off going at all, certainly from speaking, but I remind myself that I am not doing this just for myself.
The meeting begins at 7pm, and the agenda lists a great deal of routine business before we will get to any opportunity for discussion and feedback about the A361. Speakers from the public come first, however, so suddenly I am standing up having scanned the agenda and not being clear whether the subject is even to be covered; it will probably come under ‘reports from working groups’.
I introduce myself as a resident of Chilkwell Street, and desperate for the heavy traffic along the A361 to be stopped; but I am strongly of the opinion that a scheme to build a road around the back of the Tor, with related development, would be out of proportion to the problem and a disaster for Glastonbury as a historic spiritual centre and a heritage site, set in a world-famous landscape.
I finish with quite an impassioned plea to the Council not to allow this, the proposed road scheme, to be done to Glastonbury; I say this on behalf of “myself, many other people living in Glastonbury, and also many people who visit the town”. I sit down with a feeling that this has been worth doing, that the message has got across that the scheme is not going to go through with few people noticing until it’s too late. I don’t mention it overtly but there are rather a lot of road protest veterans in Glastonbury, with friends all over the country.
When the Council eventually reaches item 16 on the agenda, ‘Reports from working groups’, neither the Community Planning Officer nor the Chairman nor the Vice Chairman (Kevin) of the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group are present; nevertheless an interesting discussion ensues. I’m struck by the feeling that what doesn’t get said sounds, in a way, louder than what does. For instance, regarding the road scheme there needs to be a decision as to whether to follow the ‘northern route’ (along the old railway line) or the ‘southern route’ (reviving the old proposal for a relief road leading from the Actis estate and past Cinnamon Lane). These of course are two possible routes out of many, but that isn’t said. It seems that the choice is to be limited to these two, the latter having been rejected years ago – largely, I believe, because of objections from Millfield School. It’s probably a non-starter.
The decision as to which route should be proposed is to be referred to the Neighbourhood Plan group, but it’s pointed out that this group, ‘unfortunately’, only has a remit to discuss matters that are within the boundaries of the town. This would exclude any realistic bypass scheme. The meeting becomes somewhat chaotic and unclear as to who would carry forward the discussion and in what context.
Next morning I find my ward Councillor Nick Cottle to have a chin-wag. He’s also a District Councillor and he’s in touch with most things going on in local politics. I was astonished to hear that he’s seen a plan for a major trunk road from Nunney Catch near Frome, roughly following the existing A 361, going round Glastonbury and then by-passing Walton and Ashcott on its way to join up with the M5. I don’t know the status of this idea, but it suddenly adds significance to the little point slipped in to the Central Somerset’s article the other day: Heappey was proposing a new road bypassing Walton as well as Glastonbury – so he is certainly thinking about more than just a bypass along the old railway line behind Glastonbury Tor.
I go with Rob, Indra and Liz (another member of Friends of the Earth) to a meeting in Taunton organised by the Somerset branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). This used to be the Council for the Preservation of Rural England – it sounds like it has become more radical. The meeting is entitled ‘The end of the road?’ This is also the title of a well-produced pamphlet that I buy whilst I’m there. It summarises a detailed report commissioned by the CPRE, looking at whether a range of road schemes have delivered the congestion relief as promised, whether they have damaged the landscape as much as feared, and whether they have boosted local economies as hoped.
Its conclusions are that more road capacity leads to more traffic – that on average traffic has increased by 47% more than background levels; that although the government has said it is ‘striving to improve the impact on the landscape’, in fact 80% of road schemes have an adverse environmental impact; and that economic benefits are negligible or non-existent, the results often being to move economic activity rather than generating new enterprise. Positive official assessments of this last claim are often assumptions based on marginal reductions in journey times. (4)
The meeting itself consists of a series of talks, all very interesting. The projected Glastonbury relief road is by no means the only new road scheme being proposed for Somerset. The biggest is upgrading the A303 to turn it into the ‘Somerset Expressway’. This is masterminded by Highways England Ltd, a private company that a couple of years ago replaced the Highways Agency. They are also planning to widen the A303 with a gigantic tunnel through the Stonehenge World Heritage Site in Wiltshire, in contravention of the UNESCO Convention. The local road scheme around Glastonbury is still under the control of Somerset County Council – at least, it is so far, though the talk is that if things get difficult then it could be handed over to Highways England.
Highways England is wholly owned by the UK government, but it is a private company and apparently it behaves much the same as EDF or the fracking companies – arrogant, interested in profits and with no ethos of public service. From the point of view of local people and parish councils, as represented at the CPRE meeting, it is impossible to deal with. It’s extraordinary that it has accumulated so much power whilst maintaining such a low public profile.
A piece of history that was emphasised during one of the talks concerned the demise of the railway system in the 1960s. Even today it is still assumed that the destruction of local railways was sad but necessary. The truth seems very different. The Transport Secretary at the time was Ernest Marples, who had a controlling interest in the civil engineering firm Marples Ridgeway. This firm got substantial contracts during the first tranche of motorway construction. He had resigned the chairmanship of the company when he became a minister, but still held 80% of the shares; when this led to a public controversy he sold his shares to his wife – and he got away with it. Beeching was deliberately used to run down the railways and then to produce a report saying that the only feasible solution was to close two thirds of them completely. Marples eventually left the country in a hurry with the Inland Revenue chasing him for money outstanding from 30 years of tax evasion. (5)
The question is, what are similar corporate interests doing now to promote and profit from the current glut of new road schemes?
The situation might sound depressing, but actually I am feeling activated in a very positive way. Tomorrow I’m going to walk the old railway line route behind the Tor, with Indra and Liz. I feel strongly that this is Glastonbury’s sacred landscape that’s at stake. More than that, I can’t take an active role in this just for myself – it would be overwhelming. This is where I have to surrender, to say ‘this has to be your will, not mine’, and just to make myself available. I feel so much different from my campaigning days in CND and the Green movement.
We talk in the car on the way home. To Rob this is very much a spiritual matter too; he is a student of earth energies, and he understands better than I do the consequences of cutting off the Tor and Chalice Hill from the surrounding landscape. He says, “If this road goes ahead, Glastonbury will revert to being like it was in the 1950s, just a sleepy little Somerset town.” Well, I remember when I first came here that there were a number of people, mostly old ladies who had known the likes of Alice Buckton and Wellesley Tudor Pole in tghe 1950s, and who were waiting quietly for the new influx, new energy. It arrived in the end.
Liz is a pagan with a real feel for spirituality. Her attitude to campaigning is that in the end we have to give it all up to a “higher power” – we can only do what we can do, and we cannot assume to know the outcome. I sincerely hope that what remains of Glastonbury’s sacred landscape can be saved and kept intact; but if we simply have to lie low for a generation or two and await the coming of a fresh wave of energy – and perhaps rising seas across the Levels – then so be it. I know what I need to do today, and it’s only when we try to look into the future that we meet the apparent impossibilities. Anything can happen on the way.
Notes and References
- See Bruce Garrard, The River, Unique Publications 2015, for a detailed discussion of the redirection of the River Brue in the 12th-14th centuries, and also the relevance of the Kogi people of Columbia and their statement that we “must protect the rivers”.
- Bruce Garrard, Free State, Unique Publications, (revised edition) 2014, pp 230-238.
- A361 residents have reached ‘breaking point’ over lorries, Central Somerset Gazette, 5 October 2017.
- CPRE, The end of the road? Challenging the road-building consensus, summary of an independent report The Impact of Road Projects in England, Transport for Quality of Life, downloadable from www.cpre.org.uk
- Christopher Maltin, Making rail travel a real option in rural Somerset, talk for CPRE Somerset at St James Church Hall, Taunton, 12 October 2017.