Wednesday, 7 January 2009
The Pixie of Wild Garlic
I’d like to tell you of the only encounter with The Gentry, or elves if you prefer, that I’ve been involved with personally. It not much of a story, but it is mine, and I’m relating the story to you as I know it.
It takes place in the spring of 1997, at a time when I living on a camp in the Bollin Valley in Cheshire, on the site of what is now Manchester Airport’s Second Runway. I guess most of you will have seen these protest camps on the TV, with their airy treehouses, claustrophobic tunnels and rickety benders. Not everyone’s idea of a great place to hang out, but I loved it.
True, the toilets were a little primitive, and when it rained (which it tends to round Manchester way) there really wasn’t much to do except sit by the fire and drink tea. But for most of the time we played in the woods, told stories by the campfire, drank cheap booze and sang songs very badly (there are some recordings – but only the very brave should listen). Just like our Pagan ancestors of yore no doubt.
Like all the big protests of the nineties, the people involved in trying to stop the building of the runway came from a variety of backgrounds and generally speaking we all tended to coalesce into individual camps which evolved their own character as time went by. At Manchester Airport we had the leery, beery ‘trolls’ of Flywood camp, a small copse of trees surrounded by a palisade. The anarchist punks of Flywood had thoughtfully located themselves next to the main road so they could get first pick of the groceries dropped off by well meaning locals, and where it was a shorter walk to the off-license. Fuelled by beer and free food they constructed the biggest of the defended treehouses, Battlestar Galactica it was called, and the Cakehole, the deepest and most sophisticated of the tunnels.
Next to them was Cliff Richard camp, so called because it was located next to a cliff and a bloke called Richard chose the site. The name led to many a joke on the theme of ‘the camp Cliff Richard’. When the authorities eventually came to remove it a few journalists did try to run stories on how “the camp Cliff Richard has been penetrated by the sheriff’s men” but no paper was brave enough to print them.
The inhabitants of Cliff Richard were the veterans of the direct action movement and include the famous Swampy amongst their ranks. There was no compromising with these guys (and girls) and their entire camp was surrounded by six foot high wire fencing ‘borrowed’ from the airport authorities. To make life as difficult for the bailiffs there wasn’t even a door to the camp – you could only enter or leave via one of the aerial walkways that linked the treehouses.
This spirit extended to their tunnels, which were so narrow and twisty that only underweight vegans could actually get down them, and even the wiry Swampy got stuck once or twice. Come eviction time though this proved a rather false economy. Whilst the expert rescue teams employed by airport to get the protestors out refused to venture down the tunnels, conditions were just so unpleasant down there that everyone came out of their own accord after a few days.
Flywood and Cliff Richard were the serious camps, but I lived at Wild Garlic. Located at the heart of the development site, where the new runway would cross the beautiful river Bollin. We were as far as possible for civilisation and being located in the valley we were completely out of sight to the outside world. The camp itself was a cluster of ash, beech and birch trees on a slope with farmland at the top and water meadow at the bottom. We were definitely rather more chilled out than the big camps. Whilst Flywood and Cliff Richard put up defences to keep people out, we decorated out ‘front door’ with ribbons to invite people in. Our token defensive gesture was a wooden drawbridge over the muddy puddle that marked the limit of the camp, but come the day the authorities decided to pay us a visit even this was defeated by a policeman with longer than average legs.
However don’t think we were a complete bunch of hippies, direct action protest camps were always about practical action rather than spreading good vibes. Anyone who turned up at the camp with a penny whistle could expect to have it nailed to a tree if they tried to play it, and Bob Dylan songs were definitely banned. Whilst we would make music round the campfire at night and get outrageously drunk, we also put a lot of effort into our defences. Our treehouses were pretty good and we had two decent tunnels as well.
But anyway, I’m in danger of doing a bit of a Ronnie Corbett and getting off the subject, which is Pixies. Now as the people who wanted to build the runway over 100 acres of Cheshire Greenbelt didn’t want us eco-warrior types running around just anywhere building camps, they decided to put a fence round us to keep us where we were. They would build their fence during the day, and during the night it would sort of fall down. If anyone asked who’d done it, we’d say it was the mischievous pixies who, as everyone knows, live in the woods.
This went on for a few months as the airport builders tried to get a warrant to evict us from what were, legally, our homes. This wonderful legal situation, that a pile of logs in someone else’s tree could be your home, all came about because a postman once delivered a letter to “The Chestnut Tree, Wanstead” during the campaign against the M11 motorway in London. Ever since trees have been legal dwellings. For a few years I had to put Wild Garlic on my list of previous addresses when being police checked for work. I don’t know what their computer made of that.
Eventually they got there order and we waited for the fun to start. Things were getting a little tense in the camps. At River Rats a novice climber had an accident whilst being taught to climb by someone who it turned out didn’t know much more they did. John, a nice guy who can be found at the Stockport Pagan Moot, was out walking one night when he was attacked by unidentified men-in-black and beaten up. In Wild Garlic someone left their candle on in their treehouse when they popped out and set fire to the thing. Very spectacular, but not clever.
So this was the background to the night when Kim saw her Pixie. Kim was at that time a final year Journalism student. Her ambition was to write like John Vidal from the Guardian. John was actually commuting between The Guardian’s office in Manchester and the Cakehole tunnel in Flywood, where he liked to play his classical music underground. He was rather upset when he had to fly to Brazil at the crucial moment and couldn’t actually be there to be evicted. When Kim actually met John he was, err, rather more enamoured by her than he was by him – and he stopped being her hero after that.
Kim was from the Liverpool Earth First! group, a bunch of radical anarcho-greens, and so was not the sort person to be found out in the woods contemplating her navel and talking to the spirits in the trees. It was therefore a bit of a shock to her when she leaned out of her treehouse one night and saw on the ground below her a real live pixie. From what she described the fellow was about two feet high and looked a bit like Dobby the House Elf. She looked at the pixie, the pixie looked at her, and then it ran off through the undergrowth.
And that is all there is to the story of the Pixie of Wild Garlic.
Me being a horrible cynic though I didn’t really believe Kim had seen a pixie. Two other people though confirmed that something had been in the camp that night. One person saw the thing running off, but it was too quick for him to identify, whilst another heard but it but didn’t see it. I never actually found the tracks that night but my opinion at the time was that she’d seen a fox, as we knew they visited our camps, and in the darkness her mind had played a trick on her.
Now, though, I’ve had more time to tune in myself to the spirits I’m not so sure. I’m now prepared to believe that maybe pixies pretend to be foxes sometimes to confuse the cynics, or that maybe pixies are just foxes that you catch a glimpse of in the night at special times. Nor I suspect would anyone else who’s heard a vixen’s mating cry in a lonely forest at night think that there’s any ‘just’ about being a fox, they are spirits of the forest in their own right.
Certainly though Kim’s story isn’t unique. Many people found living in the camps abrought on mystical experiences. Many found living in their treehouses brought on powerful dreams and some felt able to communicate with the trees they were guarding. Others saw black cats leaping from tree to tree or heard drumming coming from empty camps. In the woods of Newbury an amphibious beast launched itself out the canal whilst security guards claimed to have seen the ghosts of Civil War soldiers whose graves had been disturbed. I myself met Gandalf down a tunnel, but that was I think the result of something I’d found growing in another part of the woods.
What all these stories have in common is that it is now impossible to go back to the original sites to see for yourself, for they are all now under concrete and tarmac. But that’s another story, and one that hasn’t ended yet.